Tuesday, October 20, 2020

REVIEW: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Ever since its 1990s heyday of John Grisham adaptations, pure courtroom dramas have largely fallen out of favor within pop culture. With its grandstanding monologues, showy acting and easy moralizations, the genre has been even more dismissed by film critics, who now prize subtle realism and ambiguity. It therefore takes a skilled filmmaker to rise above the fray, like writer-director Aaron Sorkin and his latest film "The Trial of the Chicago 7." 

The case at hand in this riveting film was one of great national concern. It is the year 1969 and the United States is knee-deep in an unpopular Vietnam War. Frustrated by the senseless loss of both American and Vietnamese lives, groups of anti-war citizens decide to stage a peaceful protest in view of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But when the protest unintentionally erupts into a riot, the newly elected Nixon government decide to make an example out of a select seven men to quell rising dissent. A criminal case is charged against them, seeking to prove that they initiated a plan to incite violence against the police. But as one of the defendants quickly declares, "this is a political trial." 

That statement is made by Abbie Hoffman, a leader of the counterculture Youth International Party (Yippies). Mischevious yet principled, he believes widespread cultural revolution is needed to foster progress. In the film's greatest casting coup, Sacha Baron Cohen is at his chameleonic best in the role, which acts as an extension of the subversively political comedy of his own productions like "Borat" and TV's "Who Is America". But the film also finds its bleeding heart through his dramatic scenes, anchoring the film through its most liberal viewpoint. 

As Hoffman and his fellow defendants face off against a determined prosecution and a brazenly unsympathetic judge, Sorkin's screenplay works its magic through the sheer spectacle of the courtroom proceedings. Through testimonies and circumstantial evidence, it becomes clear that the accusations of a conspiracy are baseless, most obvious in the case of Bobby Seale (fiercely portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is charged along with the Chicago 7 without any reasonable evidence of collusion.

Like the others, however, Seale's progressive ideologies pose a threat to the establishment. And Sorkin's script puts forth its most astute observations by parsing through such nuances within a larger progressive movement. The confrontations between Hoffman and Tom Hayden (a steady, confident Eddie Redmayne) are especially intriguing, as they explore the tensions between achieving progress through traditional, "respectable" means, versus disrupting the status quo by overturning a failing system and rebuilding anew. 

Through this subplot, "The Trial of the Chicago 7" becomes a fascinating companion piece for Regina King's similarly philosophical "One Night in Miami". Both set during the tumultuous 1960s era of American society, they are resonant testaments to the ways in which long-standing injustices continue to divide us today. "The Trial of the Chicago 7" would have already been a must-see film for its captivating ensemble, engaging pacing and rousing story. But its sincere plea for a more free and fair democracy makes it all the more essential in a pivotal election year for the United States.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

REVIEW: Dick Johnson is Dead

The COVID-19 pandemic is never mentioned in "Dick Johnson is Dead", the latest documentary from cinematographer-turned-director Kirsten Johnson. Yet I couldn't help but think about the virus throughout this extraordinary film that explores aging and mortality. As many of the world's leaders have attempted to offer solace in the fact the virus will mostly prove fatal "only" for older populations, "Dick Johnson is Dead" reminds us that these loved ones are as precious as anyone else. 

Much like her previous effort "Cameraperson", Johnson puts an innovative spin on non-fiction filmmaking with this deeply personal work. In collaboration with her otagenarian father (the titular Dick Johnson), she sets out to craft a film to stage his death through an array of imaginative accidents. As she gives us a peak behind the scenes of this bizarre project, we also learn of the debilitating Alzheimer's diagnosis which afflicted Kirsten's mother and now, her father as well. What begins as an irreverent, humorous endeavour, thus evolves into a deeply moving testament to the pain and beauty of being human. 

Indeed, "Dick Johnson is Dead" is remarkable in the way it plays to Johnson's distinctive strengths as a filmmaker. Through absurdist death scenes and fanciful visions of the afterlife, she showcases her keen eye as a "cameraperson." Cineastes will certainly enjoy seeing "how the sausage gets made" with body doubles, stuntsmen and fake blood. Meanwhile, everyday conversations between herself and her father - as well as extended family and friends - recall the effortless sense of empathy which made "Cameraperson" such a standout. 

Striking this tricky balance between morbid humor and heartrending poignancy is no easy feat, as Johnson plays with reality all the way through to the end. But she is greatly helped by a compelling subject in the shape of her father. With his expressive face and warm personality, you could easily imagine him imparting wisdom and wisecracks alike as a beloved sitcom dad. And indeed, his experiences and outlook add fascinating layers, most notably through heartbreaking memories of his late wife and the hopeful philosophy of his Adventist Christian beliefs. 

As we watch the film's adoring father-daughter pair reckon with mortality, the title "Dick Johnson is Dead" proves to be a misnomer. Despite his age and fading memories, there's no denying his wonderful presence in Kirsten's life. In a time of such uncertainty and fear surrounding a deadly contagion, "Dick Johnson is Dead" is a much needed shot in the arm to cherish the life and lives we have now.

Thursday, September 3, 2020


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:


Bong Joon-ho - Parasite

Joaquin Phoenix – Joker

Renée Zellweger – Judy

Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Laura Dern – Marriage Story