Tag Archives: B+

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

Producer: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Christopher Lemole, Tim Zajaros, Lije Sarki and David Thies
Director: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Writer: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, Jon Bernthal, Wayne DeHart, Jake "Thr Snake" Roberts, Mick Foley and Yelawolf
Studio: Roadside Attractions

B+

A picaresque journey from Virginia to Florida with some unlikely traveling companions, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a small film with a big heart. It is also notable for a casting choice that gives it special distinction, though one hopes that it’s one that will become less extraordinary in the future.

It involves Zack Gottsagen, who plays Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome who has been placed in a nursing home in Richmond because the state has no other facility in which he can be housed. Gottsagen actually has the condition.

Frustrated after spending years in the home in spite of the kindness shown him by sympathetic nurse Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak engineers his escape with the help of his cantankerous roommate Carl (Bruce Dern, as usual delightfully crabby), though it leaves him clothed only in his underwear. His aim is not merely freedom, but the fulfillment of a dream to study pro wrestling at a Georgia school run by his idol Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), a grappler whom he’s watched obsessively on old video tapes.

Meanwhile Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman struggling to make ends meet since the death of his brother Mark (Jon Bernthal, seen only in flashback), falls afoul of his nasty rival Duncan (John Hawkes), and retaliates by releasing the guy’s catch of crabs. He then flees in his rusty old boat, with Duncan and his minion Ratboy (Yelawolf) in pursuit.

What Tyler doesn’t know is that Zak has hidden himself under a tarp on the boat. And when he does discover the young man, he’s not at all pleased. But he reluctantly takes the young man under his wing, teaching him to swim and shoot a gun along the way, and they develop a fraternal bond.. Traveling by boat, raft, and on foot, they proceed down the Virginia and Carolina coasts, but not entirely alone: Eleanor catches up with them and creates a threesome. But of course there’s always the danger that Duncan and Ratboy will show up as well.

In his chance meeting with Eleanor at a general store, Tyler mentions that the young man she’s seeking might be living his own version of a Mark Twain story like Huckleberry Finn, and that’s precisely what “Falcon” is; and while it might not match its model (what movie could?), it’s a genial modern variant. It too is episodic, making room for vignettes along the way, the best probably being an encounter with a pistol-packing blind man (Wayne DeHart), who insists on baptizing them before giving them provisions to continue their odyssey.

The essence of the tale, however, is the relationship that develops between Zak and Tyler, and as played by the open-faced, enthusiastic, utterly committed Gottsagen and LaBeouf, who morphs with considerable nuance from the surly young man of his first scenes to the caring fellow of the final act, it’s a touching one. This is the story of Tyler’s redemption as well as Zak’s engagement with the world, and LaBeouf makes it credible. Johnson’s Eleanor has less shading than her eventual companions, but the actress endows her with the necessary sweetness.

The movie culminates, of course, with the trio’s arrival at the wrestling school, which is hardly the thriving enterprise that Zak expects. But Salt Water (an engagingly crusty cameo by Church) proves as open to his would-be student’s charms as Eleanor and Tyler, and enlists others—played by Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley, elder statesmen in the pro wrestling world—to help Zak realize his dream, though the outcome avoids the note of easy triumph one might anticipate.

Directed in a gentle, unfussy manner by first-timers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who wrote the script with Gottsagen in mind, “Falcon” boasts a production design (by Gabrael Wilson) that captures the seediness of the surroundings without overemphasizing it, and naturalistic cinematography by Nigel Bluck, and moves at unforced but not languid pace thanks to the editing by Kevin Tent and Nathaniel Fuller. The music by Jonathan Sadoff, Zachary Dawes, Noam Pilekny and Gabe Witcher is supportive, not intrusive.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon”—the title comes from the name Zak chooses for his wrestling persona—is a lovely tale of an unusual friendship, one that earns your affection rather than demanding it.

THE FAREWELL

Producer: Danielle Melia, Peter Saraf, Marc Turteltaub, Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz, Jane Zheng, Lulu Wang and Anita Gou
Director: Lulu Wang
Writer: Lulu Wang
Stars: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, Li Liang, Jim Liu and Chen Hanwei
Studio: A24 Films

B+

Deception is at the heart of writer-director Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” a comedy-drama based on her own family’s experience surrounding the illness of her grandmother. But the film’s deception does not extend to its promise to warm the hearts of viewers. In that it succeeds without question.

Wang’s semi-surrogate Billi is played by Awkwafina. Billi has been living with her father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and mother Jian (Diana Lin) in New York for years, and is almost fully Americanized. She’s just found out that she’s been turned down for a Guggenheim fellowship, though she keeps that to herself.

But there’s a larger secret in the family. Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), the grandmother back in Changchun with whom Billi’s maintained a very close relationship, has been suffering from a bad cough, and when she undergoes tests, she’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The results, however, are given to her younger sister (Lu Hong), who decides that the truth should be kept from Nai Nai, so that she can enjoy what time remains to her as normally as possible. So Nai Nai thinks she’s just suffering from the aftereffects of a bad cold.

Billi doubts the wisdom of the decision to keep her grandma in the dark, and her parents think it best, given her inability to keep her emotions in check, that she not come along to a reunion the family is preparing in Changchun, purportedly to celebrate the nuptials of Haohao (Chen Hao), the son of Haiyan’s older brother Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), to his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), but actually to give everyone the chance to say goodbye to Nai Nai. Billi, of course, decides to attend anyway, and goes along with the family’s plan despite her reservations, though it’s hard for her to do so.

The wedding party, which Nai Nai naturally takes charge of, is the movie’s centerpiece, and it includes boozy speeches by many of the family members that straddle the line between celebration and sadness. Nai Nai remains ebullient throughout it all, and it’s revealed that when her husband was terminally ill, she kept the fact from him until he was at point of death (she’s since taken in an elderly man named Li as a roommate, who pads about the apartment); so the practice, it seems, is a sort of family tradition that’s apparently also an accepted practice in a culture from which Billi has become increasingly estranged.

There’s a goodly amount of poignancy in “The Farewell”—how could it be otherwise, given the utterly winning performance of Zhao, who entirely inhabits the part of the busybody Nai Nai, and a surprisingly affecting one from Awkwafina, who brings pathos as well as humor to Billi? But the remaining cast excels as well. Ma brings a tone of world-weariness to Billi’s easygoing dad that seems just right, particularly when joined to Lin’s turn as his no-nonsense wife, with whom Billi shares a potent dramatic moment about controlling one’s feelings. As for the comedy, it would be hard to outdo Han, whose terrified goofiness in the face of a marriage he’s obviously unready for culminates in a total collapse at the ceremonial meal. It’s the culmination of a celebration at which a great deal of alcohol flows.

Technically “The Farewell” is more utilitarian than artsy, but the Changchun locations bring a strong sense of authenticity to the story, nicely captured in Yong Ok Lee’s production design and Anna Franquesa’s cinematography. Alex Weston’s score can get a bit syrupy at times, but it’s not really an irritant.

Funny without getting coarse and touching without becoming mawkish, “The Farewell” is a moving tale of a young woman coming to terms with both her grandmother’s mortality and her own uneasy place between two cultures.