BLINDED BY THE LIGHT REVIEW

The film is much like a Springsteen song – a refuge for outcasts, people who feel stuck in their situation, and want a change.


MUSICAL(?)

I knew close to nothing going into this movie. I was surprised that it basically functioned as a musical if your definition of musical is a character needing to express their feelings through song. Except this time, it was Bruce Springsteen songs. That made it that the movie created an almost in between realm where some moments were real and dramatic while some were surrealistic and romantic.

Characters start dancing and singing along during a relatively normal scene. The choreography isn’t perfect and the singing sounds pretty normal. It feels like the characters could almost be joining along even if it weren’t a musical. The genre line between musical and not is tiptoed and carefully balanced. This leaves with more of an intimation or suggestion of a musical more than an actual musical. We can then focus on the songs themselves and the lyrics rather than the dancing, the showmanship and the technique.


BEING PAKISTANI IN 80s UK

Javed is a Pakistani boy from Luton (near but NOT London) who felt trapped in his life. Like Springsteen did to him, we were able to understand Javed’s experience because it hit on recognizable feelings of not being good enough, feeling trapped and wanting to break free. I do not know what it is like to be Pakistani in England in the 80s, but I do know the feelings of questioning myself and wanting a release and in that, Javed’s story becomes widely relatable for any who’s experienced those feelings too.

For a little history, the National Front in England is a fascist political party with an anti-Pakistani sentiment, who held riots and consisted of many “skinheads” followers. Pakistanis were treated like lower-class citizens, and Blinded By the Light doesn’t shy away from the abuse Pakistani families received. One scene depicts little boys peeing in mailboxes, something that happened so often [to that Pakistani family] that they splurged for a plastic carpet that was easier to clean the piss off of.

Those feelings, while unique to Javed’s experience, do mirror the Springsteen-ian angst of wanting to get out of their hometown. For the boss it was the ennui of the New Jersey working class lifestyle. For Javed, it was feeling trapped in not only his family but his skin color and roots.

The first song that connects Javed to Springsteen is “Dancing in the Dark”, which makes total sense. Lyrics appear on screen “I wanna change my hair, my clothes, my face” “Man, I’m just getting tired, tired and bored of myself” and of course “There’s something happening somewhere”. Javed finds solace in these words, and we find solace in Javed’s solace. He is a writer, holed up in his room, escaping the strict parenting of the household and this music is the first semblance of freedom and independence Javed’s been searching for.

Up till that point, writing has been Javed’s escape, but now it is Bruce Springsteen songs (introduced by a fellow Pakistani friend of his). Javed believes if he follows everything Bruce does, he will be able to extricate himself from the life he knows and become successful, like Bruce. In so, he tears off the sleeves of his shirts, buys jean jackets and adopts an all around denim look. And yet, by pushing his family away and seeing Bruce as his only savior he alienates the people who care about him.


COMING OF AGE

The Springsteen songs serves as a sort of trampoline for Javed to tackle his life and issues head on, fearlessly and energetically. This culminates in a life affirming trip to Asbury Park , NJ while the title song “Blinded by the Light” (the original, not the Manfred Mann version) plays in the background. But at the end of the day, this is a movie where we see the main character mature and see things from everybody’s perspective and not just his own.

He sees how his sister takes time out of the day to dance at a day-only student dance club. He empathizes with his father searching for work and his overworked mother trying to keep the family afloat.

“My dream is to build a bridge to my dreams, but not a wall between my family and me” – Javed

The lesson here is not that music is the answer, the panacea to life’s problems whether it be songs from the Boss or someone else. It’s that music can help guide us and realize our potential. Instead of trying to emulate someone else.

A fun movie with a nice message – ⭐⭐⭐⭐

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD REVIEW

This ode to late ’60s LA unfolds in an intriguing and humorous fashion. Brilliantly acted, with a kaleidoscopic plot, this movie falls under the realm of a fictionalized non-fiction – a good one.

Almost like sketches strung together, Once Upon A Time in… Hollywood shows vignettes of life behind the scenes, the backlot of LA in the time of the rising hippie. The splicing between stories, timelines, and the quick cuts harken back to a vintage Tarantino, coming closest to Pulp Fiction than any other Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction.

The flexible plot primarily follows Rick Dalton and Clint Booth as they navigate through the post high-point curve of their career. Rick is a TV cowboy with acting chops and an alcohol problem. Clint is his stuntman, deemed “too pretty to do stunts” by a fictionalized Bruce Lee. Brash personality and pretty face – something Brad Pitt pulls off wonderfully.

Plenty of things were detailed. Many real actors and character actors were portrayed in the movie, including the likes of TV stars, Steve McQueen and most importantly, Sharon Tate. Though the movie is more focused on her acting rather than her real life murder we all know about. We get to see sweet moments of Sharon Tate, her at home intimately snoring in bed or at the movie theaters where she convinces the clerk to let her in the movie since she was in it. And then, relishing in the public’s reactions to her scenes.

She is played by Margot Robbie, who plays her well, with a mix of innocence and free spirited-ness. Though she has little screen time, every scene she’s in is engaging and well developed.


SUSPENSE

The looming presence of Charles Manson and the Manson family creates a tense atmosphere. Our knowledge about the murder plays out with lingering suspense and this movie toys with that. This eerie feeling is enhanced through the music and the cinematography, making for some uneasy, voyeuristic scenes. An example is the scene where Rick is rehearsing his lines in his backyard pool and the camera pulls back, looking from above as if peeking over his gate.

Then there’s the intensity of some shots, like the scene at Spahn ranch. The music is beautifully heavy and the camera pans back and forth between Clint Booth and the growing number of hippies staring him down- as the audience starts to realize the hippies make up the Manson family. You think something bad is gonna happen and the aura of hedonism and destruction is in the air.

That being said, Tarantino knows we anticipate the murder, and toys with our emotions. He milks the suspense with no release. His toying with the suspense of the real and the fictionalized seems like something he is having fun with. But that is not the only thing Tarantino has fun with in this film.


BEHIND THE SCENES

Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood seems to be a vehicle for Tarantino to live out his fantasy of being a director in the Silver Age of Hollywood and also TV, and more precisely, Westerns. Tarantino had fun meticulously recreating scenes or inventing movies or even injecting Leo in some old reels. Cigarette ads included! (at the end), where we pull back the curtain and see Rick Dalton not liking what he’s endorsing.

Often times, there would be a “mise en abyme” or show within a movie which would play out as if the camera was used for both. There’s quite a funny scene where Rick Dalton plays a “heavy” (code for villain) and forgets his lines. His breaking is done in such an earnest way and self loathing way; after he tearfully declares that he “messed up the whole thing” and exclaims “Can’t we just cut?”, he snaps right back into character. In moments like these, you feel endearment towards the character, but also feel the immense quality of Leo’s acting.

“It’s official old buddy, I’m a has been.” – Rick Dalton

Leo Dicaprio plays a TV actor who’s down on his luck and worried about his future in the industry. More often we see women depicted as struggling with getting older and not so much men. In movies it seems that men need to feel relevant (or useful), and this is no different. In this tale, Rick is more affected by his irrelevance and proceeds to drink while rehearsing lines and beats himself up about it when he can’t remember it the following day. His descent is fueled by insecurity and alcoholism – which often go hand in hand.

But a case could be made that Cliff Booth is also the hero. Who exactly is the hero of this narrative? Hard to tell. We get a comparable amount of screen time for both Rick and Cliff and we see them equally in their personal lives, at home preparing food or drinks, on set or in danger. It’s hard to measure because the script gives space to DiCaprio and Pitt to show off their charisma as both Rick and Cliff.

Rick and Cliff are not likable people but compelling characters, therefore making them likable in the process. Audiences like flaws and get most involved when they see a protagonist grapple and struggle through life. In that sense, Rick seems to fit the profile of the flawed hero more as Booth tends to be more easy going and doesn’t mind not being in the metaphorical driver’s seat.


SWEET MOMENTS

Since it’s a Quentin Tarantino film, there was SOME violence but surprisingly, not that much. Unlike most of the Tarantino canon, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood actually has a lot of genuinely sweet and sincere moments.

In particular, there was a scene where Rick Dalton and a genius little girl strike up a friendly conversation on set. While he is on the down slope of his career, she is just learning the craft, but seemingly self-sufficient (she already knows a lot and stands up for herself.) When these two characters act in a scene together in the following scene, Rick does an improv in character which leads her to telling him: “that was the best acting I’ve ever scene”. Rick thanks her and then cries. It’s quite a sweet moment and more intimate than you would expect from this director.

There were also many funny moments where Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt could flex their comedic chops. The highlight is a scene where Pitt’s character, Cliff, is tripping on acid when intruders barge into Rick’s living room and encounter Cliff. Cliff doesn’t know what’s real and laughs off the reality. “Are you real?” “As real as a donut” the intruder (Tex from the Manson family) retorts. Then, Tex pulls a gun to his head, so Cliff – all the while laughing – pulls a finger gun on Tex and the dangerous vibes the intruder is trying to set is undercut by Cliff not taking him seriously. This unique and absurd scene is only one of the many larger than life sequences in this movie.

An extremely detailed and tantalizing portrait of 1960s hedonism in Hollywood. Funny, sincere and suspenseful – ⭐⭐⭐⭐

UKAI SUSHI REVIEW

The most consistently good Japanese Sushi restaurant in Chicago. Couldn’t recommend it high enough!

Ukai is always a treat to visit. Greeted by a sweet server who always remember my order, I feel comfortable every time I walk in.

The atmosphere is relaxed with a good music selection, and they are BYOB, though they have a good drink menu, too. Ukai is located near the Belmont Red and Brown line stop and available for ordering online.

Here’s a quick word about their selections, but there isn’t much to say because it is all so good!

Recommendations:

APPETIZERS

Tuna Salsa Dip OR simple Miso soup.

It’s hard to go wrong with nice tuna, but this is paired with mango, grapefruit and avocado, making it an eclectic treat!

Tuna Salsa Dip

As for the miso, it is done simply and tastefully. Hearty without too much salt, a good ratio of tofu to seaweed.

SUSHI

Pink Lady. One of my favorite combinations of flavors in sushi, period.

Pink Lady

Usually one isn’t enough and I have to order two of these because it just tastes so good! As a Ikura (salmon roe) fan, I appreciate the way it tops this salmon roll and it leaves a light flavor with a delicate mayo sauce, that, depending on the day you come in, can be varying levels of spicy.

They also have Chicago sports themed makis (Bulls, Bears, etc..) if you’re a fan of novelty!

If you’re not a sushi fan, try out their Dons (bowls) or their Yakitori (chicken skewers)!

DESSERT AND DRINKS

They also serve drinks, Remune (japanese soda) as a stand out.

For dessert, the green tea or mochi ice cream is worth a taste.

Friendly staff, great environment, delicately delicious food – ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Learn more here: https://ukaichicago.com/

THE FAREWELL REVIEW

The Farewell is a beautiful movie. From the artful cinematography to the cultural introspetion, Lulu Wang and co. will take you on an emotional journey.

The story revolves around Billi, who discovers her Nai Nai (grandmother, or more specifically “mother’s father”) is dying of cancer.

Billi is ethnically Chinese but has lived most of her life in New York. She speaks pretty good Mandarin, but with an American accent and a few semantic lapses. Though she grew up in China till she was 8, she definitely embodies the American mindset.

Her family, apart from immediate, has all stayed in East Asia. Mostly China, with the exception of her father’s brother (and his family), an artist who moved to Japan, but still considers himself Chinese before all.

Here’s where she differs from the rest of her family: THE LIE.


THE LIE

The lie is that the family has decided to not tell the grandmother that she is terminally ill (stage IV lung cancer) and instead, they will bear the burden of knowledge and try to keep her spirits up while she is alive.

They have gathered the family under the guise of a snappy wedding with Billi’s cousin and his girlfriend of 3 months. This serves as the explanation of why the family is all coming together at the same time.

Billi cannot grasp the concept of why her family would outwardly lie about the situation and the purpose of their visit, and, in her mind, this comes into conflict with all she knows (read: her more Western/US mindset). Her need to tell her grandmother seems to be more important than the family’s wish to tell keep the secret.

This clashing of mentality is central to the film. Throughout the feature, Billi has to not only come to terms with her family’s decision, but also respect it (and most importantly not judge it.) She seems to be navigating on her tip toes between trying to please her mother, father et. al and staying true to herself.

We don’t understand why Billi is so reticent to take on her family’s mindset and that isn’t explored much. She prefers to argue that this isn’t a good decision and doesn’t seem curious to know why they take care of matters that way. Most of the explanation of the why comes from her uncle (the artist in Japan).

There’s a comedically ironic moment when her uncle warns Billi repeatedly not to tell her grandmother about her condition. And yet, at the wedding, that same uncle gives an over the top emotional speech, almost spilling the beans. Oopsie..

However, there is never a scene where Billi bawls and breaks down crying as her character suggests she might, being portrayed with a reactive personality. She never cries about her Nai Nai and privately expresses her impending grief. The struggle and difficulty to understand the family lie is only verbal – speaking English to the doctor and going over her family to ask if this is unethical, the doctor responding that most families in China deal with cancer diagnoses this way. Though you could argue that inner struggle is not very cinematic, and more something suitable to a novel, The Farewell does parcels in moments where we see her hesitating before speaking, finally coming to terms with lying to her grandmother and not communicating in the same way as the culture where she spent most of her life.


FINAL VERDICT

All in all, this was an interesting exploration of cultural mindsets at-0dds with each other and a journey with emotional intensity and grace.

The acting was superb, my favorite being the Nai-Nai. She had a big range of emotions and all were believable. Whether it was showing her being scared at the hospital, and silly when playing games at the table, arguing about the wedding menu, worrying as grandmother’s do about everyone’s food intake, and being inspirational when teaching her granddaughter the beneficial practice of tai-chi. She was a well rounded character acted out beautifully.

The cinematography was also pleasant, seeing wide shots of the whole family walking together as a unit to the close-ups when the cousin starts to tear up, to juggling the round table debate – informational and sharp.

Life is not just about what you do. It’s more about how you do it.

Nai Nai

I’ll leave you with that. Well acted, interesting storyline, a good drama with moments of humor⭐⭐⭐⭐

SPIDERMAN: FAR FROM HOME REVIEW

This is an easy to watch film. It hits all the notes we want it to and has something for everyone: action, emotion and humor – it is worth the trip.

In “Spider-Man: Far From Home”, Peter Parker deals with the death of his mentor and father figure, awkwardly chases after his high school crush and saves the world, albeit reluctantly.

As with “Homecoming”, the Tom Holland era of Spider-Man is light, funny and good entertainment. It is closer to the more comedic and down to earth character portrayed in the original Marvel comic books.

In this one, Peter is back in high school and goes on a trip to Europe with his fellow classmates and bumbling idiot teachers.

It is very clear he wants to get some breathing space from superhero duties and just be a normal kid. An anti: “With great power comes great responsibility” if you will.

Instead, he is focused on THE PLAN.

THE PLAN = getting the girl he likes to notice him, read: MJ (played sharply by Zendaya). This plays out as a sweet an innocent unfolding of two teenagers who are still learning how to process their feelings and each want to communicate but can’t quite get there. The characters are treated with respect and their emotions and limitations are not played for laughs – as is sometimes the case when dealing with teenage romance.

Peter has no intentions of saving the day in this edition. He just wants to enjoy some down-time in picturesque cities and finds himself somehow roped into saving the day.

There is a twist in the movie for those who haven’t read the comics or know that much about the canon of Spider-Man, so if plot points are important to you, don’t read any more!!

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!

ACTION

The twist is Mysterio. Good ol’ Mysterio, one of the CLASSIC Spider-Man villains and most iconic of the whole œuvre.

As a master manipulator and illusionist, Mysterio makes Nick Fury, Spider-Man and the whole world believe that the Elementals (a group of 4 ravaging monsters based on the elements of fire, water, earth and air) are out to destroy the world, and only he can destroy them, with a little help of Spider-Man of course. His explanation includes a multiverse where his earth was destroyed by the Elementals so he travels to this one to stop them in time.

But even though he projects himself as the hero in the beginning of the movie, all the comic book fans knew it was for nefarious purposes, to manipulate the masses into believing he could be the next great big thing. He has patiently waited to fill the vacuum that Iron Man left with his death and sets to become the hero of the world. All from the comfort of a VR headset.

Since he operates drones that project a simulated reality, Mysterio choreographs quite stunning fight sequences ripe with insults, overwhelming villainy power, and starring him as a swashbuckling savior in the middle of it all.

One thing that is lacking is the motive for Mysterio’s take over of the world. It seems rushed in the movie and condensed into a melodramatic Black & White flashback and a throwaway line of: “I want the world to know the truth”. It does not feel strong enough and is the only part of the movie that seems underdeveloped.

The fight sequences, however, are very well done. The cinematography is active but not dizzying, jumping along with Spider-man and changing POVs quickly, but with ease.

The VR (virtual reality) illusion is timely and is used quite well, which also brings us to the emotional aspects of the film.

EMOTION

Though the tone is light, “Far From Home” tackles some poignant issues. A major one is the death of Iron Man in “Endgame”. Peter struggles with losing his faux father and questions whether the world depends on his shoulders now.

This is addressed quite frankly and directly throughout the film where we see Tony Stark’s legacy (on murals and statues) and his memory (with EDITH, the powerful glasses that can do almost anything), but also his absence and the psychological implications it has on Peter. No moment might be more disturbing in the movie than when Peter sees a zombie version of Iron Man creeping towards him in the dreamlike sequence Mysterio concocted to toy with Peter’s fears — and make him question what is real. Chilling and visually impressive, the dreamlike sequences serve as fight scenes but also internal struggle scenes.

A sweet moment occurs when Happy comes to rescue Peter in a Stark Industries plane and Peter builds a new suit in the back. Seeing Peter tinker with the machinery and get passionate serves as a reminder that Iron Man lives on forever and his ingenuity will continue to inspire the next generation of superheroes.

HUMOR

Finally, the comedy! This movie is packed with jokes, from Ned’s incredulity to all the cool things that come with being a superhero, and to Peter’s classmates for looking up to Spider-Man and not giving a second thought to Peter. But none might be as effective as MJ’s deadpan delivery and smart-aleck personality. Zendaya toes the line perfectly and plays off of Tom Holland’s discomfort beautifully. Well written and well executed.

Peter Parker: You look really pretty.
MJ: Therefore I have value?
Peter Parker: No…that’s not what…
MJ: I’m just messing with you. You look pretty too.”

It was weird to see a Spider-Man movie not take place in New York, but it worked and we were able to get a taste of it in the satisfying final scene. A bookending to an entertaining ride backed with a punchy 80s post-punk end credits song.

Fun, exciting and packed with jokes. The blockbuster of the summer – ⭐⭐⭐⭐ ½

WOOD REVIEW

Style over substance. Not accommodating to people with allergies. Quite possibly the most over-hyped place in all of Chicago.

Nobody likes a bad review, not the establishment, nor the person writing it. To put it quite simply: it’s not fun for anyone.

But, this place needs to know how it treats its customers and the blatant disregard it has vis-à-vis food intolerances. Let me start with the beginning. The host was nice enough, showed me to a bar seat in this upscale, trendy place.

The prices were high, as were the expectations.

Photo from their website

I get a recommendation from our waiter to try the hamburger, so I ask for a burger with no cheese – as I’m pretty badly lactose intolerant, and warn them as such. Figure that it’s not too complicated to remember. The burger comes back with cheese on it.

This happens so often that I am barely phased by it anymore. Waiters will half-listen to your order and then give you something wrong. But, I understand that they can be busy and errors can occur, so it’s not a big deal. I kindly inform them that they made a mistake and thought that would be the end of it.

Then me and my girlfriend wait..and wait…and wait long enough for her dish to get cold at which point I tell her to start eating because there’s no point in eating soggy noodles. The burger FINALLY comes back after about 30 mins of waiting. Imagine that: 30 mins for one burger with no cheese and fries that cost extra. This is after already waiting 20 minutes for the original burger. If McDonalds gave out their burger in almost an hour, they would have been out of business the year they opened.

They finally come back and apologetically serve me my food once more. So I take a bite out of the second burger and lo and behold, it has cheese, again.

I open up the burger and realize the chef spent 30 minutes not making me a new one, but barely scraping off the cheese from the old one. (After I told them the effect eating cheese would have on me.) The patty was the same and had chunks of cheese cooked into it, fried twice-over. I immediately noticed on my first bite something wasn’t right and asked for the check, telling them I’ll be leaving. (Their “short-cut” caused me intestinal damage and digestive pain later that night.)

To top it off, they had the indecency to charge me for 2 orders of fries (1 of which I didn’t touch because it was the 1st order that they bungled up) and to not refund me my burger, which both times was again, and I can’t stress this enough, NOT what I ordered.

I hope nobody has to experience paying $40 to take one bite out of a burger that makes them vomit. I learned my lesson and felt compelled to warn anyone on the fence about this restaurant.

NEVER, NEVER, NEVER eat there.

Hard to digest, both experientially and physically – 0 stars 

Classic films: The Red Balloon

In this fantastical short, a young boy in postwar Paris befriends a big red balloon with a mind of its own. Treated as something precious that needs protection (cleverly passing from umbrella under umbrella) but also faces rejection (like the child’s mom at first, who throws it out the window). But the beauty of this movie is that the red balloon can mean anything. As with all great art, the creators allow us to interpret it as we wish, holding our hand along the way. Is it a metaphor for childhood innocence, for hope in a gray and gritty post-wast city, or our hopes and dreams, collectively fraught with society? That is for us to decide.

Like a painting, color is very important in this movie. The boy is wearing gray at all times, the backdrop of the buildings and streets are gray and most characters sport muted tones in the same conformity. The red balloon is cartoonishly big and a bright scarlet red. It’s almost poetic how whimsical it is amongst a sea of faded colors. Goes to show how much a little thing like color can go a long way, if used with a purpose. In this case, to make it stand out (red balloon is the title after all, and the central focus). It is worth noting that the effects of the balloon moving in its sentience hold up today. We truly believe it listens to the child when asked to stay put; while also purposely coming close and cheekily turning away at times when the child tries to grab its string, ever-so-slightly out of reach.

As this movie is mostly silent, the storytelling is mainly visual; but we do get a gentle soundtrack that enhances the sweetness of certain moments as well as the roughness of others. It is a constant, ever-impactful background.

The cinematography is simple and effective as well. Each aspect contributing to the larger atmosphere. Succinctly echoing the simplicity of the storytelling. There are moments of innocent humor, like when the boy steps into a house to hide and the camera stays on the street waiting just long enough to see the boy kicked out. Or the scene with the girl with the blue balloon, brimming with insouciance.

French cinema seems to be good at portraying childhood, in all its complexity, ringing true to its heroes and getting into the kids perspective (more on that in future classic film reviews). The Red Balloon, moreover, serves as a discourse on childhood, affectionately unfolding true emotions from children without dipping into the melodramatic. It shows childhood’s whimsy and innocence but also its intolerance and cruelty.

But just like in the movie, there is a world of hope, joy and color beyond any temporary loss or ephemeral sadness which serves as a reminder that through its ups and downs, bobbing like an inflated balloon, life is beautiful. 

It’s concision and execution is worth striving for, so I will take a lesson from it and stop here. You can make the red balloon whatever you want, so I’m making it five stars. 

A beautiful movie with artful visual storytelling and an engaging emotional reflection on life, childhood and hope – 🎈🎈🎈🎈🎈 (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)