Thursday, September 3, 2020

REVIEW: Mulan

There's a common saying that you don't know what you have until it's gone. And during this historic COVID-19 pandemic, that sentiment has proven true with the closure of cinemas and the postponement of highly anticipated film releases. But thankfully, the mighty Walt Disney Company has stepped up to quell some of our fears over the future of cinema. With the arrival of "Mulan" on its Disney+ streaming platform, audiences can be reminded of the eye-catching Hollywood production values we've come to know and love. 
Adapted from the 1998 animated film and directed by Niki Caro, "Mulan" tells the story of a gifted young woman (played by Liu Yifei) living in China during the Han Dynasty. It is a time of war, as the country becomes threatened by northern invaders. Determined to protect the kingdom, the Emperor orders every family to volunteer one man to serve in the Imperial Army. Having no sons, however, Mulan's ailing father is forced to enlist. But in an act of extraordinary courage, Mulan decides to take his place. But to do so, she must disguise herself as a man. 

And so begins a journey of self-discovery as Mulan defies the gendered norms of her society to become a great warrior. Indeed, this swashbuckling epic retains the bold feminism which made the animated film a hit. But this contemporary screenplay has been updated in thought-provoking ways. Whereas the animated Mulan required extensive training to become a warrior, this iteration portrays the character as the "chosen one" trope. From birth, she is blessed with the gift of being able to harness her superpower-like "chi." 

But does it make the character more inspiring to young girls and women if she's only equal - or superior - to the men because of her special power? Surely, this important change will reignite the "Mary Sue" debate that plagued the Star Wars franchise. Furthermore, the addition of a bona fide witch named Xian Lang (played fearlessly by Gong Li) somewhat undermines the screenplay's obvious intentions to highlight the triggering "witch" accusations leveled at both Mulan and Xian Lang as a legacy of historical misogyny. 

Still, while the handling of these central characters may give you pause, there is no denying the film's impressive visual storytelling. Featuring colorful production and costume design to enhance the glorious setpieces, "Mulan" delivers a grand sense of adventure. But what makes it really stand out from the typical action blockbuster is the way it embraces its Asian influences. From the gravity-defying acrobatics of wu xia, to the graceful intensity of the martial arts-inspired action sequences, it feels truly inspired by the culture of its setting. I even detected a hint of Indian/Bollywood flair to one of the pivotal showdowns, as its ostentatious nature reminded me of the "Baahubali" franchise. 

As with most Disney remakes, "Mulan" narrative won't get points for originality. But its particular brand of Asian, female-led heroism remains absolutely thrilling. If we continue to get a more diverse representation of women and people of color in our blockbusters, then I'm sure Hollywood's future will be in good hands.

Friday, August 28, 2020

REVIEW: Epicentro


If you asked a random sample of individuals to define a utopia, you'd probably get an array of differing opinions. Indeed, the means to achieving this elusive concept has been an eternal debate, exemplified by recent statements at the Republican Convention. During a speech made by Sen. Tim Scott, he decried the Democratic Party's desire to turn America into a "socialist utopia" rather than maintaining the capitalist status quo. 

In Hubert Sauper's latest documentary "Epicentro," utopia is always at the top of his mind as he explores the underlying tensions between capitalist and socialist ideals from the perspective of one of the world's infamous bastions of communism - Cuba. As he looks to the past to understand the island's current social and political climate, the lasting impact of American propaganda is revealed. Beginning with the story of the sinking of the USS Maine and its catalyzing effect on the Spanish-American war, "Epicentro" examines the ways in which Cuba and the United States have become inextricably linked. 

That legacy of US-Cuba relations is immediately evident, as the film shows signs bearing American names such Roosevelt and even more blatantly, America. But Sauper goes a step further, engaging with Cuban citizens young and old to glean insight into the country's past. Most intriguingly, he dedicates much of his attention towards the impressively knowledgeable children, who are able to quote such actions as the interventionist Platt Amendment to support the pervading anti-imperialist sentiment.

As he delves further, there's an alluringly observant, searching quality to Sauper's direction. He takes audiences on an enlightening journey, from roaming the streets of Havana and its music-filled nightlife, to more rural areas where the remnants of a once thriving sugar industry are illuminated in the sunlight. In that sense, he doesn't force the film to fit a cohesive narrative. But it allows the film to feel more authentic, especially in the context of its own suspicious view of cinema's historical use as a propaganda tool. Indeed, some of the its most eloquent moments rely not on talking heads but on evocative everyday images. Notably, the socioeconomic dilemma facing the people is emphatically conveyed when we witness tourists obliviously flaunting their privileges by enjoying spaces and experiences that many local Cubans can only dream of. 

Ultimately, "Epicentro" is unlikely to sway your allegiance between capitalism and more socialist policies. But in amplifying the voices of those who know communist Cuba best, it successfully addresses what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as the dangerous "single story". In doing so, it maintains the compelling enigma befitting of a complex, diverse country at the center - or "el epicentro" - of the East-West divide.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Top 10 TV Programs of 2019-2020


There's no denying that this is a cynical time in America. And as is often said, life imitates art (and vice versa). It seems appropriate then, that this year's most memorable TV programs confronted the terror of America's sociopolitical makeup throughout several of the medium's genres. From sci-fi dystopias to alternate histories which resonate uncomfortably with the present day, audiences were unable to ignore the glaring flaws in the supposed "land of the free." It wasn't all doom and gloom, however, with several standout comedies airing successful seasons. But as the Top 10 Programs listed below will show, the drama series and limited series proved to be most compelling.
  1. The Plot Against America (HBO)
  2. Watchmen (HBO)
  3. Unbelievable (Netflix)
  4. Mrs. America (FX/Hulu)
  5. Normal People (Hulu)
  6. GLOW (Netflix)
  7. Better Call Saul (AMC)
  8. Ramy (Hulu)
  9. The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu)
  10. Mindhunter (Netflix)
Honorable Mention: Pose

Monday, July 27, 2020

Top 10 Acting Performances of 2019-2020 TV


Best Casting: Big Little Lies, Mrs. America, The Good Place

In a prime showcase of how the TV industry is slowly beginning to reflect the diversity of society, this past season saw several incredible performances from underrepresented minorities. From Indya Moore's authentic, wrenching embodiment of a trans woman's desire to achieve her dreams, to Ramy Youssef's challenging and complex exploration of Muslim-American life, these fresh voices impacted the TV landscape for the better. Meanwhile, several veterans continued to show why the small screen continues to be a fertile playground for our finest actors. As we await the announcement of this year's Emmy nominees, here are my picks for the 10 most outstanding performances of the season:
  1. Merritt Wever, Unbelievable
  2. Regina King,Watchmen
  3. Cate Blanchett, Mrs. America
  4. Kaitlyn Dever, Unbelievable
  5. Paul Mescal, Normal People
  6. Indya Moore, Pose
  7. Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid's Tale
  8. Hugh Jackman. Bad Education
  9. Ramy Youssef, Ramy
  10. Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley

Thursday, June 25, 2020

REVIEW: Da 5 Bloods


Arriving at an opportune time in the midst of social unrest surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, Spike Lee's "Da 5 Bloods" is yet another emphatic political statement from one of cinema's foremost truth-tellers. Opening on a montage of archival footage depicting the racial and political tensions surrounding the Vietnam War, this post-war drama comments on the present by digging up the past, literally and figuratively. Its story centers on four African-American war veterans called the Bloods, who return to their former battleground to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader Norman. After decades of trauma surrounding their harrowing experiences, it is hoped that their quest will provide a sense of closure and relief. But the memories of their fellow soldier aren't the only driving force behind their risky adventure. Also buried in the jungle is a treasured bounty of gold which was initially intended to fund a wartime operation, but was instead withheld by the Bloods in the name of reparations for centuries of oppression.

As the men journey to Vietnam , the script explores several ideas relating to justice. As the men reflect on their disillusionment with the racist American society they fought for, they must contend with the lasting pain inflicted on the Vietnamese people. Indeed, many of the film's most tense moments come from angry confrontations between the Bloods and citizens retaliating in honor of fallen relatives. Add a dash of white guilt in the form of an NGO group dedicated to demining the land and it's clear that Lee and his writing team have a lot on their mind.

Translating those ideas into a coherent narrative proves to be slightly unwieldy, however. In particular, the trio of NGO workers seem shoehorned into the narrative without adding much value to the story. Meanwhile, the treasure hunt lacks true suspense.

Instead, "Da 5 Bloods" finds its strongest voice when it focuses on its core theme of brotherhood and its vulnerability in the face of greed. Riding the crest of its soul-inflected soundtrack, the main ensemble - Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr. - bring the easy chemistry of a shared past stained by varying levels of PTSD. Most notably, Delroy Lindo has deservedly earned Oscar buzz for his tormented role as Paul. Through him, we are reminded of the often forgotten struggle of black soldiers who have served America in disproportionate numbers since the nation's inception.

Also making memorable appearances in smaller roles are Veronica Ng as the sympathetic radio personality Hanoi Hannah, as well as Chadwick Boseman as Norman as Stormin' Norman. Reminiscent of Corey Hawkins' cameo as Kwame Ture, there's a galvanizing power to Boseman's impassioned performance as he makes the case for reparations and the virtues of peaceful black solidarity. While Lee's filmmaking techniques have been deployed to greater effect in previous efforts, the conviction behind these performances and their spoken words reflect a cinematic voice that continues to be desperately needed in American film.

Monday, May 25, 2020

REVIEW: The High Note


In a key scene in Nisha Ganatra's "The High Note", the lead character Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) explains to her assistant (Dakota Johnson) the uphill battle she faces as a black female pop star trying to stay relevant in her 40s. Convincingly spoken by Ross, there is a sense of metatextual commentary in the scene, with Ross being the daughter of music legend Diana Ross, who would have surely have faced similar issues throughout her decades-spanning career. And if you didn't already connect the dots, Ganatra leans in further to the homage through the character's glamorous style and the upbeat pop diva style. But while "The High Note" is decidedly not a Diana Ross biopic, it struggles to make its protagonist an intriguing personality in her own right.

Davis' story takes place within the Los Angeles music scene, a place she calls home when she isn't jet-setting the world as a touring artist. As one such tour comes to end, she ponders her next career move. Her label and management team suggest lucrative offers to record a live album and accept a residency in Las Vegas. Davis, however, wants to a rejuvenate her sound with new music. But the only support for her vision comes from an unlikely source - her devoted and ambitious personal assistant.

Ageism and racism in the entertainment industry are a recurring fascination for Nisha Ganatra, who previously explored the themes within the context of late night television in 2019's "Late Night". Yet while that film offered soul-searching complexity for Emma Thompson to explore through a flawed character, Ross's Davis isn't afforded the same sense of an inner life. As she performs to sold-out audiences and lives a life of luxury and privilege, the script barely gives her a distinctive persona aside from her hard-working attitude and talent. Indeed, she is hardly a retired has-been hoping for a comeback, contrary to the claims of June Diane Raphael in an amusing but perfunctory role.

Instead, the star of the show is Dakota Johnson as the assistant (herself a scion of Hollywood royalty), whose character gets a fully realized arc that is sorely lacking in the film's central character. Through understated confidence and palpable chemistry with another musician played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., she gives a dynamic turn as her character becomes embroiled in moral conflicts and a tender romance. But ultimately, her commendable performance is a rare bright spark in a story that ultimately fades under the shadow of a clichéd, shallow screenplay.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Pieces of Us: The Best Films of the 2010s


As I write this, a new decade is proceeding under inauspicious circumstances, as a deadly pandemic has enforced drastic measures such as social distancing and quarantining. In reflecting on the best films of the previous decade, it is therefore somewhat ironic that we are now lamenting the forced online social lives and streaming entertainment which we so heartily ushered in. Always a reliable time capsule, the medium of film showcased this new mode of human interaction, most noticeably in one of the films mentioned in the list below. And in addition to this thematic relevance, visionary filmmakers also called on technological advancements as a tool to produce groundbreaking works of art.

Technology wasn't the only thing on our minds throughout the decade, as buzzwords like "diversity" and "representation" gained major traction in the film industry. While these issues became primarily about race, however, a burgeoning movement of new queer cinema was also claiming the spotlight. This is reflected in 4 of the titles listed below, among many other brilliant works which would have been equally deserving.

Finally, the films of 2010s notably existed in a historic political climate, straddling both the Obama and Trump eras of the influential American empire. While the films themselves may not be providing direct political commentary, it is possible that the resulting tensions between optimism and cynicism subconsciously affected the way I received the decade's films. Whether that may be case or not, I was certainly fascinated by a myriad of characters similarly representing antiheroes, superheroes and everything in between.

As we wait with bated breath to return to theaters and experience a new decade of modern classics, here are 20 of the best films of the 2010s to keep us entertained until then.

Monday, February 10, 2020

And the Oscar goes to... Parasite!


History has been made! At the end of an incredible Oscar ceremony, it was Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" which took home Best Picture, thereby becoming the first non-English language film to win the Academy's top honors. The win capped a remarkable night for Bong Joon-ho, who also won for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, while the film expectedly took home the trophy for Best International Feature. Elsewhere, the awards were largely predictable, as Joaquin Phoenix, Renee Zellweger, Brad Pitt and Laura Dern scooped up the 4 acting prizes. While their categories reflected a worrying dismissal of actors of color in 2019, the Academy almost redeemed themselves with their celebration of "Parasite" and by extension, Asian and world cinema. It remains to be seen whether this will actually turn out to be a watershed moment for non-English language films, but it's a very promising start. Here are your Oscar winners for the year 2019:

BEST PICTURE
Parasite

BEST DIRECTOR
Bong Joon-ho - Parasite

BEST ACTOR
Joaquin Phoenix – Joker

BEST ACTRESS
Renée Zellweger – Judy

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Laura Dern – Marriage Story

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Best of 2019: Top 10 Films of the Year


With the Academy Awards ceremony just moments away, it feels like an appropriate time to finally sound off on my personal faves of the year 2019. And as I reflect on my Top 10 list, I am reminded of all the amazing works of art I was able to witness. More than most other years past, the year's best films truly represented my range of cinematic tastes. Big budget spectacles with even bigger emotions. Passionately acted dramas with scintillating dialogue. Jaw-droppingly beautiful period pieces. Hilarious comedies with poignant messages.

Looking towards the 2020 cinematic landscape, I can only hope for another richly satisfying year. Here are my Top 10 Films of 2019:

Thursday, January 30, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: 1917


With dozens of films dedicated to the subject, every announcement of a WWI comes with a feeling of "been there, done that." But in the ambitious hands of director Sam Mendes, the "war to end all wars" gets a new perspective. Filmed to convey one single take, "1917" is a mind boggling cinematic achievement. But at what cost?

The premise of "1917" is relatively simple. Two British soldiers are tasked with delivering a message to a distant battalion, in the hopes of calling off an attack after intelligence indicates that a deadly trap has orchestrated by the rival Germans. The rescue mission will thus take them through dangerous enemy territory, with very artillery support. But though it seems impossible, the men are driven by an additional motivation, as a brother is among the endangered battalion they hope to save before it's too late.

As our protagonists proceed on their harrowing journey, "1917" is an impressive showcase of filmmaking techniques. Most obviously, the cinematography amplifies the stakes, giving the illusion of real time action. But while the camerawork is the star, it would be ineffective without exceptional work from the actors, composer, production designer and editor. Indeed, George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman are unwavering in their physicality demanding lead roles. The stirring music is deployed judiciously and impactfully. The world-building of the sets are downright incredible, particularly in giving a visceral sense of the omnipresence of death through human and animal carcasses, rodents and flies. And of course, the editor deserves highest praise for making it all feel so seamless and forcing the audience to constantly wonder, "How did they do that?"

It's therefore hard to argue against the film's 10 Oscar nominations, namely Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup & Hairstyling. And yet, despite my admiration for the filmmaking, I rarely felt truly emotionally connected to the story and the soldiers' plight. Even in the intentionality sentimental moments, the "obstacle course" style of the storytelling hardly gave room for the film to contemplate the characters' humanity. In the end, I was reminded of Martin Scorcese's criticisms of Marvel movies as theme parks. Despite the technical mastery on display, "1917" lacks the gravitas to be a truly great war film. Those who fought in WWI are often referred to as "The Lost Generation." It's a shame that this tribute to their efforts falls short of making them unforgettable.