FILM: The Farewell (2019, Lulu Wang)

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Drama The Farewell is distributed by A24, following its premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Inspired by director/screenwriter Lulu Wang’s own experiences, New York based Chinese-American Billi Wang (Awkwafina) is devastated to learn that her beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is terminally ill, and even more shocked to learn that (as is custom for Chinese families) the extent of her illness is being kept a secret from her. She and her parents go to China for her cousin Hao Hao’s (Chen Han) wedding, which has been hastily arranged to give their grandmother one last family occasion where everyone can say their final goodbyes. Due to her American upbringing, however, Billi cannot mask her emotions like the rest of her family can, so can she keep the full seriousness of her grandmother’s cancer a secret from the old lady and avoid falling out with her family?

PROS

  • The fact that this is a highly personal film for Lulu Wang comes through beautifully in her mature and sensitive direction, in which it is clear that she knows just how intense to make a scene and whether the meaning of a moment can be conveyed to the viewers through implication as opposed to something more overt.
  • A rich, nuanced screenplay which intimately explores various dynamics within an extended family and how grief impacts different people in different ways, while also providing an interesting and very emotional exploration of how Eastern and Western cultures will take differing approaches to a very difficult matter. It is not all drama though, as there are some brilliantly timed humorous moments which stem from a familial dynamic and the generational differences within that.
  • Wonderful characterisation which further reflects the fact that this is a personal film by Lulu Wang, as the familial dynamics are all wholly believable and able to evoke poignancy and laughs in equal measure – especially the way in which Nai Nai says it as it is to her descendants and their spouses.
  • A deeper underlying theme runs below the surface of the film, as Billi’s narrative arc is not just about going to say farewell to a beloved relative, but returning to a homeland to (in a sense) say goodbye to it.
  • Awkwafina proves herself to be a wonderfully talented dramatic actress, giving a raw performance that is rich in emotional weight. She is backed by a unanimously strong supporting cast who all realise their characters very well. The standout support, however, is Zhao Shuzhen, who brings a truly beautiful sense of warmth to Nai Nai and develops a heartwarming chemistry with Awkwafina, making Nai Nai a character whom the viewer cannot help but instantly love.
  • Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano shows real maturity and understanding of Lulu Wang’s vision for the film as she keeps the cameras just the right distance at all times from the cast to make this feel like a sensitive and personal story, never too intrusive while also never too distant.

NITPICKS

  • The film’s ending does feel a little bit abrupt, even though the content of the ending is a natural culmination of all that has gone before it.

VERDICT: 10/10

Top 10 Favourite Generation III Pokémon

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I have never made it a secret that I am a huge fan of Pokémon, a franchise which got me into both gaming and anime. And naturally that means that for each Generation of Pokémon there will be some which I like more than others. In honour of the upcoming Generation VIII, on this blog I will be listing my favourite Pokémon from Generations I-VII. Note that these are favourites, therefore these are not necessarily the best for competitive battling, and to make the list slightly more challenging I have restricted myself to one Pokémon per evolutionary family.

10) Mudkip

Mudkip

The Water-type Starter of Hoenn, Mudkip is a good choice for any beginning trainer (not least because it has a type-advantage at the first Gym). Mudkip is also a very friendly Pokémon, and its design is frankly adorable. However, what made it stand out upon its revelation 17 years ago was the fact that its design felt quite fresh and different (certainly its real-world inspiration is not as obvious of those of Squirtle and Totodile). In the anime, Brock caught one in Hoenn that eventually evolved into Marshtomp.

9) Metagross

Metagross

Beldum is not a particularly impressive Pokémon, but the same cannot be said for its final evolution – the Steel/Psychic-type Pseudo Legendary Pokémon Metagross. With a bulky robotic body, Metagross may not be that speedy, but it has incredibly bulky Attack and Defence capabilities, while also having the ability to learn a plethora of different types of moves. It is a powerful addition to any team and serves as the powerhouse Pokémon of Hoenn Champion Steven Stone. In the anime, Steven naturally owns one (although here his is a Shiny Pokémon), while Ash’s Hoenn rival Tyson and Kalos rival Alain each own one, as does Kanto Battle Frontier Brain Anabel.

8) Absol

Absol

One of only a small handful of pure Dark-types from the history of the franchise, Absol has a badass design that fits the Dark-type perfectly, and due to its appearance it is regularly mistaken for an evil Pokémon. However, appearances can be deceiving as Absol is neither confrontational nor a fan of fighting. In battle it is a great addition to your team as it boasts solid Attack and Speed stats. In the anime, May’s rival Drew owns one, as does Lillie’s mother (Lusamine). Astrid also used one in her battles against Alain and Ash.

7) Salamence

Salamence

As one of two Pseudo Legendary Pokémon in Generation III, it is only natural that Dragon/Flying-type Salamence would make a phenomenal addition to any team, and it is an absolute tank in battle thanks to terrific Attack, Special Attack and Speed stats (just never send it out against an Ice-type). What makes Salamence the better Pseudo Legenday, however, is the fact that it boasts a badass design that is perfect for a Dragon. In the anime, Salamence served as the main Pokémon of Hunter J, while Hoenn Elite Four member Drake also owns one, as does Ash’s Kalos rival Sawyer.

6) Swellow

Swellow

Every Generation of Pokémon has its signature bird, and for Generation III that happens to be Swellow. While it may not have the fiercest design of the signature birds, Swellow is easily one of the fiercest and most gutsy battlers. With terrific Attack and Speed stats, Swellow regularly delivers first and final blows, and it does not go down without a fight, making it an excellent addition to your Hoenn team, due to its battling abilities and its headstrong, dependable nature. In the anime, Ash evolved his Taillow into one and it became one of his most reliable Pokémon in his Hoenn journey. Gym Leader Winona also owns one, which is Shiny.

5) Sharpedo

Sharpedo

The fact that it took until Generation III for a Water-type design based on a shark to happen is crazy, but once it did happen we were given the Water/Dark-type Sharpedo. Sharpedo boasts a truly fierce design, simultaneously looking like a badass and a terrifying creature of the Jaws ilk. With great Speed and Attack stats, it can also has access to a plethora of different move types thanks to its jaw, as it can learn both Ice Fang and Poison Fang, giving great coverage in battle. Sharpedo has made a number of minor appearances in the anime, although most notably one served as the first Ride Pokémon that Ash went on in Alola.

4) Manectric

Manectric

The Electric-type Electrike is an adorable Pokémon which evolves into the powerful Manectric, another Generation III Pokémon with a badass design. It gathers electricity in its mane which it then discharges, and in the process it creates thunderclouds – an ability that is perfect for an Electric-type. Despite its fierce appearance and great abilities in battle, Manectric is also a truly loyal canine, which makes it both a vital and wonderful addition to any team, and the fact that I love dogs is another reason it holds a place in my heart. In the anime, Gym Leader Wattson owns one, while it is also the main Pokémon of the Officer Jennys in Kalos.

3) Latias and Latios

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Latios (left), Latias (right)

Okay, so yes this is a bit of a cheat/cop-out, but Hoenn’s Eon duo are truly inseparable, so I could not choose one over the other, as they are on a par with each other in every way. In Ruby Version and Sapphire Version there was a different one and they were the roaming Legendary. In the Generation VI remakes they choose to join you midway through your journey. In both cases they prove to be absolute tanks in battle, and also have unquestioning loyalty to the player. As such they are among the best Pokémon that you could hope to have in Generation III. In the anime, Latias and Latios were the central Pokémon to the fifth film and also appear in the eighteenth. Ash’s Sinnoh League opponent Tobias own a Latios, while a Nurse Joy owns a Latias.

2) Blaziken

Blaziken

Given that Fire-type Torchic is the worst Starter Pokémon in Generation III, it came as a lovely surprise to discover that its final evolution – Blaziken – is an absolute powerhouse. A Fire/Fighting-type which boasts incredible Attack power and good Speed, Blaziken also has an absolutely badass design which makes it one of the coolest Pokémon of Generation III. As a fan of the anime, I also have a soft spot for Blaziken as served as the powerhouse Pokémon of Ash’s Johto League rival Harrison, who had evolved it all the way from his Starter Torchic. Harrison’s Blaziken was an absolute tank who managed to take down Ash’s Charizard in an incredibly heated battle. This inspired Ash to go to Hoenn and really built up anticipation for Generation III for us fans. May evolved her Starter Torchic all the way into one, while Clemont and Bonnie’s father (Meyer) also has one.

1) Sceptile

Sceptile

Blaziken may be the most badass final form of a Generation III Starter Pokémon, but I will always prefer Sceptile. Grass-type Treecko is always my Starter of choice in the Generation III games, and when it reaches its final form – Sceptile – it is a reliable powerhouse to your team who regularly delivers the deciding blow in battle. It also has great Speed stats, which means that it will also deliver the first hit in most battles. After years of having it be a dependable team member for me, no other Generation III Pokémon could have topped this list for me. In the anime, Ash evolved his Treecko all the way into one, as did his Kalos rival Sawyer, while his Hoenn rival Tyson also owns one.

FILM: Ready or Not (2019, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin/Tyler Gillett)

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Horror/comedy Ready or Not is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, following its premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. Grace (Samara Weaving) is marrying into the incredibly wealthy Le Domas family, who run a board gaming empire. On her wedding night, Grace must join the Le Domas family in a game, which will be decided when she chooses a random card. Grace gets “Hide and Seek”, which she will win if she manages remain hidden within the family manor until dawn. However, she soon learns to her horror from husband Alex (Mark O’Brien) that her new in-laws are out to kill her, as they believe that doing so will save all of their lives. Now it is no longer a fight to remain hidden for Grace, it is an all-out fight to survive until dawn.

PROS

  • For the first two-thirds, the film is a daft premise executed in a stylish and clever manner (which will be broken down in some of the following bullet points), the bits that are not so in those first two-thirds being moments of dark humour, slapstick and hilariously daft gags, which are hilarious not least due to their energy and absurdly brilliant timing and positioning in the narrative.
  • Samara Weaving brings a lot of raw energy to the role of Grace, and is backed by a solid supporting cast, the stand-outs of which are Adam Brody (who gives a nuanced turn to convey the inner turmoil of Alex’s brother Daniel), Nicky Guadagni (who gives a deliciously off-kilter turn as Aunt Helene) and Melanie Scrofano (whose comic timing as drug addicted sister Emilie is perfect).
  • A visually stunning film, which spectacularly detailed production design giving a real sense of grandeur to the Le Domas manor and emphasising their wealth, while the make-up department do a great job with the injury detail and make excellent use of fake blood.
  • Cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz makes excellent use of low lighting, shadows and tracking shots in order to bring us into Grace’s fight for survival, which aids the film’s tension and brings a greater degree of excitement to it.

CONS

  • The choice to have a prologue lessens the sense of mystery to the body of the film, for which it had had real potential.
  • The final third of the film is tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film as it is far more rushed and off-kilter, and the final result is a ludicrous concept executed in a haphazard and overly silly manner.
  • Some supporting characters (namely the servants) only really exist to increase the body count, even though the accidental killings of two of them prove to be very darkly amusing.

VERDICT: 7/10

FILM: Rambo: Last Blood (2019, Adrian Grunberg)

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The fifth and (presumably) final film in the action franchise, Rambo: Last Blood is distributed by Lionsgate. When his niece Gabriela (Yvette Monreal) is kidnapped in Mexico by sex-traffickers, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) goes on a mission to save her and kill her kidnappers. While the Vietnam veteran may be getting old, he is going to prove that he is tough to stop when on a mission.

CONS

  • A highly unoriginal narrative, which is a very half-hearted amalgamation/rip-off of Taken and Home Alone that is predictable and lacks tension as a result.
  • A problematic film to say the least, with the fact that it is gratuitously violent actually being less problematic than the fact that the film is quite xenophobic at times towards Mexicans, while the narrative embraces aspects of toxic masculinity.
  • Bar the sympathy that we feel for Rambo, there is a lot of weak characterisation (including subplots and backstories which really do not go anywhere at all), and a wooden cast, with a supporting cast who seem frustrated and bored to be there (the dialogue feels incredibly forced), and Sylvester Stallone mumbles more than ever (which is especially disappointing after his terrific performance in the recent Creed films).
  • The action sequences are not that creatively shot or edited, and are quite predictable thanks to their Home Alone style booby trap catalysts, meaning that they are also quite dull and unexciting to watch.

PROS

  • We do feel sympathy for Rambo as the situation is a horrific one, and Sylvester Stallone does convey well through his face just how much Gabriela means to the Vietnam veteran.
  • Detailed and vivid use of make-up creates some harrowing imagery of people who are in real suffering (all I can say without dropping a spoiler), while also making the gory moments and injury detail quite shocking.

VERDICT: 2/10

Box Office Results: Summer 2019 films

So, back in late April I made my predictions for the ten highest grossing films worldwide of the summer 2019 crop. Five months later and summer is over, and all of the summer films have had their main go at the box office. So let us take a look at how I did…

My predictions for the ten highest grossing films worldwide of summer 2019 were…

  1. Avengers: Endgame
  2. Toy Story 4
  3. Spider-Man: Far From Home
  4. Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw
  5. The Secret Life of Pets 2
  6. Pokémon Detective Pikachu
  7. The Lion King
  8. X-Men: Dark Phoenix
  9. Rocketman
  10. Aladdin

The actual ten highest grossing films worldwide of summer 2019 were…

  1. Avengers: Endgame
  2. The Lion King
  3. Spider-Man: Far From Home
  4. Toy Story 4
  5. Aladdin
  6. Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw
  7. Pokémon Detective Pikachu
  8. The Secret Life of Pets 2
  9. Godzilla: King of the Monsters
  10. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

So…in total I got 8/10 correct where predicted titles are concerned, but where rankings are concerned I only got a mere 2/10 correct. That is quite possibly the worst I have ever done in my summer box office predictions – it is certainly a lot worse than I did last year (the first year in which I blogged about my predictions). However, with hindsight, it is no wonder that I did not do that well, given how many unforeseen things happened this summer. After the disappointing box office revenue for Dumbo, I could not believe that The Lion King and Aladdin each grossed over $1 billion worldwide, as Dumbo indicated that audiences were getting far less receptive towards Disney remakes.

I knew that X-Men: Dark Phoenix would be one of the lower grossing X-Men films, as recent years have seen the franchise be subjected to the law of diminishing returns, but for it to actually be a box office flop came as a real surprise (it came 13th at the worldwide summer box office). The biggest surprise, however, was just how big a hit Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood turned out to be. I knew that it would do well – a Tarantino film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, that was a no-brainer. However, its 18 certificate in the UK and R certificate in the US automatically impact its chances at mega box office revenue due to the much more limited number of people who could actually see it in cinemas (although I am awfully pleased that it did so well).

So, that is another summer done and dusted, and I fully intend to do this whole prediction…thing…again next summer.

FILM: The Kitchen (2019, Andrea Berloff)

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Based on the Vertigo comic book miniseries of the same title, crime film The Kitchen is distributed by Warner Bros. Hell’s Kitchen, 1978 – when three members of the Irish mob are imprisoned, their wives (Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss and Tiffany Haddish) struggle to make ends meet. However, when they learn that local businesses are not getting the protection that they pay for, the three women begin their own protection enforcement for local businesses. As the women go ever deeper into a life of crime, however, their morality goes into decline, as does their safety as they risk the wrath of other mobsters.

CONS

  • An incredibly convoluted narrative, which has multiple subplots that do not really go anywhere and is also very padded-out, with many scenes taking far longer due to a slow pace and very clunky dialogue that feels forced a lot of the time, before culminating in a pathetic twist.
  • The awful pacing is best exemplified by the fact that so many scenes are pavement scenes, with casual strolls having the same pace as chases, filmed in long takes (meaning a real lack of tension when combined with the slow pace) which could each be cut by at least 10 seconds without impacting the narrative.
  • The fact that the characterisation is shockingly poor is bad enough, with only the bare minimum backstory given to any character, but that is pales in comparison next to the sickening fact that the screenplay trivialises child abuse and attempted rape, as well as the psychological toll that such things have long-term.
  • Much of the narrative is spent discussing mob life as opposed to showing it, and resultantly director Andrea Berloff comes across as uncertain in her role, as though she went for expositional dialogue as it seemed easier than depicting certain aspects of mob life.
  • An altogether weak supporting cast with a number of poor performances (including Brian d’Arcy James, Margo Martindale and Wayne Duvall), while most of the supporting cast are also rather underused (including James Badge Dale, Bill Camp and Common).

PROS

  • The three central performances are all good, the stand-out being Elisabeth Moss, if nothing else because she gets the most material to work with.

VERDICT: 1/10

FILM: Ad Astra (2019, James Gray)

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Science-fiction film Ad Astra is distributed by 20th Century Fox, following its premiere at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. Sixteen years after his astronaut father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) went missing in the vicinity of Neptune while on a mission, astronaut Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent on a mission to Neptune after mysterious power surges that threaten human life come from that vicinity. The U.S. Space Command suspect that Clifford may be alive, but for Roy this mission is about far more than stopping the power surges – it is about getting closure on his father.

PROS

  • A compelling and, for the most part, gripping narrative, which offers a fascinating depiction of a not-too-distant future that is simultaneously comprehensible and complex in different ways, and which grapples with weighty themes such as mankind’s fascination with innovation and the pursuit of knowledge, consumerism, repression and faith.
  • Visually this is the most breathtaking film of 2019 so far, which emphasises just how small and insignificant Earth ultimately is in the greater recesses of the universe. As for cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, he values the breathtaking long shots of the Solar System in equal measure to the intimate close-ups of Roy’s emotional journey, to the confined interior shots of a ship.
  • Ingenious work by the sound department, who ensure authenticity by not featuring sound in space, rather they create the vibrations which Roy feels, and that really brings us into his journey in a wholly realistic way.
  • A fantastic central performance from Brad Pitt, who is very stoic and in being so conveys the fact that Roy is really battling a sense of inner turmoil and trying to repress his true feelings over a difficult situation. Meanwhile, Tommy Lee Jones steals his scenes, conveying a sense of madness through eyes which stare ahead, obsessively never moving from the subject of his gaze.

CONS

  • In some scenes the film feels a little style over substance, including a space pirate chase on the Moon (visually stunning but ultimately adds nothing), and a zero-gravity fight scene (technically masterful but lacking tension).
  • Several underused supporting cast members, most notably Liv Tyler, who plays Roy’s wife and, as such, their relationship is explored at a surface-level depth, its complexities touched upon in expositional dialogue.

VERDICT: 8/10

SHORT FILM: Battle at Big Rock (2019, Colin Trevorrow)

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Science-fiction short film Battle at Big Rock is a spin-off from the Jurassic World films and was distributed on the TV station FX by Universal, before being uploaded to the Jurassic World YouTube Channel. A year after the events of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, a step-family living in a trailer park are put in mortal danger when they get caught between two fighting dinosaurs…one of which is the carnivorous Allosaurus.

PROS

  • A well realised familial dynamic drives the narrative, while also building anticipation for the next Jurassic World film by showing in a down-to-Earth manner what humans and dinosaurs co-existing could look like.
  • The central human cast have a great chemistry with each other and convey the familial dynamic very well, although the stand-out is the young child actress Melody Hurd, whose performance is very dynamic and down-to-Earth.
  • Once again the prehistoric creatures are brought to big screen life by spectacular visual effects, while cinematographer Larry Fong makes excellent use of the low-lighting of nighttime and claustrophobic, interior sets.

CONS

  • At barely 8 minutes long, this short film’s biggest downfall really is its runtime. The narrative does feel just a little bit rushed and its ending slightly abrupt, while having to tell such a tale in such a short time does make it a little predictable.

VERDICT: 8/10

Top 10 Family Guy Supporting Characters

The Family Guy logo: bold blue letters in all caps spelling out "Family Guy" with a small cartoon antenna television used to dot the "i" in "Family"

Since 1999 Family Guy has easily been one of the most controversial cartoons of all time, yet it has still accumulated a big fan base. It has an eclectic cast of characters, and favourites such as Joe, Cleveland and Quagmire have transcended their supporting character status to (arguably) become part of the main cast. Even when they are considered main characters though, there are 10 great supporting characters who have helped make the series what it is, and for that reason I wrote a piece on those 10 characters for Cultured Vultures earlier this year.

Top 30 Simpsons Supporting Characters

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Since 1989, the titular Simpson family have been some of the most beloved cartoon characters of all-time. However, the long-running series would not have been the same without the enormous ensemble of supporting characters. From Barney and Moe to Burns and Smithers, from Skinner and Krabappel to Milhouse and Ralph, from Ned and Apu to Selma and Moleman, there are countless great supporting characters in The Simpsons, and for that reason I wrote this piece earlier this year for Cultured Vultures on the Top 30.