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Henry Golding, Constance Wu

“CRAZY RICH ASIANS” My rating: C (Opens wide on Aug. 15)

120 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Crazy Rich Asians” is an utterly conventional and largely indifferent wedding-weekend rom-com made noteworthy by just one thing:

It’s the first Hollywood movie since who-knows-when to feature Asian actors in virtually every speaking role.

Culturally speaking, this is a step forward.  Artistically it’s dead in the water.

Jon M.  Chu’s film centers on Rachel (Constance Wu), a professor of economics at Columbia University in a deepening romance with Nick (Henry Golding), a Singapore citizen of Chinese descent who works in finance.

What Rachel doesn’t realize is that Nick is the heir to one of the biggest family fortunes in Asia.  The Youngs own real estate, hotel chains, you name it (if you think Trumpism with all its attendant tackiness, you’re not too far off the mark). But Nick has kept all this from Rachel; he wants to be loved for himself, not his staggering wealth.

Once in Singapore to attend the nuptials of one of Nick’s many cousins,  the secret is out.

Rachel is stunned by the display of unfettered prosperity before her.  “Crazy” in the case of this film means wildly profligate, for the Youngs are not shy about parading their buying power, from vast estates surrounded by a private army to a wedding ceremony in a church decorated to look like a jungle complete with running stream through which the bride wades to meet her groom.

The big problem, though, is less about money than about cultural prejudice.  The Young clan — especially Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) — cannot conceived of an outsider joining their ranks. Thus Rachel is targeted for humiliation and alienation initiated by aunties and cousins who at first seem civil and even friendly but who are just waiting the opportunity to pounce.

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“BLACKkKLANSMAN” My rating: B-

145 minutes | MPAA rating: R

As confirmed by the six-minute standing ovation it received at May’s Cannes International Film Festival, Spike Lee’s “BlackKKlansman” is the right movie at the right time.

The film so effectively punches certain cultural hot buttons, so taps into the current political zeitgeist that it takes an hour of its 145-minute running time to realize that as drama it’s pretty weak stuff.

Based on the real story of Ron Stallworth, a black police detective in Colorado Springs who in the late ’70s infiltrated and even joined the Ku Klux Klan, the film is an uneasy melding of suspense, liberal uplift and  satire in which every element — performances, writing, pacing — is subservient to the delivery of a political message.

I’m down with that message. The film opens with a 50s-era “educational” film in which a eugenicist (Alec Baldwin) rants against the threat posed by race mingling. It closes with news footage of neo-Nazis marching last year in Charlottesville VA (and President Trump giving them a pass).

Even so, the movie (Lee co-wrote the screenplay with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz  and K.U. teacher and filmmaker Kevin Willmott) is notably heavy handed. Yeah, today’s audiences haven’t much use for subtlety, but even so…

We encounter Stallworth (John David Washington…Denzel’s son) when he applies to become the first black officer on the Colorado Springs force.  He’s warned by the Chief (Robert John Burke) that he’ll have to have a Jackie Robinson-level of tolerance for abuse.  It’ll come at him not just from the public but from  his fellow officers.

But Stallworth is ambitious. So when Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael is booked to address African American students at a local college,  the department’s sole black cop jumps at the chance to go undercover. He’s assigned to attend the rally and report back on Carmichael’s speech (the activist was long a target of Hoover’s FBI).

The fallout from the event is considerable.

First, Stallworth exhibits his value as a plainclothes officer, leading to his elevation to the rank of detective.

Second, he meets and eventually falls for Patrice (Laura Harrier), the student activist who organized the event — although it will be some time before he confesses that he’s one of the “pigs” she so despises.

Third, he finds himself unexpectedly inspired by Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), whose message of black pride/power hits hard. But did Lee really have to punctuate this scene with artsy montages of young black faces transformed by the speech? Aren’t Carmichael’s words powerful enough?

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Sarah Adler, Tim Kalkhof

“THE CAKEMAKER” My rating: B (Opens Aug. 10 at the Tivoli)

113 minutes | No MPAA rating

The movies have long recognized the link between food and eroticism (“Tom Jones,” “Like Water for Chocolate,” “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” and countless more).  Usually it’s played for laughs or swooning romance.

The Israeli “The Cakemaker”  aims for the mysterious and the melancholy.

Ofir Raul Graizer’s feature debut is  a study in carefully calibrated yearning that centers on a young man whose motives and inner thoughts are carefully guarded. It takes nearly all of the film’s two hours for his true self to emerge.

In the movie’s opening minutes an Israeli man visits a Berlin bakery. Oren (Roy Miller) is an engineer whose work brings him to Germany several times a year.  Waiting on him is the shop’s baker, Thomas (Tim Kalkhof).

In what seems like only seconds, writer/director Graizer depicts the men’s romance over several months. There’s no scene of courtship or getting to know one another…the narrative jumps from casual conversation to passionate kiss.

After one such visit Oren returns to his wife and young son in Israel. Thomas never hears from him again, despite repeated calls to his lover’s cell phone number. After many weeks Thomas shows up in Israel.

He has learned that Oren died in a car accident. Now he begins observing (or is it stalking?) Oren’s widow, Anat (Sarah Adler) and son Itai (Tamir Ben Yehuda).

Anat operates a hole-in-the-wall cafe; without mentioning that  he knew her late husband, Thomas takes a job there and soon is cranking out delicious cookies, cakes and pies (though he does run afoul of Kosher laws, which ban a non-Jew from operating the oven in a Kosher kitchen). (more…)

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Mike Zahs

“SAVING BRINTON” My rating B-

90 minutes | No MPAA rating

By most calculations,  rural Iowan Mike Zahs is a hoarder — which is to say he suffers from a disorder recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.

The retired teacher — who sports a beard worthy of an Old Testament prophet — has a house (two of them actually) packed floor to ceiling with items that might be precious or worthless. Apparently he has his own mental filing system that allows him to locate certain items in all the confusion. His wife can only roll her eyes.

Thing is, Zahs is terrifically articulate, which helps ease our concerns that he may just be another wack job.

And it turns out that Zahs’ towering mountain of junk contains some real treasures. Nearly 30 years ago Zahs took responsibility for the long-abandoned home of fellow townsman William Franklin Brinton, who in the early years of the 20th century traveled the Midwest putting on magic lantern shows and projecting early motion pictures to audiences of farmers and small towners.

Amidst this collection of yellowing posters, ancient projectors and other paraphernalia of old-timey entertainment,  Zahs has discovered a reel of nitrate film, a hand-colored short by the great French cinema pioneer Georges Melies.  It is, in fact, the only known copy of this particular film.  (Melies’ life and art was was the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s 2011  “Hugo” in which Ben Kingsley portrayed the great magician of early film.)

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Disgraced hedge fund manager Florian Homm

“GENERATION  WEALTH”  My rating: C

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

As Bruce Springsteen so astutely observed:

Poor man wanna be rich

Rich man wanna be king

And a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything.

“Generation Wealth” finds photojournalist Lauren Greenfield taking on America’s obsession with wealth. As you might guess, she doesn’t think this is a good thing.

One of her subjects describes contemporary Americans as “hamsters in a diamond-studded gold wheel.”

Greenfield has some experience in this subject, having had an arthouse hit with “The Queen of Versailles,” her 2012 doc about a Florida condo king and his wife attempting (and failing) to build the USA’s biggest private residence.

“…Wealth” starts out promisingly enough.  In narration Greenfield describes her own upbringing in Los Angeles and her education in a posh private school. She announces that she’s going to interview her old classmates to see how they’re getting on as adults after being raised in an environment where 8th graders routinely carried $100 bills for lunch money.

Rather quickly, it appears, she realized these folk didn’t have a whole lot of interesting things to say. (“You want people to look at you. It’s about power.”) So “Generation Wealth” casts its net wider, going after topics as diverse as crazed careerism, the obsession of many women with designer handbags,  a woman who put off having a child and now is spending a fortune on medical procedures that will help her get pregnant.

Bret Easton Ellis, whose novels often deal with cultural narcissism, talks about cultural narcissism.

Fairly early on “Generation Wealth” takes a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach.  Whatever game plan Greenfield had going into the project is abandoned. The result is an unorganized hodgepodge of ideas and impressions.

Even so, the film has some fascinating things. Like Florian Homm, a Harvard classmate of Greenfield’s who spent years as a ruthless hedge fund manager and now lives in Germany where he can avoid extradition to the U.S.  While smoking a big fat stogie Homm sits back in a fancy settee and rails against a society that places wealth above all other values.

But one has to wonder if Homm’s newfound disdain for greed isn’t almost exclusively the result of being indicted for security fraud. A subsequent interview with his adult son suggests that Dad simply may be good at covering his ass. (Home is such a fascinating/repellant figure you wish the film had been just about him.)

Greenfield takes a moment to consider the Kardashian effect (wealth and fame with no visible talent). We meed a recent Chinese millionaire who lives in a full-size reproduction of the White House and looks out his window to see a manmade Mt. Rushmore.  Russian oligarchs whose homes have vast libraries of volumes that no one is allowed to touch, much less crack open and read.

The “pornificiation” of American culture is touched upon. We meet an adult film actress and follow women who spend every cent they can borrow on plastic surgery. A participant in kiddie beauty pageants.

And at some point the film becomes Greenfield’s own story. She interviews her high school-age son, who reduces her to tears by finally expressing his  resentment that her journalism career made her an absentee parent.

“We’re dying in the same ways other civilizations have died throughout history,” says one talking head. “The difference is when we go down we take the planet with us.”

An interesting and troubling thought. Wish the rest of the film carried that sort of punch.

| Robert W. Butler

 

 

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Pooh, Ewan McGregor

“CHRISTOPHER ROBIN” My rating: C- 

104 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Few moviegoing experiences are as disheartening as the film that aspires to the whimsical and charming but instead falls flat on its boring face.

Welcome to “Christopher Robin,” Disney’s ill-conceived live-action (mostly) fantasy about the adult life of the little boy who used to play with Pooh, Piglet and the other animals in the Hundred Acre Woods.

Unlike last year’s “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which was a loose biography of Pooh creator A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin Milne, this new effort from director Marc Forster unfolds in an alternative universe in which Milne and the Pooh books don’t exist (although the movie opens with animated versions of the famous book illustrations by E.H. Shepard…so you can be forgiven if you’re confused).

In a prologue little Christopher Robin (his first name is Christopher, his last Robin) says goodbye to his toy companions as he prepares for boarding school.  Pooh and the others — rendered in what appears to be a combination of puppetry and computer effects — are left behind to mourn the loss of their human friend.

In a montage we see the grown Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) meet and marry Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), go off to World War II and become a father to young Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).  By now he’s all but forgotten his childhood companions; he’s up to his neck in troubles as a middle manager at a London luggage company on the verge of bankruptcy. Christopher is so consumed by business woes that he’s alienating his wife and child.

And then one day — tah DAH — Pooh uses a magic portal (in a tree) to come to London to look for his old friend. The harried businessman spends a day back in the Hundred Acre Woods, slowly getting back in touch with his childhood self.

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Elsie Fisher

“EIGHTH GRADE” My rating: A-

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Middle school means isolation, mortification and general angst. Such was the case even before cell phones and the internet upped the ante on  peer pressure.

Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” perfectly captures that indefinable sense of adolescent unease.  You may find yourself looking away from the screen as his 14-year-old heroine undergoes yet another wince-inducing humiliation. This film is so true in its harrowing honesty, so aching in its inarticulate yearning that it is almost too much to bear.

But stick with it. With its savagely dead-on sense of humor, its unflinching depiction of pubescent peril and a star-making performance by young Elsie Fisher, the film slowly sucks us in, leaving us wiser, more sympathetic and superbly entertained.

The film follows Kayla (Fisher), a 14-year-old enduring her last week of eighth grade before summer break.  She wants desperately to be somebody — from her bedroom she launches a chirpy daily videocast (“Hi, guys, it’s Kayla back with another video!?”) in which she dispenses advice to her fellow 8th graders. She suspects, though, that nobody  is watching.

And there’s more than a little irony when she tells her possibly nonexistent viewers that  it’s important to be themselves.  As if she has a clue as to her own essence.

It’s not that the other kids are mean to Kayla.  Most of them — like the deb-in-training Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) — don’t  even acknowledge her existence. That anonymity is both infuriating and suffocating.

All this has made Kayla a very prickly young lady, and she takes out most of her anger and anxiety on her single dad (Josh Hamilton), a chipper optimist whose transparent efforts to instill in his daughter hope and self-worth only fill her with eye-rolling contempt.

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