Always Be My Maybe (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
Here is yet another romantic comedy with a mostly Asian cast that stinks of cable TV quality. In the middle of it, although I was enjoying the chemistry between Ali Wong and Randall Park, I could not help but wonder why the material must consistently rely on the same old tropes that white Hollywood has recycled thousands of times before. There is nothing original about it. And so despite all the delectable soup, the spicy ramen, the spam and rice, and the fact that characters leave their shoes by the front door when entering a home, the overall experience that “Always Be My Maybe” offers is vanilla, unmemorable, and a big disappointment.
It is not without some redeeming qualities. For a while the screenplay introduces the possibility that because Sasha and Marcus, friends since childhood but had grown apart after a big fight during senior year of high school, have become so different from one another after sixteen years, there remain signs that the story may not end up the way we think or want. The former has gone on to become a celebrity chef who lives in Los Angeles while the latter has chosen to remain in San Francisco in order to take care of his aging father. The tension between a highly ambitious individual and someone who has found happiness in his hometown brings up the question of whether the two—although they are cute together—are actually right for each other in the long run.
However, this question is not dealt with enough focus, clarity, and consistently intelligent or refreshing writing. Instead, we are bombarded with the usual clichés involving the protagonists having a boyfriend or girlfriend who is clearly not right for either of them, snarky supporting characters who make an appearance to say one amusing line of dialogue only to disappear again for long periods of time, and the usual drama about having to win back that special someone by traveling across the country and making a speech in front of everyone. It is all so tired, exhausting, boring, and interminable. I checked my watch at least three times.
Perhaps the best thing about the film is a cameo of an actor who has done great work from the mid-80s till today. He graces the screen for about fifteen minutes and completely pulls the rug from those who are supposed to be the main stars. It is such an unexpected small role, but it stands out. The character he plays is a walking exaggeration… but his approach, for the most part, is far from it. He internalizes the comedy and combines it with pitch-perfect comic timing. And that is why the funniest scenes are the ones with him in it. Too bad the rest of the picture is a drag.
“Always Be My Maybe,” directed by Nahnatchka Khan, lacks authenticity that runs deep—and not just in terms of the romantic aspect of the story. There are jokes, for instance, about gentrification in San Francisco, highly affluent people dressing down, and the types of ridiculous food served in posh restaurants. It all feels so forced; these are low hanging fruit served to the audience without much creativity or enthusiasm. Jokes about the lifestyles and the people with whom we are supposed to care about would have been more appropriate. The story, after all, is supposed to be about them.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Fire” is the first Indian film that explicity depicted acts of homosexuality (specifically lesbians) on film and that alone deserves recognition. From beginning to end, I was interested in the picture because Shabana Azmi is often torn between what she wants to do for herself and her duties as a wife and a woman. Nandita Das finds out that her husband (Javed Jaffrey) is having an affair and that inner turmoil that she experiences lead to her discovery about what she really wants in life. Azmi and Das’ initial common bond was unhappiness which quickly evolved into something more. Even though this film is stripped down due to its limited budget, the writing is pretty powerful. It manages to use flashbacks, folk stories and comedy in order maintain the film’s focus. Those three elements were used to elucidate the literal and symbolic meanings of fire; why it can be a friend or an enemy, how it can make one feel so alive or exiled. Whenever Azmi and Das interacted, I could feel their passion and yearning to break away from society’s norms but at the same time hold on to what they have. Their affair does not stay hidden for long so they are forced to choose between unhappy familiarity and exciting uncertainty. I was also impressed with this movie because it was honest in its portrayal of homosexuality. Deepa Mehta, the writer and director, was careful about molding the lives of the main characters; she makes her characters rise above being lesbians and actually lead lives that are otherwise normal and traditional. I thought the most powerful scenes were saved in the last twenty minutes. When it was over, I understood what the title really meant. A lot of people might dismiss this film for being too slow or being too depressing or actively defying the traditional Indian culture. I can only agree with the last bit but that’s a good thing because it offers something new. It goes to show that homosexuality exists across cultures and it shouldn’t be taboo.
★★★★ / ★★★★
This documentary focuses on the students at Stuyvesant High School–the most competitive high school in America–and how they campaigned to be the student body president. What I love about this documentary is its very naturalistic feel. I felt like I was back in high school during the classroom and hallway scenes–none of that “Gossip Girl” glamour and serialized drama that’s all over the CW and MTV nowadays. Since most of the students are very intelligent book-wise (the school’s average SAT score is 1400, if that means anything), I was interested to see how the race would be different to “typical” high schools in the United States. Upon watching this film, I thought it wasn’t really all that different except that the students here are more articulate, even though some of them do not yet know how to correctly use some vocabulary words in a sentence. While there are four candidates, the film focuses on three because one barely put the effort into campaigning. After the primaries were over, the competition got a lot tougher and it was much harder to determine who was going to win. In the first five minutes, I had an idea (more like a bet) on who was going to win but as the film went on, that person’s flaws political-wise became apparent to me to the point where I wasn’t sure if he or she is the right person to lead the student body. I also liked the fact that Caroline Suh, the director, did not shy away when students started talking about the importance of race in the election because the majority of the school is Asian-American (as did my high school). Suh astutely divided the time between the (initially) three bona fide candidates and I felt like I got to know them in some way. Even though the candidates themselves are very flawed, that’s what makes them fascinating to watch. “Frontrunners” and “American Teen” are both documentaries but are very different in many ways. However, if one enjoyed “American Teen,” she will most likely enjoy “Frontrunners.” Ultimately, my favorite theme that this documentary tried to tackle was the idea of hardwork sometimes not being enough to acquire something. To me, the most heartbreaking scene in this film was the reaction of the student who didn’t make it to the final two. That was a prime example of the common conception of America being a land of competition.
Gran Torino (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I honestly thought this movie was going to end up a dud because the previews looked really preachy. But after about fifteen minutes into the film, I really cared for Clint Eastwood’s character even though he’s racist and a very secretive person. I knew he would open up a bit after meeting his Hmong neighbors but I wanted to see his struggles before becoming a better person. Eastwood’s character made me laugh even though he uses every racist Asian term because we are made to understand what he’s been through and how conflicted he is by people who do not look like him. The way he interacted with the Hmongs during a party was done in a bona fide manner, such as when the older women kept putting food on his plate. As part of the Asian community, that rings true whenever there’s a special occasion, especially when others think that you’re too skinny. The film was at its best whenever Eastwood’s character would interact with Ahney Her and Bee Vang; we come to realize that he treats them like a daughter and son, respectively, more than his blood relatives, and they treat him more like a father or a grandfather more than anyone else. There was a point in the film when Eastwood admitted that he finds more similarities with his ethnic neighbors than with his own flesh and blood. I think a lot of people feel that way especially when they don’t feel like they are appreciated despite their flaws. In a way, Eastwood’s character reminded me of my late grandfather. Even though my grandfather was not strict, he resembled Eastwood’s mannerisms such as his intimidating growl and the way he walked. As much as I loved the comedic moments, the dramatic elements are also very involving. The scenes which feature the Hmong gangs and the things they are capable of are both scary and heartbreaking. (I’m amazed by some people on IMDB who claim that Asian gangs don’t exist. Yes, they do exist.) I thought the ending was perfectly handled because it shows how much Eastwood’s character has grown and what he is willing to do for the kids who taught him how to feel more alive and connected. In the end, we realize what the Gran Torino is supposed to symbolize. Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino” is rumored to be his last film. If it is, I think his fans will (or should be) proud of this film. If it isn’t, then I’m excited for what he will come up with in the future.