Saturday, September 22, 2018

Fahrenheit 11/9 review

About fifteen minutes into director and writer Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 11/9, he makes a fascinating point. America is actually a liberal nation. As evidence, he cites polls which show majority support for unions, a women's right to choose and other progressive causes. He even cites the recent Reuters poll which shows that a whopping seventy percent of Americans want medicare for all. So he raises the question of how did we as a nation elect a far right-wing conservative in Donald Trump as President? It's one of the themes in this film.

The film starts out with the political Titanic campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton. We again are reminded of how the Democrats and she were so confident of winning that she skipped campaigning in Democratic states such Wisconsin. It would be these states primarily in the rust belt of the Midwest and Pennsylvania that doomed her. Yet she won the popular vote. So, how did she lose?

Moore goes back and examines the system and politics that lade to Trump's victory. No doubt, he raises the Electoral College system. But Moore goes in a direction that most people would not expect. He blames Democrats. Don't get me wrong, conservative Republicans don't look good in this movie either. However, it's Democrats who "compromise" their liberal beliefs that fails working people. He makes this point by looking at the water crisis in his hometown of Flint, Michigan.

Moore uses Michigan as a microcosm of how Trump was able to win. Michigan's governor is Rick Snyder who like Trump was a super rich businessman. Promising to use his business expertise to run the state even though he had no experience running a government. To seize power from some of the cities, Snyder ordered Emergency Managers to run them and suspend democratic rule. Yes. this is true. In Flint, to save money, the manager decided to take water from a polluted river that would corrode lead pipes. As a result people were poisoned with lead.

Now in Moore's film,  conservative Republicans take some of  the blame. However, Moore is objective. He highlights a visit by then President Obama, who comes gives a great speech, and pulls a stunt by drinking a glass of Flint's water. But he does nothing to help them. Later the city is used for war games. Abandoned, you can guess that people are not going to vote Democratic. It's this abandonment of liberal ideas by Democrats that suppressed the votes of their own. Why would working people vote Democrat when it's all lip service. Hence, the rise of Trump just like Snyder. And Trump also wants power, to the point of looking like a fascist.

It's not all a horror show. Moore shows emerging democratic progressive movements. West Virginia teachers striking for better pay. Parkland, Florida high school students who survived a mass shooting, taking on conservatives and the NRA. More women candidates running in the #metoo movement. And the rise of Democratic Socialist candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who won her New York Democratic primary against heavy odds.

The problem with reviewing a documentary is what happens when the critic agrees with the political views of the filmmaker. It becomes more difficult to be objective. So, I watched Moore's film trying to be more critical of his more leftist opinions. What I looked for were moments of truth that could not be denied. Immigrant children in detention camps crying for their parents. The children of Flint poisoned by lead. Moments like these were emotional and powerful. It made me question what our democracy has become. One small gripe, the focus on Flint does take away from Moore doing a more thorough analysis of Trump's con job.

Fahrenheit 11/9 is both horrifying and hopeful. At times sad and funny. It's also a powerful call for liberals to fight back. The grade is A.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians review

As a Chinese American, I'm glad that Crazy Rich Asians has the "rich" as part of its title. Because the lifestyles of these Asians is nothing like your average, normal Chinese American. it's like a fairy tale for Asians who yearn to be really rich. And by rich, I mean rich as in royalty rich.

Based on Kevin Kwan's novel of the same name, Crazy Rich Asians, is about the romance of Nick Young (Harry Golding) who's the heir of a Singapore real estate dynasty and "commoner" Rachel Chu (Constance Wu). She's an economics professor at New York University. Nick invites her to attend a friends wedding in Singapore and meet the family, including the head of the Young family, Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) a kick ass secret agent for China... oops, that's the excellent James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies. (1997) Her name in this movie is Eleanor. She's not too thrilled about her son romancing an American commoner. If you look at the conflict that I just described, you can guess where this film is going. No, I'm not talking about the James Bond movie of a narcissistic villain wanting to dominate the world.    Hold on.  Isn't that is what is happening in America now?  Okay, back to this film, I'm talking about the coming clash of classes between the wealthy Young family and Rachel's "working" woman.  Hold on.  She''s a college professor not a constuction worker.   Oy.  I forget, this is how the Chinese want to see themselves in a movie.  . 

When Rachel arrives in Singapore, she looks up a college buddy, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina) which sounds like in the movie "Piglet." Thank God for the internet because I would have called her Piglet. Yeah, major ABC moment. (American Born Chinese) Anyway, Peik Lin lives with her crazy rich family led by Wye Mun Goh played by Ken Jeong who thankfully doesn't do a full frontal nude scene like he did in The Hangover. (2009) That being said the Goh family steals the movie. They're wacky and fun. And Peik Lin might be super rich but she's every man or should I say every woman. The common person could relate to her wit, middle class sensibility even if she is super wealthy.  She's got a  hilarious demeanor. Peik Lin is Rachel's guide to the "royal" Young family because everybody in Asia has heard of the Young family except Rachel and us the audience.

It's a fact that there are very limited acting roles and stories for Asian actors in Hollywood films. It doesn't help when they whitewashes Asian stories. I'm looking at you 21 (2008) and Ghost in the Shell (2017) So, it is good to see another world, one that is based on Asian society. This film gets it right when they describe the color red as symbolizing good fortune to the Chinese or  the love of  eating especially dumplings. But what this film misses is that it's not a normal look at Chinese Americans or Chinese. Virtually all Chinese in China or America do not live the obscenely wealthy lifestyle of the Youngs. That economic royalty is a fantasy for Chinese. Hence, if you're not part of the world, you don't get what the real world feels like for Asians.
The screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim has some very funny moments but swings uncomfortably between comedy and drama.  This occurs when the film focuses on Nick's sister, Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her personal problems.  Perhaps this novel might have been better presented as a mini-series.  As for the directing,   Jon Chu certainly has an eye for film as his visuals are lovingly created to show the beauty of Singapore.  I'm sure this film will do well  in China as it generally has a positive view of Asians.

There is nothing new  in Crazy Rich Asians. The only thing new is this is a movie about obscenely rich Chinese who are basically economic royalty.  It's the Chinese fantasy.  Think of it this way.  It's Chinese Cinderella.  The grade is B.

Friday, August 31, 2018

An Aretha Franklin Tribute Concert

I say farewell to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin,  who passed away on August 16.  We love  you Aretha.  Here's the Basement Blog tribute concert with some of her videos and hits.

"I Say a Little Prayer for You."  


"Think" From The Blues Brothers.  (1980)

"(You Make Me Feel Like)  A Natural Women."  From 2015 Kennedy Center ceremony honoring Carole King. Yeah, check Ms. King.  She loses it because Aretha is awesome.  We all lose it. Right, President Obama?

"Until You Come Back to Me."  This is my favorite Aretha song which was written by Stevie Wonder.

And we end with...

"Freeway of Love." 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Happytime Murders review

Down these mean streets, this blogger and amateur movie critic must go who is neither mean but is a glutton for punishment. Because he believes that his handful of readers deserve to hear his film criticism. Yesterday, I had a few bucks in my pocket and I wandered  into my local cineplex. I had seen the preview to The Happytime Murders, a few months back. It featured Melissa McCarthy playing another slob and puppets. Yeah, you heard that right. Puppets. The concept of puppets in a R rated comedy piqued my interest the way a Playboy model and a cheeseburger makes Trump horny. You see I like originality even if it gets me into trouble. And trouble is my middle name. Okay, that's not my middle name. And I apologize to Raymond Chandler for this paragraph.

The Happytime Murders takes place in an alternative universe where puppets and humans co-exist. Puppets generally are discriminated against. Phil Phillips (Bill Barettta) is a puppet and a private eye. Before that he was a cop. Thrown off the force because he wouldn't shoot another puppet. He gets a client, Sandra White (Dorien Davies).   She was  a curvy red head puppet whose fuzzy curves would make your eyes go cross-eyed. Her ping pong ball eyes would signal to you  that a night with her would be memorable but you would pay for it the next morning.  Yeah, I would take her case for free if she let me... um, sorry about that. More apologies to Raymond Chandler. 

Back to the review. Anyway, she's being blackmailed. While investigating a lead, a cast member of a puppet-human sitcom called The Happytime Gang is killed. Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) is assigned to the case. She's the former partner of Phillips. He's added to case as a consultant.

Three great female comedians are in the cast. Melissa McCarthy. Maya Rudolph as Phillips secretary, Bubbles. And the lovely Elizabeth Banks as Jenny the human cast member of The Happytime Gang. And yeah this movie would qualify for passing the Bechdel Test of Radical Feminism which requires two women talking to each other and not about a man. Because we're dealing with ahem, puppets. I'm guessing none of these women are going to put The Happytime Murders on their resume. That's because this movie is terrible.

One crazy thing about this film is that Brian Henson of yes, The Henson Company is behind it. You know the guys behind Sesame Street and The Muppets. I'm guessing that one day, the guys at the company got stoned and wondered what it would be like if they filmed Kermit the Frog really having sex with Miss Piggy. Frankly, that does sound funny. Maybe Big Bird can do an X- rated scene with the Cookie Monster? Yeah, I'm sure Disney and PBS might have a thing to say about that. However, somebody thought that puppet sex, puppet porn and puppet "drug" abuse was funny.

That's the problem with this movie. The premise of real characters from the Muppets having explicit sex is subversive and funny because it's relatable. There are very few jokes about what's happening in society now, and nothing that a human can relate to. A generic puppet having an orgasm is not funny because people can't relate to it. A generic puppet having his head blown off in an explosion of feathers doesn't make one laugh. If I was drunk, I might have laughed.   And one shouldn't get drunk to see a comedy so the jokes work better. There are reasons in comedy screenplays you may want to have more than one writer. Because jokes are a subjective and writers can bounce things off each other to see what jokes work. This screenplay had one writer who I won't name because I'm guessing he's going to deny he had to do with this. The Happytime Murders relates to nothing but a nod to private detective movies and even that genre was parodied better in Deadmen Don't Wear Plaid (1982). This movie might have done better if it really went all NC-17 but alas it chickens out by avoiding some easy laughs with explicit adult puppet material.  It's  left with puppets dropping the F- bomb.

Speaking of puppets dropping the F-bomb. That maybe the only redeeming quality of this movie. You see The Happtime Murders was partly financed by the H Brothers, a Chinese company. Hey the Chinese may censor images of Winnie the Pooh for President Jinping but puppets dropping the F-bomb and having sex is okay. Freedom, baby. God bless America.

The Happytime Murders trashes one of my favorite movie genres, the private detective story. It's unfunny. And only recommended if you have a thing for puppet sex. The grade is D.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Christopher Robin review

I'm wondering if any Disney executives saw the movie Hook. (1991) That was one of director Stephen Spielberg's misfires. It was about a middle aged Peter Pan who's absorbed in his work in the real world and not in caring about the lives of his children. Pan does eventually return to his childhood fantasy world but it's over the top. Hook was a bomb with the critics. The new live action film of A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh , Christopher Robin, follows a similar plot. So, one wonders why this would be a good idea with the beloved children's story.

Christopher Robin starts out with the young Robin saying goodbye to his beloved toy animal friends because he is about to go to boarding school. And you know his buddies. There's the bouncy Tigger (Jim Cummings) , everybody's favorite depressed donkey Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi) and of course, the lovable stuffed bear, Winnie the Pooh. (Jim Cummings) Yeah, there are more but frankly I forgot about the rest.

We flash forward where Robin (Ewan McGregor) becomes an adult. Meets the lovely Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) who later works for S.H.E.I.L. D. She exposes the Robin to gamma rays where he becomes a big blue furry superhero known is Furman... Um, the stuff about Furman doesn't happen. But Atwell was Agent Carter in Captain American and the short lived TV show about Carter. Okay back to the plot. Anyway, Evelyn becomes pregnant while Christopher goes off to fight World War II. He comes back to meet his daughter who is a young child, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) and goes to work for Winslow Luggage Company. And yeah like Hook, Robin is too busy with his work to pay much attention to his daughter. Robin's company has now asked him to make drastic cuts that he's supposed to do over a weekend. Evelyn and Madeline go off to the Robin's old home in Sussex where Robin as a boy would access The Hundred Acre Wood where the animals exist. Pooh finds his friends missing and decides to reach Robin by going through the magic tree that was a link between the real world and the Hundred Acre Wood. However, Pooh somehow ends up in London where Robin is at. Hold on. Shouldn't the magic tree lead to the one in Sussex? Oh, bother. Anyway, Robin decides to return Pooh back to his home which is in Sussex or you know where the magic tree is.

Pooh being an English story and with a cast of British actors, there's plenty of maintaining an even strain. The cast is subdued and going over the top doesn't happen even when getting exposed to living stuffed animals. Now this creates gentle performances. McGregor is very likable as the adult Robin who's weighed down by responsibility. Hayley Atwell's Evelyn is a loving mother who wants to see more joy from her child. The voice actors of the stuffed animals are all good too. But we needed more Tigger who was always wonderful at just being happy.

The problem with this film is the story and the style. Unlike the aforementioned Hook, the screenplay goes out of the way of not emphasizing the fantasy. The real world of London and fantasy world of The Hundred Are Wood are very much separated. And when the animals go to the real world, their reactions are subdued by the real world. Director Marc Forster keeps everything a shade of mild. I mean the colors of the film are drab. And yeah I get it. Post war London is not a very colorful place. But even the living stuffed animals are drained of color. Red and blue hues are given short shrift.  The movie lacks magic.    Hello?   Living stuffed animals with personalities.  Oh,  bother.  Thankfully, creator A.A. Milne's stuffed animals are not denied the center stage when they delightfully wreck havoc on the humans.

There are better family movies than Christopher Robin that came out this summer. Ant-Man and the Wasp is one of them. Christopher Robin is a warm albeit colorless film. The grade is B.

Trump's desire to pardon Manafort won't work

It looks like Paul Manafort's gamble to not cooperate with Bob Mueller for a pardon will pay off but will this save him or Trump? After he was convicted for not reporting income and other charges, conservative Republican President Donald Trump hinted today he will pardon him. The rationale would be to reward Manafort for his silence regarding the president. Trump tweeted that he felt very badly for him. He wrote that the Justice Department put "tremendous pressure" on him and unlike Micheal Cohen, "he refused to break." Meaning Manafort did not flip on Trump. Trump then said, "Such respect for a brave man!"

A few things here for our fascist President. One using the pardon power to stop a criminal investigation and obstruct justice is illegal. It would be like ordering the Air Force to bomb the Democratic National Headquarters. Two, a person pardoned loses his Fifth Amendment rights to remain silent. Yeah, Manafort could remain silent on Russia-collusion questions but if Trump pardons for these then the answer is no. Three, state charges cannot be pardoned by the President. Much of Manafort's illegal behavior occurred in New York and there are related charges that could be involved. (New York Times article) Today on MSNBC's Morning Joe, New York attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout indicated that she won't let a pardon deter her from seeking justice for state law crimes (MSNBC video below) And finally, it's political suicide, let alone a disaster for every Republican in America. Everybody will know he's doing it to save his own skin. Remember what happened to Ford in 1976?  Plus check out this report from CNN. His voters indicate that this would be a red line.

As I have said before. Justice could come from New York. It's up to you New York. Sing it Frank.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Blackkklansman review

It's been a  week after the United the Right 2 rally which is a march of white racists in Washington, D.C. It's the second iteration of this protest after last year's riots in Charlottesville, Virginia where American Nazis, and racists marched. One woman who opposed the racists was killed by one of them. She was white and her name was Heather Heyer. Conservative Republican President Trump said of the riots between racists and antt-racists that there were "very fine people on both sides." (USA Today) In making Blackkklansman, director and writer Spike Lee knows the current events surrounding his film about a black police officer infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan in the seventies. To him, the racism that existed back then is still with us. It's enabled by Trump. Lee makes this message subtly and sometimes as loud as jazz sermon by Gil Scott- Heron.

It's the seventies, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first African American police officer on the Colorado Springs police force. Washington is excellent here as a black man who wants to protect the public as a cop. And in case you ddidn't know it, he's the son of Denzel Washington and was a former professional football player. I'm glad for the art of acting that he hung up his cleats as there is a bright future for him as a thespian.

Stallworth's first job is to infiltrate the local college's black student union when they bring in Kwame Ture. (Core Hawkins) The police fear that the African Americans may turn violent. Of course, through history we know that was not the case. They were about black empowerment. He meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) and starts a personal relationship with her. She's black, beautiful and smart.

At the station, Stallworth notices a want ad for recruits to the Klu Klux Klan. He calls it, pretending to be a black and Jew hating white man. He convinces his bosses that with the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish officer, they can infiltrate the local Klan and investigate if they are planning any illegal activities. Driver is quite good as the unsure partner wondering if they can pull it off.

Along the way, Stallworth actually gets to make contact with the national head of the Klan, David Duke. (Topher Grace) Grace is ions away from his starring role on the sitcom That 70's Show. Grace's Duke is spot on. He's like the real Duke. Charming and corporate. Still full of malice and hatred. Zimmerman meets other Klansmen, all full of hatred for blacks and Jews. One in particular, Felix played by Finnish actor Jasper Paakkonen, displays a frightening menace. It's a remarkable performance because you would have never guessed that he was Finnish by listening to his American accent.

Lee and writers Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, say many things about racism in their screenplay. If you compare the African American students' activism with the Klan,, the differences are stark. Whereas the students yearn for freedom and black empowerment, they are not violent. Whereas the Klan's hatred for blacks grows into violence. Of course the Klan has always had a history of violence. And as I have pointed out, the writers are making the point that racism is alive and well. It's enabled by Trump. That's because this movie features David Duke and includes a clip of him at the Charlottesville rally. Trump's comments are also in the movie. And let's face it folks. There are literally GOP candidates who are racists. (Vox article) And you will get a chills down your spine when you hear the Klansmen chant, "America First." That was one of the mottos of the Trump campaign. It's hard to stomach as the racists root on the violence against blacks depicted in "The Birth of a Nation." (1915) They treat it like a sporting event. What's even more curious is that the Klan has a discriminatory attitude towards the women. In the movie, women are treated as second class citizens.

The film does take some time with humor  to depict the idiocy of racism. It's often depicted as Stallworth over the phone in a "white" accent starts to utter the hatred that Klansmen feel towards African Americans, gays and Jews. It's a nice break from the intense drama. Along with the depiction of odious racism, the movie works as a thriller. You see Zimmerman is often in danger of being discovered and likely to be killed. Also in danger are the black students.

Spike Lee is a painter as a director. Thankfully, he does not use camera gymnastics to maintain interest. His shots are well thought out. During a rally with Ture, Lee focuses on the African American faces. We hear the words as to why black is beautiful. It is indeed, beautiful to see. This is one of the many gorgeous shots that Lee frames. He doesn't get in the way of the story but lets it speak. Lee also puts in some fantastic soul music from the seventies to give the movie a feel for the time and place. One might fault this movie as being a little over the top but given the nature of the subject matter, it's a criticism that is subjective.

Blackkklansman is a powerful political film. It depicts racism as an evil that is ongoing. It is a racism that in the seventies wanted to be considered mainstream as we see Duke in a suit rather than a hood. It is a racism that continues in this day as the racists no longer disguise themselves in hoods but under the cover of "Make America Great Again." The America that Trump wants is one of the fifties where African Americans were second class citizens. Lee's masterpiece is a must see for this year and any other year if one is serious about thinking about racism in America. The grade is A.