Farewell  to Hollywood

“The Farewell” (image copyright Big Beach Films / Depth of Field)

Exclusive to MeierMovies.com, July 28, 2019

As we approach the end of summer, two movies are turning the heads of arthouse moviegoers, but for different reasons.

The first is The Farewell (3 ¾ stars on 0-5 scale), a tender dramedy, shot mostly in Mandarin, about a Chinese-American woman’s reconnection with her family and the traditions of her native land. Directed by Lulu Wang, the film is fairly successful at balancing laughter and pathos, and particularly effective when contemplating cultural differences between East and West.

Living in New York City, Billi (Awkwafina) travels with her parents to China to visit her terminally ill grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao). Joined by her extended family, Billi realizes this will probably be the last time she will ever see her “Nai Nai” – except her grandmother doesn’t know it. That’s because her relatives follow the Chinese tradition of keeping bad health news from kin until the end is nigh. It’s a moral decision that Billi struggles to comprehend, and that struggle elevates The Farewell above many other, similar cultural mashups.

The critical success of The Farewell was easy to predict. Apart from some narrative drift and comedic mediocrity in the second half, it’s a solid piece of storytelling with tons of heart. Not so for the second subject of this mini-review. Indeed, by most measures, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (3 stars) should not succeed. It’s too long, self-indulgent, lacking a sensible narrative structure and at times even boring, which might be a first for a Quentin Tarantino flick. But as a time-travel trip – and I do mean trip – and an homage to 1960s Los Angeles, it’s mesmerizing. And as a buddy film, it’s irresistible.

Image copyright Sony Pictures / Bona Film Group

Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, an aging, alcoholic, action-TV star in an aging Hollywood. Also long in the tooth is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who works as Rick’s stunt double, gofer and best friend. The film is packed with other eclectic performances – including Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, Al Pacino as a movie exec, and some other surprises – but it’s DiCaprio and Pitt who deliver the film’s chemistry and help offset its pacing and storytelling issues.

Oh, and yes, this is a Tarantino film with a Charles Manson subplot, so you know there is going to be graphic violence. But there’s less of it than in the writer-director’s other recent films, and it kind of fits, instead of being thrown in orgiastically to satisfy Tarantino’s fetish. And the criticism by some – including this reviewer, before I actually saw the film (oops!) – that Tarantino is exploiting Manson’s victims for his own comedic exploits is misplaced. If anything, the film pays a nice Sliding Doors tribute to them.

See Hollywood precisely because you can no longer see the Hollywood it portrays. Thanks to Oscar-worthy production design, great music and some cleverly conceived alternative history, it’s the best time warp of 2019. But because the movie clocks in at two hours and 41 minutes, just don’t ask me to do the time warp again. I’d rather say another hello to Farewell.

Copyright 2019 © Cameron Meier