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?

Musings on Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker (2019)

So here we are… forty two years after the first ever Star Wars film opened in 1977, the final chapter of the Skywalker saga is released. There was a huge anticipation for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, naturally, given its place in the franchise history as the final conclusion. In preparation for this, my hubby and I saw Return of The Jedi the night before (and we actually saw Empire Strikes Back in October as part of MN Orchestra LIVE in concert series).

When I finished watching the movie, I turned to my hubby and whispered, they might as well call this franchise SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read) ‘evil space grandpas’ If you’ve seen this movie, I think you know why. Just like what I did on The Force Awakens, this post is not a review per se, more of my random thoughts about the film and the franchise as a whole, so proceed with caution if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

Unsurprisingly, I have a lot of the same quibbles with this one as the 2015 movie that JJ Abrams also directed… mainly the excessive amount of nostalgia, as some critics have rightly called ‘fan pandering,’ and lack of suspense throughout. Yes there are some fun moments, but the big moments are pretty much predictable. The key phrase ‘no one’s ever really gone’ uttered by Luke Skywalker at the end of The Last Jedi came up again in this movie. Beloved Carrie Fisher returns as General Leia Organa (via the use of repurposed unreleased footage), but she’s not the only one.

In fact, the entire movie is basically a road trip of sort to find a supposedly dead Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who now resides on the planet Exegol. Apparently he’s so NOT dead after all, in fact he’s been a puppet master to Snoke, Supreme Leader of The First Order. But before Rey, Poe and Fin could get to Exegol, they had to find a device called Sith Wayfinder. I feel like that plot is basically a way to reunite Rey & co. with yet another returning character Lando Calrissian. The crew looked practically giddy to be meeting Billy Dee Williams in that scene, and vice versa, that it took me out of the movie a bit. That’s what nostalgia does… while I enjoy seeing certain actors back in a certain franchise, it distracts me from the actual story that unfolds before me.

Speaking of the story… there’s a lot of ‘more of the same’ in The Rise of the Skywalker. Interesting that there were some rumbles on the interweb that JJ Abrams was subtly dissing Rian Johnson‘s The Last Jedi, saying that it was “a story that I think needed a pendulum swing in one direction in order to swing in the other.” Now, whether Abrams was throwing shade at Johnson or not, the fact of the matter is, the two filmmakers didn’t seem to see eye to eye. As a more casual fan of Star Wars, I actually like the fact that Rian had the guts to do something different and subverting the franchise. Unfortunately I’m in the minority and because many die-hard fans hated what Rian did, so naturally he’s not invited back to helm this one.

The biggest ‘twist’ of this movie is in regards to Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) identity. “People keep telling me they know me. No one does,” She quipped in frustration. But her reluctant ‘nemesis’ Kylo Ren claims he does, then he just said it blatantly who her parents really are. It’s supposed to be a gasp-inducing moment, but for some reason it was just ‘meh’… in fact, Rey’s similar lineage situation that bears such resemblance to Luke’s and Kylo’s feels like convenient (read: lazy) writing to me. The part I like most about Rey when she’s first introduced in The Force Awakens is that she’s just a scavenger with no Jedi blood in her, and that her parents are just ordinary people.

In The Last Jedi, Kylo himself told her ‘You come from nothing. You’re nothing’ which undeniably made him even more furious that she could wield as much power as he does. Then the ending that film (the scene with the young boy) also hinted that there are other ‘ordinary’ people with no prominent lineage who could use the Force. I love that message that people are more than who they’re born to be and where they come from, that we do have the power to become more than what’s been imagined for us. So by making Rey as a Palpatine obviously undermined the storyline that’s been set before and render many other plot points meaningless. I don’t know in what other cinematic franchise is that ever a good thing??

I have to say that the nostalgic moments have different degrees of impact. I said I enjoyed seeing Leia and Lando, and the final arc of General Leia Organa is a memorable moment. But the now decrepit Palpatine is mostly eye-roll inducing (especially since the scene of Vader throwing him down the space abyss is still fresh in my mind). Not only would it seem impossible that he survived that fall, but just when did he have time to have a son who later becomes Rey’s dad?? On top of that, he’s also mighty enough to build an entire armada and hides ALL of them from every single creature until the opportune time dictated by the script to reveal it.

I barely have time to ponder on that as there’s a ton of stuff going on in this movie… the crew frenetically jumped from place to place in search of that Wayfinder thing-y, which eventually leads to the main battle between Rey and Kylo. No doubt the lightsaber duel of two crucial characters, on top of the remains of the second Death Star no less, looks epic. With the waves and torrential rain, it’s an atmospheric scene to be sure.  It’s got some wow moments, but overall the scene just didn’t have as big an emotional impact as I thought it would.

SPOILER ALERT (proceed with caution as I’ll mention key plot details below)
Since Force Awakens, I’ve grown to appreciate Adam Driver more and more (you could even say he’s my current cinematic crush), but I gotta say Kylo’s got the short end of the stick here in terms of his character. Yes he’s a Darth wannabe from the start, longing to be a powerful Sith leader like his grandpa, but this final movie just renders him into nothing more than a conflicted man-child. It pains me to see Driver, who’s so excellent in Marriage Story which I saw just two months prior, barely given much to do here than looking mostly dazed and discombobulated.

Now, given how powerful Rey’s become, the outcome of the duel and what she did afterwards didn’t really surprise me. In a key moment in the movie, suddenly Han Solo turned up again… Was it a dream? A hallucination? Was Kylo delirious? Does it matter?? In another nostalgic scene, Harrison Ford revisited his most famous ad-lib in Empire Strikes Back as his prodigal son struggled to find the words to say … that part made me smile, but I find this dramatic scene more schmaltzy than genuinely moving.

Still, Driver at least still has a compelling arc and a dignified resolution… gone is Kylo Ren’s toxic power-hungry machismo, in the end he’s Ben Solo after all, and he’s got an honorary ‘death’ as a Jedi. But where is Rose Tico?? The spunky mechanic with a big heart had a big role in The Last Jedi… Kelly Marie Tran was a great addition to the Resistance crew. But here she’s hugely sidelined for most of the movie while Fin is off doing his heroic duty with a new compatriot, Jannah, a Resistance sympathizer. Now, Naomi Ackie is fine in the role, but I can’t help missing Rose in the journey with the Resistance fighters.

Now, after teasing us for four years whether Rey will finally turn to the dark side… well, the final answer is something so utterly predictable. Once again our heroine, just like the original hero of the saga, is facing a family member [yawn]. Rey matters because she’s part of an important, all-powerful family. It’s treading familiar [and familial] grounds the fact that bloodline and lineage is the key to achieving real power, that is the ability to use the Force. Perhaps the fact that we’ve seen all before, the action-packed battle of ‘all of the Sith’ VS ‘all of the Jedi’ barely holds a candle of the original battle between Luke vs Vader/Palpatine. It’s what follows that would likely be the talking points about Rise of Skywalker… yep, it’s all about Reylo.

Not satisfied with just an epic battle of good vs evil, we’ve got to have some controversial romance thrown in. I wonder how the convo goes in the Writers Room… ‘hey wouldn’t it be surreal to have Vader’s grandson making out w/ Palpatine’s granddaughter?’ I supposed Kylo’s longing look every time he sees and ‘feels’ Rey from a distance (boy that came out SO creepy) has suggested he has feelings for her from the start. And who could forget that shirtless scene during a Force-bond in The Last Jedi that bothered Rey so much she asked him to put something on? But yet, I still wasn’t prepared for the kiss… it feels like it came out of nowhere. I mean all the mutual pull between the light and dark side that haunts both these poor souls is SO massive… it took so much out of them with huge stakes on both sides that you would think romance is the last thing on their minds. Naturally plenty of fans have always wanted to ship the two of them, as Reylo has been the subject of a plethora of fan-fiction, which makes the kiss feels obligatory. There’s been a lot of shared motifs in Star Wars and Shakespeare–we’ve seen the Romeo and Juliet plot between Anakin and Padmé before, so I guess their grandson is bound to share similar fate.

All in all, The Rise of Skywalker is an enjoyable but also frustrating film. I was caught up in the rousing nostalgic moments and even felt emotionally moved by some of them, but as soon as the movie’s over, I was left with an overwhelming sense of meh. It’s not a bad movie per se… I mean the actors did a good job in their roles, production design & special effects are top notch, John Williams‘ music is obviously still iconic, even Abrams’ direction is enjoyable… but at the end of the day, Chris Terrio and Abrams’ script is serviceable at best.

It proves that no film, no matter how beloved the franchise it, can simply ride on nostalgia alone. At the end of the day, as a film fan, we crave innovative storytelling that sparks one’s imagination… I don’t think JJ Abrams gave us that with this one. Honestly, after nine films, I’d be hard pressed to know just what the Force is supposed to be about since the franchise’s overall narrative is so discordant and inconsistent. Perhaps it’s a good thing this is the final installment of the cinematic Skywalker saga, but of course, with Disney+, no franchise is ever really gone. Especially one as lucrative as this one.


So for those who’ve seen this one, what did you think of The Rise of Skywalker?

 

FlixChatter Review – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

I have to admit that my life has been so hectic lately I haven’t really had time to anticipate any films this holiday season like I normally do. But when the press screening invite came out for The Last Jedi, I actually got more excited despite only having seen only one trailer. Well, I’m glad that is the only trailer/videos I’ve seen of the film… it’s best to see it ‘blind’ knowing as little as possible. I don’t write reviews very often anymore, so indulge me when I go a bit longer with this one.

Force Awakens is more nostalgic and an homage to the original from JJ Abrams, and while The Last Jedi also still has to tread on familiar grounds, it somehow feels fresh and new. There are quite a few surprises that thrills, delights and tugs my heartstrings. Ok granted I’m more of a casual Star Wars fan, so I don’t have the depth knowledge like ardent aficionados, but I was quite caught up with the journey of the main characters. The story pretty much picks up where the last film leaves off, with a literal cliffhanger as we saw Rey (Daisy Ridley) meeting Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) up high on a cliff by an ocean.


But before we get there, the film drops us straight into an intergalactic space battle of the Resistance fighters, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) against the reigning First Order. I enjoy thrilling aerial battles and the SFX is off the charts in a film of this magnitude, but I’m glad there’s more to this movie than just action, action, action. What I really enjoyed most from the film is the quieter, more talky scenes between Rey and Luke. Writer/director Rian Johnson delved deep into the saga’s mythology and Jedi philosophy… about what the force really is, the real power of the Jedi, etc. Those are the real appeal of this enduring franchise and what makes me go ‘ok I see why people love this saga so much and why it appeals to multiple generations.’

There are fans who might not like the direction of Luke in this film (even Hamill himself reportedly told Johnson he fundamentally disagreed how his character was written), but I personally love the deconstruction of such a titular character. Why is Luke such a legend? Just what exactly is the Force and who gets to have it? How does Luke himself sees his own power and its effect in the universe? It’s always intriguing to learn just what the fuss is about Luke, especially given how he was talked about in virtually every scene in The Force Awakens, yet we only got to see him for mere seconds! I love the grizzled, curmudgeon Luke (like Hamill was channeling the real Harrison Ford!), the salt & pepper longish hair and beard makes him look even more distinguished. The scenes between him and Rey are definitely my favorite. “This is not going to go the way you think.” Luke says at one point (it’s not a spoiler as it’s in the trailer and all over its promos)… and you know what, the film actually delivers on that sentiment!

The film is divided into three major scenarios, in which each team has to fulfill a certain ‘task’ if you will, all happening around the same time. My main quibble with the movie is that the transition between one scenario to another feels disjointed at times. One scene would be solemn and intense, then it’ll switch to something more mischievous and funky and then it’s full-throttle action. Perhaps it’s to be expected when you have such a vast narrative involving so many players but it could’ve been done more smoothly. That said though, the film has enough going for it–the energetic action, lively humor and genuine emotion–that I didn’t even mind the 2.5 hours running time.

Obviously the strength of this space saga is the characters people truly care about over the years. I feel like there’s a proper balance (a word thrown out a lot in this film) between the iconic characters and the newer ones that expand the story. The emotional tug of war between Rey and Kylo is the heart of the story here, and both Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley are absolutely terrific. I’ve loved Ridley’s spunky Rey from the start and I find Driver’s Kylo even more magnetic here (and not only ’cause he’s got such great mane!). Yes he’s a grandpa Vader wanna-be (and he’s still got serious anger-management issues), but there’s much more than that and the internal conflict within him is palpable. Poor Domhnall Gleeson though, a terrific actor who’s relegated to being the comic relief as the over-the-top General Hux.

On the Resistance team, pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, not to be outdone by Adam in the sexy hair department) gets more to do here. I wouldn’t mind seeing a Poe solo movie with the oh-so-charismatic Isaac, he’s just a cool guy with a reckless energy a la Han Solo. There’s less bantering between him and his bestie Fin (John Boyega). Instead, Fin is paired with another spunky maintenance worker loyal to the Resistance, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). BB-8 is still an immensely fun droid to watch, while the new avian creature Porg likely only appeals to little kiddies. I’m glad to see two new female characters with a proper arc, one is Rose and the other is Vice Admiral Holdo, played by veteran actress Laura Dern. There’s a pretty intense exchange between her and Poe, but I’m not even going to spoil it for you what it’s about. One thing I can say is the scenes of Carrie Fisher is truly bittersweet. The film is dedicated to her (naturally!) but the whole film gives a proper homage to such an iconic character.

Now onto SPOILERS territory… (highlight to read)

It was cool to see Yoda making an appearance here with Luke on the island. As Luke struggles with destroying the ancient Jedi text, Yoda just made it go kablooey. It’s not particularly a highlight for me, but it’s cool to see the apprentice and the master reunited. Another reunion that made me tear up is Luke and Leia… especially when she gave the Han Solo’s dice he grabbed from the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon. I love when Leia said ‘Luke, I know what you’re going to say. I changed my hair.’ Ha! It feels like something Carrie Fisher herself would say. When Luke said to her (about Han) ‘he’s never really gone’ it feels like how Carrie herself is to the SW family and the fans. Her spirit will always be with the franchise. 

Now for those who’ve seen this? Who do you think the Last Jedi is? Is it Luke or is it Rey? Thoughts on the kid in the last scene that hints he’s got the Force with him?

My initial reaction after I saw this is it’s currently one of my favorites in the franchise! Well, after four days seeing it, I still stand by it. In fact, I don’t mind seeing this again by year’s end. It’s really got everything. Thrilling action, check. Intense lightsaber battle, check. Witty repartee, check. Emotional struggles, check. The action punctuates the story and that’s how it should be. Unlike the overwrought and mawkish prequels, Rian’s script has zest and wit, and also unafraid to poke fun at themselves. I also marvel at the cinematography by Steve Yedlin, a longtime Rian Johnson collaborator. So many iconic visuals that truly took my breath away, especially those on the island filmed in County Kerry, Ireland. And of course, John Williams’ iconic epic score still gives me the chills!

By the time the end credits roll, I am already excited to see how the story goes from there. It’s great to have a filmmaker who evidently has been a fan of the franchise since he was a kid, but still also an ‘outsider’ who dared to take the 40-year-old saga into unexpected paths. The force is certainly strong with Rian Johnson, so I have no problem having him do the next Star Wars trilogy.


So what are your thoughts on The Last Jedi? Feel free to indulge me on your own theories about what happens in the film!