The Farewell is a subtle masterpiece about family and friendship, love and loss. Director Lulu Wang has also created something more moving than just about anything I've seen so far this year. The time is the present day, the place is China, and the hero, a sassy 20-something named Billi (Awkwafina, coming off Crazy Rich Asians), decides to leave Brooklyn and return to her hometown to care for her dying grandmother. The catch is that no one's going to tell Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) about her terminal condition. We are informed this is normal in China—along with fake weddings, fake funerals and fake yoga. But there's nothing fake about this movie. Based on Wang's own experience, this is a profoundly honest and improbably lovable meditation on family obligation, as well as the differences between Eastern and Western thinking. Billi wants to tell Nai Nai about her condition; the rest of the family doesn't. What Wang does best is make this foreign problem relatable. Thanks to an observant camera and well-drawn characters, it isn't hard to see your own family members in place of those in The Farewell. Nor is it hard to admire the gentle, Yasujiro Ozu-like pacing. Everything seems to happen in real time. In one touching scene, we see Nai Nai and Billi bonding, karate chopping their way through the streets to "intake oxygen." Little do they know their budding friendship is a breath of fresh air for all of us. R. ASHER LUBERTO. Cinema 21.
The Art of Self-Defense
No Retreat, No Surrender by way of The Lobster, The Art of Self-Defense and its lightly dystopic dojo might be the year's strangest genre mashup. Jesse Eisenberg plays Casey, a slight, awkward young man who's even slighter and more awkward than the standard Eisenberg protagonist. Recuperating from a violent mugging, Casey adopts an all-consuming passion for karate classes in the film's oddly vacant universe (no specific place or year, though all the technology appears to be from 1989). As Casey's sensei (Alessandro Nivola) begins challenging his students to wilder feats of violence, a Fight Club parallel arises. But instead of purging all the machismo toxins with a satirical squeeze, writer-director Riley Stearns imprints them with absurd directness onto Casey's blank canvas. The result is laudable for its creativity but tonally and thematically confusing. Characters simply read the film's subtext out loud with mixed comedic results. One particular teacher's pet joke rises above everything else in the film, but less effective versions include Sensei advising Casey in an unshakable monotone to listen to metal music because it's "the most masculine." The Art of Self-Defense ultimately becomes a low-octane indie version of the '80s martial arts thriller that it's half-skewering but is saddled with too much rigid self-awareness and script baggage to fight freely. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Bridgeport, Clackamas, Fox Tower.
Sword of Trust
The upswing of Seattle native and indie auteur Lynn Shelton's new film is her observant, ambitious storytelling at its best. Sword of Trust successfully conceals a ludicrous comedic premise inside the dusty drudgery of a Birmingham, Ala., pawn shop and an unremarkable house left behind by a dead grandfather. But in that house lies a Union Army sword left to the proprietor's granddaughter (Jillian Bell), and in that sword lies the opportunity to make a buck off pawnshop keeper Mel (Marc Maron)—that is, if he'll pony up for the cutlass given its bizarre backstory, which suggests the South actually won the Civil War. It's a wild comedic idea given dimensionality by the quality of actors facing off with Maron's rankled skepticism, namely Michaela Watkins, and, in the film's best scene, Shelton herself. Unfortunately, Sword of Trust's back half is dissonant slapstick by comparison, as though Shelton can't help but upshift into the sitcom space in which she's worked so prolifically of late. A hare-brained Confederate farce besieges Maron and company that doesn't stem from the deeper character writing of which Shelton is certainly capable. Though never unpleasant—after all, it's Maron reunited with some of his best podcast interviewees—Sword of Trust ends up feeling more like a recessed charade than the measured adventure it promises. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Living Room.
In Alex Holmes' documentary about the first all-woman crew to sail around the world, skipper Tracy Edwards tells us her heart was pounding out of her shirt during the race's final leg. Yours will do the same throughout this exhilarating story about the young team that made international headlines during the 1989-90 competition. Edwards is the perfect underdog. As the product of a rough upbringing, she sees sailing as a way to leave her troubled past on shore. But there's a problem: The male crews avoid her like the plague. That makes it easy for the audience to root for her when she decides to pull together her own team to race against the turbulent winds of misogyny. Found footage and news interviews provide plenty of evidence of the era's sexism. The archival material also gives viewers incredible shots of the Maiden yacht piercing the stormy seas, not unlike the way the crew proved everyone wrong time and time again. You don't have to be a woman to find this trip inspiring, just as you don't have to be a sailor to find the documentary invigorating. Holmes and editor Katie Bryer give the 45,000-mile journey a breezy pace. And by banking on the fact that few viewers will have much prior knowledge about the event then known as the Whitbread Round the World Race, they bring some much-needed tension to the narrative as well. By the time the tear-jerking finale arrives, you will be grateful Holmes brought you along for the ride. R. ASHER LUBERTO. Cinema 21.
The Fall of the American Empire
It's been a minute since I saw a movie that's as much of a mishmash as The Fall of the American Empire. The crime movie by French Canadian director Denys Arcand (The Barbarian Invasions, Days of Darkness) is about a lot of stuff that comes at you all at once. The plot centers on a philosophical package delivery man who stumbles across a robbery gone wrong and ends up with two massive bags of cash. With the help of an escort and a biker with an MBA who just got out of jail, he attempts to launder the money while the Québécois underworld tries to track down the loot. On paper, this sounds like a stylish, modern thriller. But it really isn't. The camera is still, the edits are flabby, and the performances go for (and fail at) naturalism. Arcand ends up overextending the crime-movie motif by trying to fashion a sedate tale about morality, which is an interesting premise, but this flatly acted heap of malaise doesn't do the idea justice. R. CORBIN SMITH. Fox Tower.