FlixChatter Review: CRISIS (2021)

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I have to admit that though I’ve heard news about the opioid crisis, I’m not really that familiar with the subject. In fact, prior to watching this film I didn’t even know what Fentanyl was, which is apparently a powerful synthetic pain killers that’s similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It’s certainly an important subject matter, and even a timely one had our attention been completely absorbed by the Covid pandemic as this epidemic also kills people at an alarming rate.

The film features three main storylines that’s seemingly random at first, but you know they’d converge in the end. There’s Jake (Armie Hammer), an undercover DEA officer working to broker deal involving the lucrative Fentanyl between a Canadian supplier (code-named Mother) and some Armenian drug lords. This operation is a personal one for Jake as his own sister (Lily Rose-Depp) is addicted to OxyContin. Claire, an architect (Evangeline Lily) who’s a former addict tries to figure out the truth about what happened to her lost teenage son. Lastly, there’s Dr. Tyrone Brower (Gary Oldman) in a David vs Goliath story battling a pharmaceutical giant Northlight when his research of their new “non-addictive” painkiller finds that the drug is even more dangerous than its predecessor.

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The multiple narratives naturally reminds you of Steven Soderbergh’s highly-acclaimed war-on-drugs drama Traffic, but I don’t think it’s fair to immediately brush this one off as this one is a pretty solid film in its own right. The opening chase sequence of a boy with a backpack full of pills in a wintry Canadian landscape is a good way to propels the story. It immediately intrigues me to find out what’s at stake for the characters we’re about to meet. Jake, Claire and Tyrone may be fighting against different types of people, but essentially they’re in the same battle, that is the war on opioids. The script is written by Nicholas Jarecki whose 2012 debut feature Arbitrage is an excellent film that also deals with power and corruption. Jarecki ups the ante here by not only adding multiple-layers to the story, but also by acting in it as Jake’s partner at the DEA.

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Out of the three narratives, I find Oldman’s scenario between the professor + big Pharma (with Luke Evans & Veronica Ferres as the faces representing the corporate giant) to be the most intriguing. Obviously the stake is high for each character, but Tyrone is fighting the big guns who puts this dangerous drugs on the market in the first place at the risk of not only his job but his reputation. Of course the university dean (Greg Kinnear) wants Tyrone to just look the other way as big Pharma is the school’s big donor. There’s a tense exchange between the two actors where Oldman yells that this is the worst medical crisis since tobacco. Some of the dialog like this one might be too on the nose, even clichéd, but the actors’ committed performances still able to make them work. I also appreciate that Jarecki don’t paint the protagonists as saints… they’re all flawed people who have made errors in the past but want to do the right thing and find the truth.

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Performance-wise, Oldman is excellent in a layered performance that allows him to be both intense and vulnerable. While he’s a well-respected professor, he’s also a husband and would-be father who fears he won’t be able to provide for his wife (Indira Varma) and family if his reputation is tarnished. His inner struggle feels believable and real and his charismatic screen presence always elevates any film. It’s interesting to see his character against drug addiction here, given the first role I remember him play is a pill-popping detective in Léon: The Professional.

I think Evangeline Lily is quite strong here despite some of the overly-melodramatic moments. I think I’d be fine with the extended scenes of her mourning her son, but it provides such a stark contrast when she suddenly becomes a vigilante. Her storyline stretches incredulity in parts, especially as she crosses paths with Jake as they suddenly have a common enemy. At the same time, the short interactions between them help ground her character.

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As for Armie Hammer, who at the time of this film’s release was undergoing a personal crisis on his own, plays a pretty run-of-the-mill cop here. Whether or not his involvement in this film impacts its reception is debatable, but it certainly seem to have taken over the discussion. Most of the commentaries on social media about this movie usually centered on his fall from grace. I think Hammer is generally a decent but not overly charismatic actor. Despite his good looks, somehow he never really lights up the screen, and that’s the case here. He’s either morose or angry for the entire film, where more capable actors could’ve added more nuance to this integral role. There are so many familiar faces in this film, Michelle Rodriguez and Kid Cudi also made a brief, but memorable appearance.

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Overall CRISIS is an engaging thriller that’s pretty easy to follow. The script might seem overstuffed with strings being pulled in several directions, but it didn’t become a tangled mess when they all converge. There are parts that are predictable that I saw a mile away, but there are still moments that surprise me as well. This one isn’t as stellar as Arbitrage but still a worthy sophomore effort from the talented writer/director. I’d be interested to see what else Jarecki will tackle next, hopefully it wouldn’t take him nearly a decade to come up with his next project.


Have you seen CRISIS? Well, what did you think?

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – Episode 1 Review

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It’s a great week for superhero fans. I know that today DC fans are rejoicing for the #SnyderCut of Justice League. Well, even though I have enjoyed some DC superhero movies in the past, I’m not clamoring to see the 4-hour slog elongated version of what I think I saw back in 2017 that I could barely remember, ahah. I did rejoice when I saw an email from Disney saying I had a screener of episode 1 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (TFATWS) earlier this week! Captain America: The Winter Soldier is my favorite film of the MCU, and also the best of my favorite MCU trilogy. The Captain America movies are all solid but I dare say The Winter Soldier, where Falcon (Sam Wilson) and Winter Soldier (Bucky Barnes) first met, is more than a fantastic superhero movie, it’s a phenomenal movie period.

Ever since Disney+ launched in November 2019 in the US (boy that seemed like lightyears ago!), THIS is the series I couldn’t wait to see. Of course the pandemic delayed everything, including this one. Well, let’s just say it’s so worth the wait!! I rewatched Captain America: Civil War in anticipation for this miniseries, and even THIS scene alone made me wish there’s a movie dedicated to these two. So getting an equivalent of 3 movies but on TV is awesome!!

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This is only one of six episodes where, like WandaVision, will not have a follow-up season. I think it’s brilliant that Marvel Studio president Kevin Feige set up these miniseries so filmmakers can dive more deeper into intriguing MCU characters that don’t have their own dedicated movies. And when you’ve got terrific actors like Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan, there’s plenty of opportunities to see them flex their dramatic muscles. It’s also cool to see a female director at the helm. Kari Skogland is no stranger to directing high-profile series, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, The Punisher, Walking Dead, The Americans, etc. though TFATWS’s $150 mil budget (for just 6 episodes!!) is no doubt the highest she’s been involved in.

TFATWS opens with a bang! A high-octane action in the vein of the opening sequence of Winter Soldier, but focusing on Falcon instead. The fight choreography is just as good as what you saw in the opening sequence, plus we see a familiar face of the antagonist Falcon is fighting against. If you love Falcon’s flying sequences (and who doesn’t?), well you’re gonna enjoy the spectacular high-flying action scene, the best Falcon flying-action I’ve seen so far! So glad to hear composer Henry Jackman back composing his kinetic score, which perfectly complements the dynamic action Even from the trailers, you can tell the production values is top notch. There’s a cinematic feel to it, which means Marvel isn’t treating these streaming-version content like a step-child amongst the MCU.

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But what I also appreciate is the slower, reflective moments for each character. Per Disney’s production brief, Skogland promises “…an epic, character-driven story. We get to go inside these characters and their world in a much more intimate way.” Timeline-wise, this one takes place six months since the events of Avengers: Endgame known as the Blip, where half of all life across the universe returned after the 5-year period where Thanos snapped them out of existence. So obviously things aren’t exactly back to normal yet for everyone, including these two Avengers. After five years in oblivion, they’re trying to find their place in a world that is no longer the same. The miniseries addresses some of those Blip ramifications in a personal way, displaying their personal baggage and inner struggles.

In terms of his home life, we get to meet Sam’s sister Sarah Wilson (Adepero Oduye) and his nephews who runs the Wilson Family Seafood business Louisiana. It’s a real and relatable moment seeing Sam trying to help Sarah save the struggling family business, even so far as helping her secure a loan from a bank. It humanizes the hero and show that they’re not perfect humans who are immune from ‘ordinary’ problems many of us face.

Meanwhile, Bucky’s struggles is more rooted in his identity. I mean, he’s the only Avenger who has done really heinous things such as murdering a fellow Avenger’s parents. Even though he wasn’t really himself when he did it, that is still an impossibly hard thing for anyone to reconcile with. We saw him being ravaged with guilt in Civil War even when Steve still stood by him, here we see his struggles haven’t gone away for the hero-turned-baddie-turned-hero-again. No wonder he’s in therapy, he’s been through SO much trauma! This episode explores Bucky trying to atone for his past sins, with flashback scenes of him on a mission when he was still brainwashed as the assassin Winter Soldier.

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Though Steve Rogers is no longer around in this MCU timeline, Captain America’s spirit permeates through the entire episode. There is a solemn moment where Sam paid homage to his personal friend and fellow Avenger, and we get to reflect on that memorable passing-of-the-shield moment scene in Endgame and what it means to Sam personally. Obviously it’s a huge responsibility to take on that mantle… and this interview with the miniseries’ creator Malcolm Spellman talks about how he “…saw the show as an opportunity to be frank about race in America” In regards to the shield with the American flag symbol, “…being as a Black man, is it even appropriate to have that symbol? That symbol means something very different in Sam’s hands than it does in Steve’s.” It’s certainly timely to have this conversation and I’m glad they didn’t shy away from it.

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Though the tone of trailers are more comedic filled with witty, even silly banters between the two, the start of the miniseries is more serious before Sam and Bucky meet up. I actually don’t mind it as the story is still engaging and it makes me anticipate the action-packed adventure in store for these two! I’m also curious to see how the journey of some familiar characters in this miniseries, particularly Daniel Brühl‘s Zemo, the Sokovian special forces whose vengeful tactic was to get the Avengers to fight each other. Unlike Red Skull, Zemo isn’t one of those sociopath villain hellbent on controlling the world, his evil scheme was motivated by grief when he lost his family in Sokovia. Last we saw him in Civil War, he’s confined in a German prison, so I wonder what the story is with him and why/how he’s out in the world again.

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There’s also Emily VanCamp as Agent Sharon Carter returning, and the one major new character is John Walker played by Wyatt Russell (yep, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn’s son). In the comics, Walker a.k.a. U.S. Agent is actually a baddie called Super-Patriot. But in this miniseries, he supposedly will partner with Sam and Bucky to protect the world from a new threat. There are scenes of Falcon with a mysterious character who’s a US soldier, played by Danny Ramirez (who’s curiously missing from the IMDb page). He seems to play a prominent role but we’ll see what his story arc will be.

So yeah, so far so good! I think this episode is a strong start that ticks all the boxes for MCU fans and get us even more excited for Phase Four. I certainly appreciate that it’s not all action + explosions, it’s got a nice blend of drama, suspense and action that allow these two characters to shine. I’m also curious to see which Avenger cameo(s) we will see. The cinematography is fantastic, which I expect given the huge budget. I only wish they’d go easy on the extreme close-ups though, it’s fine if used sparingly but I really don’t need to see every strand of Bucky’s eyelash for an uncomfortably long period of time.

In any case, I won’t be reviewing every single episode, but might do a recap once the entire miniseries wraps.

4/5 stars

Here’s a sneak peek that just dropped today at the Virtual Launch:


Anyone else excited for this series? If you have seen ep. 1, well what did YOU think?

FlixChatter Review: The Father (2021)

I first heard of The Father (Le Père) when I saw the stage play a few years ago. The play was written by French playwright Florian Zeller and adapted by Christopher Hampton. Zeller teamed up with Hampton once again who wrote the screenplay for the film, and this film became his feature directorial debut. In the play, the Father character is actually called André, but he renamed him Anthony as he wanted Anthony Hopkins specifically for the part. Well, I’m glad Hopkins didn’t turn down the role as he truly was astounding in the role as a headstrong man who’s losing his grip on reality due to dementia.

The film started in a similar fashion as the play, with Anthony complaining to his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) that his watch has been stolen by his caregiver. Despite his daughter’s insistence that he’s only just misplaced it in the cupboard, Anthony refuses to believe her. There’s something wildly amusing in their banters, as Anthony is often quick with a joke even when he’s on edge. Anne meanwhile, is clearly concerned of her father’s deteriorating mind… it’s as if the more severe her dad’s cognitive decline, the more defiant he becomes in refusing her aid.

Zeller’s storytelling style really puts us, the audience, in Anthony’s mind… as soon we too, question the reality of what we’re watching. The actor switcheroo is one of the device used to make us question everything. In one scene we see Olivia Colman as Anne, then in another it’s Olivia Williams (the fact that the two actresses are named Olivia are inspired, perhaps even deliberate casting!) Same with Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell… uttering the same familiar dialog in their conversations while Anthony is convinced ‘there’s something funny going on’ that he keeps seeing strangers in his own home.

The scenes mostly take place in a London flat where Anthony now resides in, but the furnitures are in different places in one scene to the next. I started questioning myself as I’m watching this… Just where does Anthony live exactly? Is this posh London flat Antony’s or Anne’s home? Then there’s the thing about about Anne’s current situation… one moment she tells her father that she’s moving to Paris to start life with a new man, to which Anthony reply “Paris? They don’t even speak English there.” But the next moment Anne is baffled why Anthony would even think she’s moving to Paris as she’s intent in staying in London.

I haven’t felt so discombobulated and frustrated while watching a movie, unable to decipher between what’s real and what’s surreal, which is an effective way to immerse ourselves into a story about memory loss. I remember I felt the same way when I was watching the stage play, but I think the film enhanced that trippy feeling to even more devastating effect. Despite the morose subject matter though, this is not an entirely gloomy affair. It helps that cinematographer Ben Smithard allows a lot of light in to keep the mood less downcast.

Hopkins is absolutely perfect in the role, perhaps the most mesmerizing and moving performances I’ve seen him in. He embraces the inherent vulnerability of the role while imbuing it with a sense of wit and whimsy that makes Anthony such a fascinating character. Zeller allows some personal things of Hopkins to be a part of the film, such as using the Welsh actor’s own favorite classical music we see him enjoy in the kitchen and uttering his own birthdate as Anthony’s. Perhaps it makes the role more personal to him, as Hopkins certainly embodied him so beautifully. It’s such a contrast to his most famous role in The Silence of the Lamb… with the only similarity being he stars opposite a very strong female performer, which brings me to Olivia Colman.

I’ve always been a longtime fan of the English actress who seems really kind and good-natured in person. This compassionate, empathetic character seems to be made for her as Anne’s patience with her ailing father seems limitless. Even when her dad is often crass and unfeeling towards her by constantly bringing up his favorite daughter Lucy. Anne’s mental anguish is palpable and that brutal honesty is so moving. It’s a deeply emotional and nuanced performance that feels true without resorting to over-sentimentality.

Imogen Poots is splendid as Laura, the new caregiver Anne hired that Anthony took an immediate liking to. There are some funny bits where he told Laura he was a tap dancer… these moments of levity are definitely a welcome respite to an otherwise relentless mind-bending drama. Gattis, Sewell and Williams all have some memorable moments in their brief appearance. There’s a scene between Hopkins and Sewell that’s hard to watch, even though I’ve already seen it in the play. Of course we don’t even know if that scene actually happened or just Anthony’s mind playing tricks again.

I commend production designer Peter Francis for utilizing the flat itself as a storytelling tool with altering furniture arrangements to disorient the character. Despite being set in mostly a single location, the film didn’t feel claustrophobic. I think it helps that the characters sometimes step out of the flat, even a brief moment outside helps break the mundaneness. As a fan of classical music, I love the score as well, which works perfectly for the film. What a year for Ludovico Einaudi who’s also the composer for Nomadland.

Dementia is a heartbreaking disease that turns loved ones into strangers and this is one of those films that explore its effect in a beautifully-effective way. I actually don’t have any experience with dementia in my own family, at least not directly, still I couldn’t help tearing up watching this, especially towards the end. I can only imagine how tough it is for those who have family members dealing with memory loss, this might hit too close to home for them.

The Father is an astounding film that shows us what it means to be human and the harsh reality of aging. It definitely made me think about my own relationships with the people in my life, and not take my mental health for granted. Zeller has created a haunting portrayal of dementia that is truly, for lack of a better word, unforgettable.


Have you seen THE FATHER? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review – Judas and The Black Messiah (2021)

The script of the life of Fred Hampton has been floating around Hollywood for many years but it never got made into a film until now. Hampton was one of the leaders of the Black Panthers movement and the youngest of the group back in the 60s and his assassination by the FBI is well known and that’s probably the reason the film of his life has had trouble making it to the screen. Maybe, because of our current political climate we’re living in now, his life story is finally being told, and I think it’s more relevant than ever.

The film starts out with an interview footage of the real Bill O’Neil in 1989 and then flashes back to 1968 when the young O’Neil (LaKeith Standfield) poses as an FBI agent to steal cars from locals in Chicago. One night, his antics got him arrested and while being held in the interrogation room, an actual FBI agent named Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) showed up and offered a chance to turn his life around. Since O’Neil likes to pretend to be someone he’s not, Michell offers him to be a mole for the FBI.

He tells O’Neil that the Black Panthers are terrorist groups, and he’s needs an inside man to be his eyes and ears in order to bring them down. Of course, O’Neil doesn’t have a choice, if he doesn’t take the deal then he goes to prison. He reluctantly accepts the offer and goes undercover and meets Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a young charismatic leader of the Chicago Black Panthers division. Once O’Neil became part of Hampton’s group, he realized that the Black Panthers aren’t the people that Michell told him about. They’re a group that tries to give a better life to the black community in the rough part of Chicago. But because O’Neil doesn’t want to go to prison, he keeps feeding the FBI information about the Panthers’ activities that eventually led to Hampton’s assassination.

I actually watched a documentary about Hampton’s life a couple of years ago, so I knew the story and while I’m sure some of the events has been alter for dramatic purposes for this film, it’s still pretty accurate account of what happened. The screenplay is written by Will Berson and Shaka King, the latter directed the picture. It’ a well written story and I wish the actual film is longer. At only 2 hours long, I feel there’s so much we don’t know about Hampton and O’Neil and I would have liked to see more of their lives explored in the film. I’ve never seen any of King’s work but I’m very impressed with what he did with this film. The only negative thing I see here is how he depicted the FBI director Hoover (Martin Sheen in poorly prostatic makeup), he’s like a cartoonish Bond villain and I don’t think that’s very accurate.

Performances were excellent. Standfield, who I think looks a lot like a young Dave Chapelle, is very good as the conflicted person who sees the Panthers as a group of peaceful activists who wants to better the lives of black people. But he knows that he can’t back out of a deal he’d made with the FBI. Kaluuya is excellent as Hampton, a passionate man who sees himself as peacemaker but knows what the authority sees him as a threat. Dominique Fishback (who was terrific in Project Power) continues to impress me with her performance, here she plays Hampton’s lover. As mentioned earlier, I wish the film were longer, so we get to see more of their relationship. Plemons is always good, and he’s great here as the father figure to O’Neil. He uses O’Neil to impress his bosses at the FBI and also advances his career. At first, he acted like a friend to O’Neil but when he didn’t get what he wanted, he became a very nasty person who holds a lot of power.

This is probably one of the better films I’ve seen in the early part of 2021, I just wanted it to be a bit longer. I feel it’s too condensed, but it’s very well made with great performances by the lead actors.

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So have you seen Judas and the Black Messiah? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Ok so even though I grew up watching a ton of Disney animated movies (especially the ones w/ princesses because that’s what many little girls do), I don’t immediately get excited for every new Disney animated movies that come along. In fact, you’d be surprised that I haven’t watched The Princess and The Frog, Coco, or even Moana [gasp!] – I know, that seems unthinkable since I’m a reviewer from Indonesia, right? In any case, when I first saw the trailer for this I thought it looked cool and yes, I’m always glad to see a movie with a largely Southeast Asian actors.

Raya and the Last Dragon is set in a fantasy world called Kumandra where humans and dragons lived together in harmony. I can’t help but think of How To Train Your Dragon after Toothless became friends with Hiccup. But then some ominous monster that looks like purple/black smoke known as the Druun basically destroyed that harmony, which led to the dragons sacrificing themselves to save humanity by putting their magic into a Dragon Gem. It’s now 500 years later and Kumandra is now split up to five regions/provinces: Heart, Fang, Spine, Tail and Talon. The opening scene shows young Raya (voiced wonderfully by Kelly Marie Tran) with her wise father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the leader of Heart Land discussing the upcoming visit from the other four regions. It’s clear from such a young age, Raya has always been a vivacious and quite fearless young woman and she’s been training to become the guardian of the Dragon Gem. It’s during this visit that Raya was betrayed by another young girl from Fang called Namaari (Gemma Chan, sporting a rather odd American-accent) that not only creates more division between the provinces, but also brings back the nefarious Druun that turns anyone in their path into stone.

I have to say that it took me a bit to get into the story as I was distracted by low-resolution of the screener I got. I’ve talked about it a big here, for some reason the picture quality just doesn’t look sharp which is a bummer given how dazzling the visuals and colors are. Even besides that, that’s quite a complex backstory that makes me think that smaller kids might not be the target audience here. Plus, some of the scenes of peril when Druun wreaks havoc over Heart land can be quite scary for some toddlers.

The movie then propels us to years later when Raya is now a young woman whose BFF (who doubles as a transportation mode) is a cute Armadillo-type creature named Tuk Tuk. She’s on a mission to collect the shattered gemstones from the other four provinces and in that epic journey she ends up awakening the last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) from its slumber. The tone of the movie immediately shifts from drama to comedy as soon as Sisu wakes up. Awkwafina’s comedic style and Sisu’s constant state of bewilderment is quite amusing. Now, the last dragon might sound so magnanimous and dignified, but Sisu turns out to be such a bubbly, perhaps even nerdy type creature that looks like a fluffy, elongated pony with cotton candy colors. The interactions between Raya and Sisu, who unsurprisingly becomes besties right away, is a lot of fun, especially when the shape-shifter dragon takes form of a human (complete with cotton-candy colored mane). I have to say though, the constant tone-shifting feels a bit off at times.

In her epic journey, Raya also encounters various characters, some more interesting than others. 10-year old boat captain Boun (Izaac Wang) and warrior giant with a big heart Tong (Benedict Wong) add some emotional layers to the story, as they deal with familial loss and loneliness. But the con-baby Little Noi with her monkey friends, not so much. In fact her scenes are perhaps my least favorite and is not the least bit funny. The comedic bits don’t always work well here, but by the third act, the movie has already shifts back to drama mode with some thrilling martial-art action thrown in. The third act also attempts to balance the backstory of Sisu’s family and the final confrontation between Raya and her main foe Namaari, and for the most part it succeeds.

Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, and written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim (the latter also wrote the rom-com hit Crazy Rich Asians), I appreciate the filmmakers’ (well the big mouse studio’s) effort to have diversity and inclusivity – creating a strong heroine in Raya and crafting a story that honors the many South East Asian origins. I read an article that says the production team visited Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam for their research, so you see an amalgamation of those regions represented in various forms in the film, whether it’s in the culture, martial arts, food, architecture, etc. Speaking of the food, the movie made me hungry looking at those scrumptious SE Asian cuisines and snacks the characters are eating!

I feel like I should address some of the criticism I read online about how it’s lacking specificity and that the voice casting are not all from SE Asia. As someone born and bred in one of the countries used as inspiration in the film, I actually think it’s a bit unfair to expect a studio like Disney to create a perfect film that pleases every SE Asian person who watches it. I’m also mindful that discussion about representation doesn’t actually end up being more divisive among the Asian community by focussing on our differences instead of what we have in common. I realize the plot is rather generic, which is to be expected as studios always try to appeal to as huge an international audience as possible. Perhaps it’s too generic that one critic (of Caucasian descent) said the story is a Chinese mythology [face palm] … obviously out of ignorance. But despite its imperfections, I do think cultural representation is always a good thing and it’s a trend in the right direction. I believe [hope] that this is NOT the last Disney film with a protagonist of SE Asian descent.

Now, in regards to that plot which is far from revolutionary, there are some good things to appreciate. For one, I’m glad they didn’t force a love interest plot on Raya (as they did in a weirdly vague way in Mulan). The story is already strong as it is with its focus on family, friendship, trust and forgiveness. The rather dismal view of humanity is a bit odd though, as one character describes Druun as “a plague born from human discord,” suggesting that it’s the humans themselves as the bringer or our own misery. Perhaps that’s a bit dark for a kids or even teens movie, but hey, at least there’s still the positive and always-timely message about the importance of family and unity to balance it all. There’s also a teachable moments about Raya learning to trust again, though I wish it were delivered in a less clichéd and derivative way.

Visually, the film is a marvel. And I say this despite the low-res quality of my screener. The rich, vibrant colors; lush, stunning vistas with pain-staking attention to detail; and the well-choreographed action scenes are fantastic to look at. The score sounds wonderful as well thanks to James Newton Howard, incorporating some Southeast Asian instruments and themes. I especially love the action scenes between Raya and Namaari towards the end, and the fighting style and weaponry mixes various martial arts from SE countries, i.e. Indonesian’s Pencak silat, Muay Thai kickboxing, Filipino Arnis, etc.

But I think the real ‘weapon’ of the film is the heroine and Tran truly brought Raya to life wonderfully as a multi-layered character. Her voice alone is lovely to listen to, but she’s able to convey SO much emotion with her voice, especially in her desperation. There is something universal about Raya and her purposeful journey that should appeal to anyone of all ages, regardless of our ethnicity and background. A hopeful, feel-good story is something we all need today, and this is one that a whole family could enjoy for years to come as well.

Have you seen Raya and The Last Dragon? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: THE MAURITANIAN (2021)

Whenever one hears the words Guantanamo or Gitmo, it usually emits a pretty strong reaction. Honestly, I’m not usually keen on watching films that I know will depict torture, especially one based on a true story. The Mauritanian however, piqued my interested because of the filmmaker, Kevin Macdonald, and cast. French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim played Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention center who was held for over a decade without charges being filed against him. The story is based on Mohamedou’s NY Times best-selling memoir Guantánamo Diary, which according to a few book reviews is an extraordinarily vivid first-person account of his time in captivity.

The film opens shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001, when Mohamedu was called into questioning by Mauritanian police while he was at a family celebration. Though he assured his mother he’d be back soon, he was not able to return home as he was subsequently arrested and later transported to Guantanamo. He had been held there for a few years before defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, doing his best American accent) cross path on two opposing sides. Stuart got assigned to serve as one of the prosecutors in the military tribunal vying for the death penalty for Mohamedou, and Nancy fought to get him released pro bono. Interesting to see Zachary Levi playing against type as an unsympathetic federal agent that Couch was trying to get intel from.

The film is an intriguing mix of legal drama and thriller, and despite the harrowing and captivating subject matter, the way it’s played out is a bit uneven. The procedural aspect with Nancy and her associate Teri (Shailene Woodley) feels decidedly mundane. Even the meetings between Nancy and Stuart fall flat despite the star power of the actors portraying them. The film really comes alive whenever Mohamedou is on screen, thanks to Rahim’s captivating performance. The first time Nancy and Teri meets with him at Gitmo, Mohamedou’s able to speak English with them, which apparently he learned while in detention. That’s one of the outstanding things I can’t help but being in awe of, as well as Mohamedou’s seemingly unbreakable spirit.

Macdonald’s extensive experience as a documentary filmmaker means he took great care in creating an authentic look for the film, making sure the detention camp itself is depicted accurately, etc. One thing I find most memorable is whenever Mohamedou gets his outdoor break where he gets to breathe fresh air and even ‘befriends’ a fellow detainee next to him. He’s not able to see that man, but he’s able to communicate to each other and shockingly, Mohamedou’s actually consoled him and inspired him to remain hopeful. It’s these moments showing his humanity that makes the subsequent scenes of graphic torture even more harrowing to watch. At the same time, Macdonald didn’t want to paint with a broad brush in depicting every single person who work at Gitmo as evil, as evidenced in the tentative friendship between Mohamedou and one of his guards.

While in shackles, Mohamedou was subjected to sleep deprivation, severe isolation, temperature extremes, beatings, sexual humiliation, even a mock execution as he was blindfolded and taken out to sea. Those scenes are truly hard to watch, I had to cover my eyes and ears during much of it. The guards torturing him wore halloween animal masks, and at that point it’s as if they’ve descended into animal as they behave like one. As if that weren’t horrifying enough, there’s the emotional torture of being threatened that his mother would be brought to Gitmo and be gang-raped. Obviously the filmmakers intends for the viewers to be truly appalled by what happened, considering the perpetrators is a country supposedly known for being a beacon of liberty and hope. I don’t think we need to see it in a cinematic form to realize there is absolutely no excuse for treating fellow human beings in such a savage way.

The fact that Nancy faced obstacles in her mission to free Mohamedou is not surprising, neither is the fact that Stuart eventually found evidence about his torture that render any of his ‘confessions’ inadmissible in court. What’s most astonishing and inspiring is that Mohamedou refuses to be brought down as low as his captors. Rahim’s sensitive performance never descends to over-sentimentality and is genuinely moving. As for Foster and Cumberbatch, their presence certainly add prestige to the production but I don’t think their performances are all that memorable. I mean they’re effective in their roles, but it’s Rahim that gave the film its best moments and truly the reason to see this film. I wrote this review long before Foster was even nominated for a Golden Globes, and honestly I was surprised to see her name on the list, even more so that she won (I was rooting for Olivia Colman for The Father).

In any case, what’s definitely memorable is the appearance of the real Mohamedou during the end credits, who still retains his humor and playful spirit. Cheerfully listening to one of his favorite musicians Bob Dylan, it’s hard to comprehend this is the same guy depicted as having been brutalized and held captive for over 14 years. Mohamedou is quite charismatic that a thought occurred to me while watching him if the film would’ve worked more effectively as a documentary with Mohamedou himself at the center and unknown actors to re-enact some of the scenes. As it is, I’m not sure The Mauritanian does Mohamedou’s memoir justice nor is it the best movies about post-911, but no doubt its heart is in the right place.

Have you seen THE MAURITANIAN? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: NOMADLAND (2021)

I actually saw this one a few months ago at Twin Cities Film Fest. It was my pick of film of the month in October and also earns a spot on my Top 10 Best list of 2020. Nomadland is  about a woman named Fern (Frances McDormand) who lost everything in the Great Recession sets off on a journey through the American West with her van. The last film of Chloé Zhao that I watched, The Rider, showed a slice of life from a world I’m not familiar with and this time she showed life of modern-day nomad.

The film is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by journalist Jessica Bruder. The book documents stories of dispossessed older Americans (mostly 50s-60s) who face the largest reversal in retirement security in American history and ends up becoming workampers — working while living out of an RV or a tent. Fern is one of those people, having lost her husband, her job at a US Gypsum plant, and ultimately her old-company town Empire, Nevada, which died with the factory closure in 2011.

Now, the film doesn’t delve too much into the background of the economic crisis or the capital/government greed that causes them, but it explores a human story told through the perspective someone who choose to live that life. It seems that even though it’s obviously a tough life uprooting oneself into living in a ratty van, sans the comfort most house-dwellers take for granted, Fern and her fellow nomads seems content, even happy living this way. There’s a memorable scene of Fern saying “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” with a defiant glee when friends offer her a place to stay. The film shows her working various jobs, most notably Amazon warehouses, and at times struggling to even get seasonal work. It seems like a lonely life, but there is actually a close-knit community that sustain them and this film actually features real nomads, Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells, who are featured in Bruder’s book. They become friends and mentors for Fern.

The film features a quiet yet intricate performance from McDormand, who apparently did some method acting for the role as she actually slept in a van used in the film for a while. Most of the time she only gets to act with her expressions as there are countless of shots of her gazing into the vast, beautiful landscape… and a brief shot of her serenely floating in a pool of water stark naked (I wonder if that’s what garnered this film an R rating?!). I find Fern as a fascinating character, but also frustrating and hard to warm up to, not sure if this is because the film never allowed us to really get to know her.

During her journey, Fern meets a fellow workcamper named Dave (David Strathrain, the only other prominent actor in the film) and the two strikes a tentative friendship. They end up working a part-time job together, but when Dave’s son visits him, Dave ends up staying with him in a large house on the country. Dave invites Fern to join him and later we see Fern come and visit him. It’s perhaps the only time we see Fern sleeping in a bed inside, but it’s interesting to see that she’s no longer comfortable living within the confines of a house. McDormand’s nuanced performance conveys the feeling that living day to day in the same place, same environment, despite all the comfort, would actually infringes on her sense of freedom.

Though not much happens in this film, there’s actually a lot to mull over and reflect upon. It made me think of certain aspects of my own life and others close to me, what I would do if I were in her situation. The scene of her walking in her old company town that’s now desolate is quite heart-wrenching. I was curious if Fern would actually consider Dave’s invitation and start a new life again as she once did… living with a new family (albeit an adopted one) and live in a real home again. The finale shows Fern’s decision without much words being spoken, but yet it packs a punch. Nomadland is truly a graceful, poetic, reflective film, boasted by stunning cinematography by DP Joshua James Richards and beautiful, serene music by composer Ludovico Einaudi.

After watching this, I’ve become even more of a fan of Chloé Zhao’s remarkable storytelling style. It’s so refreshing that Zhao features a woman over 50 in a leading role, which is a rarity given Hollywood’s issue with ageism. I can’t wait to see Eternals, especially after hearing Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige quote saying that her pitch was the best he’s ever heard, apparently it’ll be a very big, sweeping, multi-millennial-spaning story (per this article). So even if you’re not typically into slower-paced dramas, I still highly recommend Nomadland. It’s a study of restraint in its minimalism, almost stripped bare of frills in terms of special effects or unnecessary dialog, but done to great effect.

Have you seen NOMADLAND? Well, what did you think?