Tuesday, December 22, 2020

REVIEW: News of the World

If you thought the film industry would put a halt to the traditional period epic Oscar contender in the wake of widespread theater closures, think again. Paul Greengrass' 19th century western "News of the World" arrives in the nick of time for the December holiday season. And yet, it could also be appropriate to say that it arrives too late, representing entertaining but old-fashioned filmmaking that feels like an outdated throwback to the prestige films of the past.

Set in the post-civil war South, "News of the World" follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a war veteran who now makes a living from touring through small towns to read the latest newspapers to captive audiences. During one such trip through Texas, he stumbles on a young girl (Helena Zengel) alone in the wild who is unable to speak English. Upon reviewing documents accompanying her, Captain Kidd learns that she is of German descent but was taken by the native Kiowan people after her family was murdered. Further instructions reveal a surviving aunt and uncle, her only remaining family. Feeling obligated to protect her, Kidd embarks on a journey to brave hostile terrain and humans alike to restore her to civilization.

Adapted from a novel and mounted on a grand scale with a lovable movie star, "News of the World" is indeed a throwback to the classic adventures of yesteryear. From Dariusz Wolski's glorious wide shots, to James Newton Howard's heartstring-tugging score, to its unchallenging screenplay, there's a familiarity to its storytelling. And with Greengrass at the helm, the requisite shootouts and environmental dangers are depicted with his trademark intensity.

While the virtuosity of the production values will leave you feeling nostalgic for the Golden Age epics, the film is perhaps even more resonant as another relic of old Hollywood - the star vehicle. In her first American role, Helena Zengel's tenacity will surely be praised as a revelation (despite recalling the same unruliness displayed in 2019's "System Crasher"). But it is Tom Hanks' noble screen presence that will captivate audiences and smooths over some of the screenplay's flaws. Namely, there's a simplistic morality of the screenplay that leads to predictability and a lack of complexity to the film's obvious heroes and villains. Furthermore, it fails to fully reckon with the economic and racial tensions of the time period and setting.

And yet, there's a sense of comfort that comes from witnessing a story so carefully crafted around an actor's persona. From the very first scene, you know he'll do the right thing and win your heart. Heroic westerns may be going out of style, but a good Tom Hanks performance is timeless.

Monday, December 21, 2020

REVIEW: Promising Young Woman

There are some films so original and daring in their concept and execution, that it takes a while to process what you've just seen. Emerald Fennell's "Promising Young Woman" is one such film. In this debut feature from actress-turned-director Emerald Fennell, the #MeToo movement gets one of its most provocative cinematic statements, mixing scathing social critique with irreverent, cheeky wit. 

"Promising Young Woman" is the story of Cassie, a former medical school student with a bright future ahead of her. In the aftermath of a traumatic experience, however, she has left her big dreams behind. But while she is now seemingly drifting through life without purpose - to the chagrin of her parents with whom she lives - she has secretly committed herself to an unusual path to recovery. By day, she works in a humble coffee shop. But at night, she masterminds salacious encounters with men, thus transforming into a conniving femme fatale. 

Indeed, you've never seen Carey Mulligan like this before. After her breakout role as a naive schoolgirl in 2009's "An Education," the diminutive actress has become known for her delicate vulnerability. As Cassie, however, she is force to be reckoned with, weaponizing her beauty to thrilling ends. 

Challenging our expectations is truly the hallmark of Fennell's impressive filmmaking here, as she takes the kind of audacious risks that could make or break careers. In addition to Mulligan's against type casting, the opportunistic men she encounters are a recognizable array of unassuming "nice guy" personalities and nerds, including Superbad's Christopher Charles Mintz-Plasse and Sam Richardson of "Veep" fame. And as Mulligan's Cassie embroils them in your mysterious plot to right the wrongs of the past, an ingenious soundtrack of boy crazy pop anthems adds a touch of hilarious irony. The costume design further adds to the fantasy, with Cassie donning a slew of disguises like a shape-shifting superhero. 

Keeping us guessing and entertained all the way to its mindblowing ending, Fennell's stylistic choices would seem frivolous if it weren't for the trenchant social commentary embedded within the narrative. Under Cassie's well-adjusted veneer is a woman whose life is forever traumatized as a result of an experience with sexual abuse. And through her interactions with other characters, the script highlights the ways rape culture persists in society in the form of victim-blaming, wilful denial and the silence of women and men alike. Most importantly, it reminds us that the unbalanced power dynamic will almost always favor men, even in the face of formidable women like Cassie and the brilliant writer-director who envisioned her.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

REVIEW: Nomadland

Much ado has been made over the past decade about the supposed neglect of Middle America - or more condescendingly, "real America" - by the "coastal elites" and "liberal media". During his election campaigns and presidency, Donald Trump pandered to the beliefs that immigrants were stealing jobs and contributing to a culture of "immoral" progressive values over conservative tradition. And yet, one of the most beautifully empathetic films about the working class struggle was directed by a Chinese woman based in Los Angeles. In "Nomadland", Chloe Zhao takes audiences on a breathtaking journey into America's heartland, exploring the perspective of one woman and her newfound way of life.

Indeed, Fern (Frances McDormand) knows a thing or two about the blue-collar lifestyle. She spent much of her life in a factory town established around US Gypsum, a manufacturer of sheetrock and other construction materials. In the wake of the recession, however, the plant shuts down, leaving the residents of Empire, Nevada bereft. Exacerbated by the death of her husband, a company man, Fern thus finds herself unmoored. Fueled by her innate will to live and pick up the pieces, she then musters the courage to embark on adventure through the American West, living out of her van as a modern nomad.

The power and impact of large corporations is acutely felt through "Nomadland." Apart from US Gypsum, the historically successful Amazon company looms large over this story as one of the main sources of employment for Fern and some of the people she meets along the way. Drawing attention to Amazon and its recognizable signage - as opposed to an unnamed or fictional company - Zhao shrewdly places "Nomadland" within the present day. And if there is anything we learned in 2020, is that America prioritizes the economy and big businesses above all else.

What makes "Nomadland" so special therefore, is how it functions as a reclamation of America from its capitalist ideals and focuses instead on the people whose livelihoods often depend on the production line. Indeed, many of the nomads Fern encounters have been "workhorses" as one man puts it . Brimming with stories about their life experiences, we listen to them around campfires and chance meetings across the vast terrain of Fern's quest. 

"Nomadland" isn't the first film to center a narrative on people who have chosen an unconventional lifestyle. But Zhao's simple, yet profound vision outshines them through its relatability. Fern isn't trying to "find herself" or reject modern society and technology like a counterculture hippie. Her desire is to reconnect with other people and restore the pleasures of nature and friendship to her life. 

What results is a story that is both personal and universal, told with the heartfelt, plainspoken authenticity of a documentary approach. You don't need to do any research to learn that many of the supporting characters are non-actors and real life nomads. And their naturalism is shared by McDormand in an exceptionally lived-in performance. Effectively acting as a surrogate for Zhao and the audience, her performance is largely reactive, filled with moments of active listening. Completely lacking in vanity, she finds real depths of emotion and feeling.

Aside from the touching humanity on display, what elevates "Nomadland" into the realm of the sublime is the supplemental artistry that Zhao and her craftsmen lend to the narrative. Most notably, Ludovic Einaudi's serene music - taken from his album "Seven Days Walking" - and Joshua James Richards' majestic cinematography, which takes full advantage of natural light to accentuate the preciousness of community and the effortless beauty of the American landscape. "Nomadland" may not convince you to drop everything and become a wandering nomad, nor does it ask you to. But its exhortation to embrace the simple things in spite of the pain of grief and suffering is deeply moving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

REVIEW: Minari

With his duly award-winning new feature "Minari", filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung has delivered one of 2020's quintessentially American stories. Based on his own childhood experiences, it follows a Korean-American family as they settle into their new home in Arkansas. At once a classic and undeniably contemporary immigrant drama, this special film is a touchingly empathetic piece of storytelling.

Indeed, while its 1980s setting and Korean characters point towards more recent waves of immigration, the opening scenes of "Minari" harken back to the first settlers on the American frontier. As the Yi family make their way towards their new land in the middle of nowhere, the promise of a vast land of plenty awaits. Adapting Western iconography, however, the iconic horse-drawn wagons and homesteads are replaced by a family sedan, moving truck and mobile home. Having abandoned the city life of their previous LA abode, the family's patriarch Jacob (Steven Yuen) has big dreams for his new farmland. But this modest small town life may prove to be too much of a culture shock for his wife (played by Han Ye-ri) and their two young children.

The American Dream indeed looks different for each family, all of whom fall on various spectrums of American assimilation. With his desire to build a thriving farm of Korean produce, Jacob is the model of the traditional economic migrant. He clings to his culture while forging an optimistic future through hard work, discipline and sacrifice. The rest of his family, however, are more inclined towards the immediate comforts of a more urban lifestyle. 

The tensions between their viewpoints is what propels Chung's wonderfully humane script, illuminated through fully realized performances from the cast. The partnership and understanding subtly conveyed by Yuen and Ye-ri for example, makes their widening rift all the more heartbreaking. Meanwhile, the inversely burgeoning relationship between David and his newly arrived grandmother becomes the heart of the film. 

With easily the year's most adorable child performance so far, Chung uses his surrogate David (played by Alan Kim) to explore both the humor and poignancy of growing up as a confused first generation immigrant. As he inbibes his "mountain water" (i.e. Mountain Dew), he laments the fact that Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) is not a "real grandmother" who cooks and bakes cookies. But before long, they become the best of friends, with their scenes together providing some of the film's most heartrending emotions. 

Though its sunny photography and largely welcoming community - a major relief considering rural red state setting - may fool you into thinking otherwise, the Yi family will face their share of struggles. But what "Minari" beautifully portrays is how family and friendship can enrich the simplest ways of life, where a weekly church service represents the only significant social activity. In its unique way, "Minari" therefore celebrates the often underappreciated shared humanity between the immigrant experience and small town America. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

REVIEW: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" - a stunning play now adapted for the big screen by director George C. Wolfe - would be nothing without the profound words of playwright August Wilson. But the earlier musings of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes also echo throughout this tragic tale about the black experience in America. Set in 1920s Chicago, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is a heartrending exploration of what can happen to a dream deferred. 

Of course, there's no greater dream than the American Dream, which for many black people in the post-reconstruction era was symbolized through The Great Migration. That mass exodus is quickly referenced in the film, whereby advertisements portrayed the North as the Promised Land for the downtrodden in the South, proclaiming a bounty of employment opportunities and a better life. But the fantasy soon gave way to disillusionment for many, including singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her upstart trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Despite achieving success as the "Mother of the Blues", Ma Rainey becomes weary of exploitation underlying her professional relationships with her white manager and producer. Meanwhile, Levee is still fueled by fierce ambition, despite his own experiences with trauma at the hands of white men. As they both fight to overcome their "glass ceilings," tensions also flare up between them and the rest of the band during one fateful recording session.

Before the characters get to dig into the dialogue of Ruben Santiago-Hudson's expressive screenplay, the music takes the spotlight. The film opens in a show-stopping number with Ma Rainey leading the way, letting us know how she got her esteemed moniker. As we're introduced to her in caked up makeup, gold teeth and striking figure, Ma Rainey is unforgettable even before she croons her first lyric. She is truly one of the year's most eye-catching creations of makeup, hairstyling and costume design.

It's through Viola Davis' incomparable acting, however, that Ma Rainey's commanding, unapologetic personality come to life. In a career full of memorable performances, this is her most transformative and challenging role to date. With every swish of her hips, sharp retort and indulgent gulp of Coca-Cola, she is the physical manifestation of a woman "taking up space" and "reclaiming her time." 

Unfortunately, all the talent, self-assurance and ambition is no match for institutional racism. And this is most painfully evoked through the perspective of Levee in his interactions with his band-mates (perfectly portrayed by Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts) and other characters. As he reflects upon the horrors of his past with an optimistic gaze towards his future, the bittersweet themes of the film hit home. Ultimately, Levee's struggles to fulfill his dreams take on an unanticipated metatextual resonance, as the late Chadwick Boseman's astonishingly dynamic and charismatic performance reminds us of a promising future that can no longer come to pass. I can hardly think of a more fitting final act for his career than this.

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

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


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.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Best of 2019: Top 20 Acting Performances

During the days of classic Hollywood and the peak of the studio system, great acting was often showcased through star vehicles - films crafted around the persona of a single movie star to enhance or build on their popularity. As movie stars have become less of a draw for audiences, ensemble casts have become even more popular, bringing together multiple fan faves. While compiling this list of the Top 20 Performances of 2019, I also found myself drawn to the ensembles, particularly the pairings within them. Indeed, that almost magical alchemy between actors who "click" delivered some of my favorite movie moments of the year. And in the final rundown, this left only 13 films represented in the list below. Here they are:

Best of 2019: Top 10 Foreign Language Films

When Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” dominated the awards circuit in 2018, it represented a rare instance of non-English cinema taking the spotlight. But in a welcome turn of events, 2019 was arguably an even bigger year for foreign language films. Indeed, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” has produced unprecedented crossover success for Korean cinema, looking to go even further than “Roma” at the Oscars. In addition, a particularly strong year for French cinema had cinephiles falling in love with such stellar work as “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, “Atlantics” and “Les Misérables.” These films and more are celebrated in this year’s list of the Top 10 Foreign Language Films of 2019.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Best of 2019: Top 10 Documentaries

A daring mission to the spoon, a nerve-wracking war story, a devious political conspiracy. For mainstream audiences, these premises bring to mind some of the year’s most popular blockbuster films. But they also represent the true stories behind some of the year’s best documentaries. Far from the traditional “talking heads” style of yesteryear, non-fiction filmmaking continues to thrive, delivering cinematic thrills and artistry on par with that of narrative features. Indeed, the following list of the Top 10 Documentaries of 2019 includes several films that would hardly feel out of place on awards ballots for cinematography, directing, editing, screenwriting, and sound.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, January 18, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Predictions

With the Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards agreeing on their acting winners, I expect more of the same tomorrow at the SAG Awards. Here are my predictions:

Best Cast in a Motion Picture
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Male Actor in a Leading Role
Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”)

Best Female Actor in a Leading Role
Renée Zellweger (“Judy”)

Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)

Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”)

Saturday, January 11, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Predictions

Tomorrow, the last major awards before the Oscar nominations will be handed out by the Critics Choice Association. And as they love to remind us, they are one of the more reliable precursors to the Academy Awards. Will they serve up a preview of this year's Oscar nods? Here's how I see it playing out at the Taye Diggs-hosted 25th annual Critics Choice Awards:


Sam Mendes – 1917

Joaquin Phoenix – Joker

Renée Zellweger – Judy

Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Laura Dern – Marriage Story

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Awards

With the Oscar nominations fast approaching, the Golden Globes last weekend gave a strong hint of who the frontrunners will be come Monday morning. And in a rather surprising outcome it was Sam Mendes' "1917" which took the big wins of Best Picture (Drama) and Best Director. Could this ambitious war effort lead the Oscar noms, or will it be Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood", winner of the Best Picture prize in the Comedy/Musical category? The stage is set for an interesting final phase of this Oscar season indeed. Here are this year's Golden Globe winners:

Best Picture, Drama

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Director
Sam Mendes, 1917

Best Actress, Drama
Renee Zellweger, Judy

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy
Awkwafina, The Farewell

Best Actor, Drama
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy

Taron Egerton, Rocketman

Best Supporting Actor
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: Little Women

Given the debate surrounding the value (or lack thereof) of yet another "Little Women" adaptation hitting theaters, let me preface this review by saying that I have never read Louisa May Alcott's classic novel. Furthermore, my memories of the 1994 film adaptation have long faded. With that being said, I approached Greta Gerwig's latest work with great anticipation. And what I discovered was a cinematic tour de force that is fully worthy of praise and a place in the Best Picture conversation.

In this classic tale of sisterhood set around the time of the American Civil War, we are first introduced to our main protagonist Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer hoping to sell her latest work. As the story progresses, we soon learn that she is just one of several sisters with artistic inclinations, including an avid pianist (Beth, played by Eliza Scanlen), an ambitious painter (Amy, played by Florence Pugh) and a talented actress (Meg, played by Emma Watson). These interests will evolve and change over the years, however, as they come of age in a time of hardship which will test their family and other relationships.

Indeed, romance, humor and tragedy are the order of the day, as Greta Gerwig delivers a bold interpretation of classic costume drama tropes. Making a strong case for a second Best Director nod, she perfectly balances the contrasting tones through smart visual and storytelling choices. At once delicate and exuberant, the cinematography is equally adept at capturing the restless optimism of youth and the stillness of disillusioned adulthood. Similarly, the color palette reflects the contrast between the glow of nostalgia and the more solemn pragmatism of the present and future, further emphasized by non-linear storytelling which enriches rather than obfuscates the narrative.

As that narrative follows the diverging lives of the titular sisters, Gerwig's screenplay - worthy of consideration for Best Adapted Screenplay - compellingly explores feminist themes which continue to resonate today. And in conveying the perspectives of the richly defined characters, the audience is treated to a plethora of sensational performances. Among the sisters, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are standouts, deservingly garnering attention for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress kudos respectively. As the headstrong and fiercely independent Jo, Ronan anchors the film with vulnerability and charisma. Meanwhile Pugh is truly inspired in her take on the petulant Amy, brilliantly charting her character's arc with almost vaudevillian expressiveness in her youth and stoic poise as she finds her way in the world.

Simply put, "Little Women" is one of the most entertaining, emotionally affecting and downright gorgeous films of the year. Several of its painterly shot compositions (nominations for Best Production Design, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design deserve to be foregone conclusions) are seared into my memory, and Alexandre Desplat is on track for another Best Original Score nomination for his typically wonderful music. It may tell a familiar story, but Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" is unforgettable.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Predictions

The 2020 phase of the awards season kicks off in fine style tomorrow with the Golden Globe Awards and anticipation is high as several films are looking strong to dominate the night. Will it be nominations leader "Marriage Story", foreign language breakout "Parasite" or the throwback masterworks from two of Hollywood's most respected auteurs (Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese). Tune in to NBC at 8pm EST to find out if my predictions below are correct.

Best Picture, Drama
The Irishman

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Director
Bong Joon Ho, Parasite

Best Actress, Drama
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy
Awkwafina, The Farewell

Best Actor, Drama
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy

Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actor
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern, Marriage Story