5 Stars Movies

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

It goes without saying that the title of a film is rather crucial to reeling in an audience. Awkward examples include 1991’s Highlander 2: The Quickening (though I have heard the title is far from the only problem with the film), 1995’s To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar, and 1996’s Don’t be a menace to South Central while drinking your juice in the hood (a title that wowed me in my youth, though, like the other mentioned films, I have not seen it). There can be some that work (no other title is more everlasting than the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece Dr. Strangelove: Or How I learned to Stop worrying and love the bomb from 1964), but it is up to the audience member to decide if they will let the title make or break the film going experience, which leads us to The Peanut Butter Falcon, one of the year’s best films. I won’t spoil what the title implies, for the less you know about the film, the better (I would not blame you at all if you stopped reading and came back after you saw the film).

Directed by Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, the film takes place in modern day as we meet Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with down syndrome who has been living at a nursing home because he has no immediate family. He dreams of attending a school to learn professional wrestling as taught by his hero, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), but is unable to despite many escape attempts. Eventually, he is able to get away, only to come across a fisherman/outlaw named Tyler (Shia Lebeouf), on the run from rival fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes). Meanwhile, one of the nursing home staff Eleanore (Dakota Johnson) has been tasked to find Zak.

For a small movie (which is not a bad thing), there are a sizable amount of talented actors. Aside from those formentioned, small parts are filled by the always adept Bruce Dern as one of Zak’s nursing home friends, Jon Bernthal as Tyler’s deceased brother (shown in flashback), and minor roles from former wrestling stars Mick Foley (“Mankind”) and Jake “The Snake” Roberts. The mention of the last two gives me promise that some who are in the WWE will be able to see the film.

Despite all the star power of the film, the core of the film’s energy belongs to the relationship of Tyler and Zak. As they set off on a modern day Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn type of journey, the unlikely bond becomes humorous, heartfelt, potent, and true. There is a moment where Zak states that, when he reaches the pro circuit of wrestling, he will be a “bad guy”. Tyler then explains Zak does not need to be the bad guy, and….well, the movie explains it better than I can, but expect to be floored with a lot of positive emotion.

About ten or so minutes of screentime made me realize I have been too hard on Shia Lebeouf over the years (I know I am not alone). Despite what goes on in his personal life, he proves here he is one rather talented individual, giving one of his better performances of his career. The same can also be said for Dakota Johnson. Though she had a small part in The Social Network (2010), I have not seen her in any other film until this one (I have not seen any of the Fifty Shades films, and never plan on it). She is proof that actors are best able to shine when given the right material. Still, it is Zack Gottsagen (who does have down syndrome in real life) who steals the scenes he is in.

Parents, the film is rated PG-13, mainly for swearing and some violence (though there is no sexuality, there are scenes where Zak is in nothing but his underwear at the beginning). Still, I would think middle schoolers and above would be okay seeing the film, and would argue they should.

Of all the things The Peanut Butter Falcon exudes the most is a spry charm that I have not felt for some time at the theater. I will put it simply: Give the movie a chance, or you are no longer invited to my birthday party.


Rating: 5 out of 5.

3 1/2 Stars Movies

Blinded by the Light (2019)

In just under twelve months, we have seen films that have glamourized the music of Queen (last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody), Elton John (Rocketman), and The Beatles (Yesterday), not to mention other music icons such as Ray Charles (2004’s Ray), Johnny Cash (2005’s Walk the Line) and Bob Dylan (2007’s I’m Not There). As is the case with any viewer, my familiarity with each artist varied as each movie started. The same is true for the film Blinded by the Light, the most recent film by director Gurinder Chadha (who made the unsung gem of a film Bend it like Beckham back in 2003), about a soul discovering the music of “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen.

Based on a true story, the film is set during 1987 England, during the times of Margaret Thatcher and increased chances of unemployment. It has been seven years since the Khan family has had to flee Pakistan due to the invasion of the Russians. With two older sisters, teenager Javed (newcomer Viviek Chadra) has many more problems than the average High Schooler. Perhaps the most stressful source in his life is his rather domineering (but still loving) dad Malik (Kuvinder Ghir), who is in danger of losing his job. He wants to make sure his son studies hard and “stays away from girls” (which he yells out for all to hear). His mother Noor  (Meera Ganatra) is sewing clothes all day in order to make more money. One of his sisters, Yasmeen (Tara Divina), is set to be married, though he does get along well with his other sister Shazia (Nikita Mehta). He constantly seeks the attention of classmate Eliza (Nell Williams), though is still shy to come out of his shell. His only true escape is writing, but even though he tries to write lyrics for his lifelong friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his band, the school paper still won’t publish Javed’s work. He does get inspired to keep at it by one of his teachers, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell, once Peggy Carter of the MCU).

All this changes when Javed meets Roops (Aaron Phagura), who insists that a listen to Bruce Springsteen will alleviate him. Indeed, when we experience Javed’s experience of his first Springsteen song (“Dancing in the Dark”), the words are so powerful to him that they almost literally jump off the screen.

The screenplay is rather predictable and borderline trite, as we know that Javed will be inspired to open up about his writing, show his true self to his family (something also very relevant in Bend it Like Beckham), express his feelings, and even interact with Eliza. Yet the film still works because of the nearly effortless charm of everyone in the cast, from Chadra in the lead role to Mr. Evans (David Heyman), the neighbor next door who turns out not to be all Javed believes him to be.

In my review on the film Yesterday (of which I was not a fan), I said that one thing that film got right was the zeal that the film’s character Jack (Himesh Patel) had for The Beatles. The same is true for Javed’s zeal of The Boss. Looking at Javed’s face as he listens to the music, it is easy to imagine back to the time when you were captivated by the Word of God. Not just reading it, but understanding it and letting its power guide your character. The same could be said of looking into the eyes of Javed, as he actually is oozing out intensity as he explains his love of Bruce Springsteen.

Parents, the film is a solid good PG-13. Most of this is do to swearing (including words not considered swearing in the United States), but there is a fair share of racism and mild violence (just a bloody nose when one character is punched in the face). There is kissing, but nothing beyond that. Basically, trust the rating.

As teenagers, we all had forms of escapism (no doubt mine were movies, both past and present). Undoubtedly, the real source we need to “escape” to is Jesus, which requires effort. Or better yet, as we learnt to live as Christ, we learn to live in the world and not escape from it.

We were born to run, after all, so run to Jesus.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
4 1/2 Stars Movies

The Farewell (2019)

Whether it is the news of a loved one’s passing or the news that the passing is closing in faster than expected, we all process the information in different ways. Admittedly, I never thought of it being different for certain cultures, let alone different individuals. Whether it is a custom for Chinese people to not tell a family member they have terminal cancer, I am not sure, but that is surely the case for the family in The Farewell.

Raised almost entirely in the United States, Billi (Awkwafina, the highly affective comic relief sidekick in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians) is still at the stage of young adult life where she is being treated like she is ten years younger than she is. She has a rickety relationship with her mother Jian (Diana Lin), but does still love her as well as her less domineering dad Haiyan (Tzi Ma). Still, even though they live in New York, she still loves to chat with her Grandma Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), who still lives in China.

Billi’s world is thrown a curve when her dad (Nai Nai’s son) informs her that the Grandmother has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, and is expected to live only three months at the most. The family decides to go, using her cousin Hao Hao’s (Han Chen) wedding to a Japanese woman (Aoi Mizuhara) as a valid reason to see her one last time, under the strict rule not to let Nai Nai know she will die soon. Despite her parents wanting her to stay, Billi arrives in China to attend.

Despite the obvious dramatic aspects of the film, The Farewell (which starts off by saying it is “based on an actual lie”) has more than enough moments of realism that make it rather comedic. Not laugh out loud comedic (though a moment or two may get you), but more in a subtle way. Consider the wonderful scenes where the family sits down to eat. Regardless of you ethnic background, every family has dynamic encounters (both positive and negative) when at the dinner table. There is laughing, squabbling, screeching, talking with your mouth full. Regardless, love is at the center of it all.

It is always wonderful when a comedic actor is able to show off their dramatic chops (and vice versa for dramatic actors). Here, there result for Awkwafina (who, last I heard, is going to be the seagull Scuttle in the Disney Live action remake of The Little Mermaid) is no different. There are truly times I had to remind myself I was watching the same person who was Peik Lin Goh in Crazy Rich Asians just a year ago. While I doubt it is going to be in the conversation for the award season, it is clearly proof that this is one actress with a wide range in the acting department.

Another standout is the director Lulu Wang (who based much of this off of her own experiences). While this is only her second full length feature since 2014’s Posthumous (unseen by me), the direction she uses here is powerful in how gentle and reserved it is. I was reminded of one of the cinema giants, Yasujiro Ozu, mainly from his masterful work Tokyo Story (1953). That film (which I would endorse highly) was also about parents in their twilight years seeing their children and grandchildren. Even though it was unique to its country of origin, it still spoke to us all on a universal scale. Though Wang is not as subdued as Ozu (who was known for hardly moving his camera, if at all), the technique she uses is rather imposing and proof of a filmmaker worth looking at in the coming years.

Parents, the film is PG, and has nothing here that should worry you as parents. There is little swearing, no sex (though some bare back nudity in one shot), but nothing else. It should be noted, however, that much of the film’s dialogue is in subtitles. If your kids are fine with that, then they can see this film.

One of the aspects of The Farewell that is also universal is how, regardless of the family life we have, we convince ourselves to lie to our loved ones when we think it is for their own good. Whether it be to cushion the blow, save them from details, or just because we don’t want to hurt feelings, we have all done it. When it comes to this film, I will do the opposite, and simply state it is easily one of this year’s best films.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

3 Stars Movies

Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019)

It has reached the point where I am feeling sorry for Dora the Explorer. In modern society, she has been the punching bag of little kid shows (I grew up when the punching bag was good ole’ Barney and Friends). Admittedly, I too thought it was a joke when I heard that there was going to be a live action film of the titular young heroine and was just as shocked as anyone to learn it was the truth. Still, when IMDB users (roughly 200 of them) all go on the film’s page and decide to post in the Parent’s Guide that the PG rated movie should be ranked “severe” in all categories…well, the joke has gone too far (thankfully, it was corrected).

In short, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is still a nice family flick (though much more for the kids, although I admit I found myself smiling once or twice). The film starts off where the TV show takes place, with young Dora and her cousin Diego going off on adventures in the rain forest with her faithful monkey Boots and the mischievous fox Swiper. Diego and his parents move to the city, leaving Dora and her parents (Michael Pena and Eva Longoria) in the rain forest.

Flash forward ten years, and teenage Dora (Isabela Moner) is still her upbeat self, eager to explore and help her parents find the Lost City of Gold. Of course, her parents don’t think she is ready to help, so she is sent to live with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg, nephew of Mark) and his family, as she explores her greatest challenge yet: High School. Soon, Dora finds herself back in the jungle with Diego and two new friends, the somewhat reserved Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and the rather high strung brainiac Sammy (Madeleine Madden), as they search for her parents who have gone missing. They still have to encounter Swiper the Fox (Benecio Del Toro), but still have the guided help of Boots (whose one scene of speaking is done by none other than Danny Trejo).

The screenplay tool of “fish out of water” has been used countless times, yet it works here, mainly because of the sheer dedication of Isabela Moner. Even the most savage of haters will admit it takes a lot to carry a movie, especially if the source material is of a former six-year-old explorer who talks to the camera (which the movie does playfully nod at). Moner never loses her appeal, even when she is singing about situations you would never think anyone would sing about in any genre of film. Even when other obscure things happen on screen, she is still herself, and it is rather impressive. In short, it is a performance worthy of respect.

As stated before, parents should not look at the user contents on IMDB. It is rated PG, with some minor action and peril, but no swearing or nudity. There is one scene that does contain flowers making certain characters hallucinate in a rather comical and bizarre way. Nonetheless, any age is fine seeing this film.

One of the key aspects of Dora’s philosophy (as taught by her parents) is that she is an explorer, “not a treasure hunter.” For kids, this could be a valuable lesson when it comes to Christianity. The exploring of God’s word (i.e. reading the bible) is its own treasure, wisdom that surpasses all (see Proverbs 3:13 and 8:11).

I was about the age of eight when the original Jumanji (the Robin Williams one) came out. It had its scares but was still fun at the time. Like that film, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is intended for kids over adults (though there are still some things adults would like). The special effects are not anything great (like Jumanji, which has CGI that is borderline laughable), but it is not entirely the movie’s fault (not every movie has the money that a Marvel film would have). It gives lessons to kids (along with the aforementioned one on treasures) that other movies have done in the past, like believing in yourself and the value of teamwork.

The spirit of Dora and the Lost City of Gold is still rather contagious and makes me even willing to say that the film is more enjoyable than any of the recent Disney Live Action Remakes.


Rating: 3 out of 5.