Friday, July 7, 2023

Film Reviews: In Summer Cinema: A Funny, All-Asian Sex Comedy (“Joy Ride”), an Unnecessary Trip Down Memory Lane (“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”) and a Sweet Coming-of-Age Journey (“Sublime”)

Joy Ride (c) Lionsgate Film

Film: Joy Ride 
In Theaters 

After the success of Crazy Rich Asians, it would only seem inevitable that the Asians would get their own gross out, road trip film in the style of The Hangover, Bridesmaids and Girls Trip. This formula is already set: four to five friends go on a wacky time-sensitive mission, testing the friendship of the two main characters, with a square friend who gets to experience some crazy shit and a wacky distant relative who’s a no-holds barred loose cannon. That Joy Ride, with Seth Rogen producing and Crazy Rich Asians co-writer Adele Lim directing, adheres to this formula so tightly it’s sort of a disappointment. It felt like they took a screenplay and sort of mad-lib dropped in references to Splinter the Rat, those waving Maneki-nekos cats and KPOP, added Boba Tea, stirred and voila, a hard R-rated generic comedy with an Asian twist. But the screenplay by Family Guy vets Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao and, especially, the four talented actors elevate the material to at least gross in an Asian way, as the crew is game enough to dive deep into the drug-induced, vomit-soaked, sexually charged muck that are hallmarks of these films. Audrey (Ashley Park) and Lolo (Sherry Cola) are best friends who were the only Asian kids growing up in White Hills, Oregon. Audrey needs to close a deal with a Chinese company for work, and since she lied about speaking Chinese on her résumé (she was adopted from China by a white couple), she asks Lolo to come and help translate. Hitching a ride is Lolo’s nonbinary cousin Dead Eye (Sabrina Wu), who is socially awkward but game for anything (think Zack Galifianakis with Awkwafina’s hair style from Crazy Rich Asians), as well as Audrey’s college friend Kat (recent Oscar-nominee Stephanie Hsu), a rising soap opera actress in China who keeps up a vanilla façade for her Christian boyfriend. Also, the whole language barrier excuse is thrown out the window in China as Mandarin, Cantonese and English are used willy-nilly throughout. The joy rides these four friends get into are just one over-the-top, non-sequitur episode after another, including a drunken night at a bar, getting blackmailed into taking copious amounts of cocaine, a run-in with a hot multicultural traveling basketball team, and a KPOP-Cardi B mashup (KWAP, if you will) music video at an airport. All this is hysterically done, but the writers also try to keep some semblance of a serious plot regarding Audrey’s Asian card and if she’s deserving as it seems she seemingly rejects everything about her biological heritage. Instead of a crazy blow-out finale, the film opts for sentimental diversion for Audrey and a character played by Daniel Dae-Kim, which is a nice surprise, although it feels beamed in from another film. Still, there’s a lot of crazy fun to be had in “Joy Ride” and I look forward to more boundary-pushing humor in the eventual sequel. 

Sublime (c) Cinephobia Releasing

Film: Sublime 
On Demand Streaming 

Ahh, the unrequited love of a teenager for his best friend. It hurts more than most crushes because the one person you confide in the most is the one person you can’t talk to about it. In Sublime, the latest coming-of-age film of this genre, Manu (Martín Miller) and Felipe (Teo Inama Chiabrando) are two friends who were inseparable as young kids. But now, as their hormones finally kick in, things take an unexpected turn. Both boys have girlfriends and they both look forward to going all the way with them in an abandoned van in a nearby field. But Manu, still in braces and smaller than most of his class, suddenly realizes he has more feelings for Felipe than for his girlfriend, which confuses him on this night in the van. It all feels like fan fiction-shipping of Jughead and Archie (which Manu and Felipe’s relationship is most analogous to), and that’s in the gentle tone of this eventual revelation. However, what sets this film apart is this angsty hiccup is just one of many plot threads in director Mariano Biasin’s breezy, almost idealized slice of Argentinian life. The main plot is the boys are in a band and have to write a new song before a big, upcoming gig. The song bears a lot of symbolic and portentous weight for the film’s themes (not for nothing it is set at a beach as is Sublime’s finale). Comparisons to the wonderful TV series Heartstopper is inevitable, not just because of the first season finale also at a beach. When Manu finally verbalizes his confusion to a friend, the reaction is less homophobic as it is just a surprise. Hopefully, these coming out films will soon become unnecessary, but then again, in this new conservative and divisive climate, maybe this accepting societal norm is not as close to reality as we hope. Both actors bring a natural ease to their roles, and I wish there could have been more bonding scenes between them that didn’t involve the band and their many, many rehearsals. After a run at many gay film festivals, this quiet gem has finally been released on streaming. And much like Beautiful Thing, one of the seminal queer teen comfort films of the 1990s, Sublime should find its equivalent, niche audience for a new generation. 

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (c) Walt Disney Studios

Film: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny 
In Theaters 

There’s a moment in the fifth installment of the Indiana Jones film series when, after a huge chase scene in Morocco, I distinctly heard the actor Harrison Ford say “I just want to die.” Of course, what Ford’s character of Indiana Jones actually said was “I just want the dial,” but after what is probably the third of five or six set pieces in which Indiana Jones (as ironically and gamely played by Ford) had jumped off moving vehicles, punched people at high speeds and driven cars on to streets filled with tourists that would wind a young man, Ford and Jones, who are both 80 years old are probably over it. Even knowing the movie magic use of stand-ins and stunt people, I still couldn’t get past the conceit that both of these men could do all that with only a minimal amount of groans and band-aids. I am not being a curmudgeon because the theme of old age comes up plenty of times in the film, which takes place in 1969 as poor Indy is living by himself in New York and about to retire from teaching archeology at Hunter College. On the day of the big ticker-tape parade for the astronauts of the moon landing, he reunites with Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), the daughter of his old friend Basil (Toby Jones), who is on the hunt for the Dial of Destiny (or the Antikythera for you nerds), a contraption of unknown powers that its creator, the Greek math guru Archimedes, in ye olden days broke in two. Also searching for the dial is Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), a Nazi scientist whom (a computer de-aged) Indy had a run-in with in an extended flashback to the end of WWII Germany over this same said MacGuffin. This leads to a lot of adventures in exotic locales, including a deep-sea diving boat with a criminally underused Antonio Banderas as its captain, before ultimately ending up at a boobytrap tomb from way back when. Up to the tomb sequence, the story by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and David Koepp sticks close to the Indiana Jones adventure formula, and director James Mangold, stepping in for Steven Spielberg, keeps everything at a fast if over-stimulated pace. The biggest problem is they make Indiana Jones a carbon copy of old Han Solo, in which he has relationship problems with the love of his life, has unresolved feeling about his son and is now paired up with a strong-willed, younger female equivalent. And the finale, which in this series typically trips into the realm of the fantastical (remember the melting faces of the ark and the crystal skull aliens?), goes a step too far into science fiction and is frankly an unbecoming last adventure for Indy. Even though the actual ending is quite nice and poignant, it's obvious the expiration date for this nostalgic send-off of this beloved character has long passed. The only sentimental remnants that lives up to the earlier films are John Williams’ swashbuckling and rousing score and Indy’s hat. It’s a good hat.

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