THE FAREWELL. Lulu Wang's The Farewell opens on a phone call between Billi (Awkwafina) in New York and her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) in China. It's a charming, relatable exchange with Nai Nai warning her granddaughter about the dangers she's heard of in the city and Billi reassuring her. It's also a volley of white lies born of convenience and affection — Billi says she's wearing a warm hat and Nai Nai doesn't say she's at the hospital.
The way lies big and small become the bonds and barriers between family members is at the heart of this quiet, moving and beautiful film. While Awkwafina's remarkable, deeply felt performance is the center of the drama, Wang's script and direction give each character a chance to show us the individual burdens and frustrations they carry for themselves or each other.
Writer Billi is 30 and two months behind on rent when she learns from her parents Haiyan and Jian (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) that her grandmother in China is dying of cancer with only a few months to live. The family, dispersed in the U.S. and Japan, is keeping Nai Nai's condition a secret to avoid upsetting her, a plan that doesn't sit well with Billi but is common in China. They plan to reunite one last time for the rushed wedding of Billi's cousin (Ha Chin). Billi, however, is not invited since she's the poker-faceless weak link who'll surely give away the ruse. To the consternation of her immediate and extended family, she shows up anyway. Over the course of the week, as the strong-willed matriarch plans the wedding banquet, Billi and the rest of the family struggle with the wisdom and weight of their deception. Dinners brim with resentments about leaving China, competitive bragging and the cuts and comforts only family can deliver. Peppered throughout are grandmotherly force feedings, boozy toasts and white lies ranging from how long the happy couple has been dating to Billi hiding her money troubles to Nai Nai's sons concealing their grief.
The weird, puckish Awkwafina we know from Ocean's 8 peeks out now and again, but it's the roiling emotions we sense from the slightest furrow and frown that are the focus of so many shots. Like Lin's Jian, who states her dislike of wailing hired mourners, neither Wang nor her excellent cast is here for histrionics, preferring the understated. Ma (Arrival, 2016), a paradoxically ubiquitous yet underused character actor, is utterly real in his quiet heartbreak, while Zhao's sweet, iron-willed matriarch is so seamless I fear her skill will be overlooked.
There is much that's universal in the family dynamics but also distinctly Chinese, especially in terms of the cultural chasm between Chinese and American characters, even first generation immigrants. But it's authentic, too, to this one particular family, the uniqueness that makes them relatable. So many of their lies are a form of generosity but still can isolate — those false assurance that everything's fine can leave everyone a little more alone. PG. 98M. BROADWAY.
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. Last year, the timing of Journal film columnist John Bennett's vacation left me cringing in the theater for Hereditary, an excellent but traumatizing movie from which heinous Bosch-ian images still flash unbidden. This year, hell if I wasn't relieved to be left reviewing Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark instead of Midsommar. Listen, I'm glad horror filmmakers like Ari Aster are out there taking chances and pushing the genre into new psychological and visual territories. But I'm exhausted over here. And while André Øvredal's (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, 2016) adaptation of the kids' horror story collections has its gruesome moments, it's not disturbing or emotionally scarring. Scary Stories is light, slumber-party stuff — an entertaining, retro tribute to the jump scares, vintage monsters and creepy campfire tales of yesterday.
On Halloween, days before Nixon's 1968 election (a don't-go-into-the-basement moment that feels far too real now), a trio of high school outcasts sets out to prank a bully. There's precocious nerd Augie (Gabriel Rush), crude junk-food junkie Chuck (Austin Zajur) and aspiring writer Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), all of whom seek refuge in Ramón's (Michael Garza) car when said prank goes awry. To keep the fun going, the four set out to the local haunted house, followed by that same shark-eyed bully (Austin Abrams). There the long-ago imprisoned Sarah Bellows is said to have killed children by telling them cursed stories. Stella, fascinated by the legend, makes off with Sarah's book and is rightfully alarmed when new stories appear featuring the names of people who were in the house that night, each of whom suffers the fate outlined in the goofy tales.
When the screen isn't frustratingly dark, there are some fine textural touches, particularly when the shots go micro and the sound of a turning page, a creaking doorknob or a skittering spider fills the theater. The monsters are less successful, with two washed out creatures coming off dull and half done — a disappointment partly due to creature master del Toro's much hyped attachment to the project. Still, there are goosebumps, soothingly predictable demises and narrow escapes, and at least one scene that should make even fans of that horrendous Dr. Pimple Popper show wince. For those who've graduated from R.L. Stein, it's a solid transition before jumping headlong into The Shining. And while it's somewhat geared toward a younger audience, it's solid popcorn nostalgia for adults. The hellscape outside is terror enough for some of us right now. PG13. 108M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED. More sharks, I guess? And no cages? PG13. 89M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2. More birds vs. pigs with Jason Sudeikis, Leslie Jones and Josh Gad. PG. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI. (1998). You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous. R. 117M. BROADWAY.
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT. A British Pakistani aspiring writer (Vievek Kalra) finds himself through the music of Bruce Springsteen, to the consternation of his family and friends, who clearly need to listen to more Bruce. PG13. 117M. PG13. 134M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
GOOD BOYS. Trying-to-get-to-the-party comedy with a trio of sixth-grade boys who might accidentally be holding. R. 89M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? Cate Blanchett stars as an architect-turned-homemaker who runs off to work in Antarctica for her second act. PG13. 130M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN. Racing as a metaphor for life. As told by a dog. Voiced by Kevin Costner. PG. 109M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.
DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD. Teen Dora (Isabela Moner) goes exploring to save her folks. Danny Trejo and Benicio Del Toro voice Boots and Swiper, respectively, so I'm in. PG. 102M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
ECHO IN THE CANYON. Andrew Slater's documentary on the Laurel Canyon music scene in Los Angeles. PG13. 182M. MINIPLEX.
FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS AND SHAW. A Fast and the Furious spin-off with an unlikely alliance. Is it OK for me to root for the bad guy (Idris Elba) in this one? PG13. 134M. BROADWAY.
THE KITCHEN. While their husbands do time, the wives of New York gangsters take up the business. Starring a very serious Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss and Tiffany Haddish. R. 103M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
ONCE UPON A TIME ... IN HOLLYWOOD. Quentin Tarantino recreates 1969 Los Angeles for a deceptively nuanced though bloody as ever movie about a washed up actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), his stuntman (Brad Pitt) and the murder of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). R. 165M. BROADWAY, MINOR.
OPHELIA. Director Claire McCarthy's stunningly shot retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet transforms Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) from scorned girl into someone with agency in a place where women's attempts at control are punished. PG13. 114M. MINIPLEX.
SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME. Peter Parker goes on vacation to inevitably save the world, this time with new superhero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhall). Hold up, they're introducing the multiverse?! Starring Tom Holland and Samuel L. Jackson. PG13. 128M. MILL CREEK.
— Iridian Casarez and Jennifer Fumiko Cahill