David’s Watch Diary: March 2021

Thoughts on Raya and the Last Dragon, Minari, Collective, Promising Young Woman, and more.

Raya and the Last Dragon (Disney+)

Disney’s latest animated epic, primarily directed by studio veteran Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting), wears its influences on its sleeve. Raya and the Last Dragon tosses ingredients from Indiana Jones, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Miyazaki (especially Princess Mononoke), and more into its kimchi pot; even the basic synopsis — precocious princess joins forces with a supernatural guardian to save the world from ecological disaster — reads like Moana relocated to the Asian mainland. The film is more than that, fortunately. Most of all, the animation is stunning. Just breathtakingly good. And not just the colorful backgrounds and sets (inspired by Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and others), which we’re used to by now; rather, the film boasts some of the most realistically expressive character design I’ve ever seen in a computer-animated film.

The story, about disparate tribes needing to unite (or create a fellowship, as it were) in the face of a larger threat, is effective despite its familiarity; the script, credited to Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, ably hits its marks. It also features terrific voice acting, primarily from Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, and Gemma Chan. In Tran’s case, she’s overdue a showcase after truly wretched fan behavior sidelined her from the last Star Wars film, and makes the most of it here as the titular Raya. She is shown first as a young girl training with her father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) to protect the magic crystal that protects the world; when Benja’s dream of a united Kumandra are thwarted by greed and prejudice, the crystal is broken, unleashing a faceless, swirling force of destruction that turns most of the land’s people to stone.

We then pick up years later with Raya, riding across this post-apocalyptic wasteland on a suitably adorable armadillo-type creature and hunting for not just the crystal shards, but what gave them their power — the legendary dragon, Sifu (Awkwafina). That Sifu turns out to be suffering from her own case of Imposter Syndrome is beside the point; she has a part to play, and is a great swimmer. Adventure ensues, allies are collected, and the survivors of “Spine,” “Fang,” etc. must choose between tribalism and humanism. You know, standard allegorical fare. This is all entertaining and well timed, but for me at least, the dialogue feels more like the first draft of an anachronistic Dreamworks project than usual. The characterizations and world-building are surprisingly shallow, and too many jokes fall flat. When Raya goes for the jugular thematically, it connects — a great third act makes up for a lot of shortcomings, but the road there is too unsteady to put it in the studio’s top tier.

Minari (VOD)

If the “American Dream” means anything, it’s the notion that you can come here with nothing in your pocket and build a fulfilling life for yourself through sheer moxie. We can have a much longer conversation about equity (or the lack thereof) and who has built-in advantages that others do not, but that’s the general idea. Minari, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, is a film that believes in possibilities, but is pragmatic about the struggle required to get there. It knows the Dream comes with an unfair cost, and many simply cannot pay it. That’s not to say the film is a downer — not at all. Minari is poignant, inspirational, and frequently funny, but there’s an undercurrent of melancholy running underneath as the Kim family endeavors to turn their new Arkansas homestead into farm that won’t just feed themselves, but fellow immigrants looking for a taste of home.

ForJacob (Steven Yeun), it’s a noble goal. Worth the risk. He attempts to deflect the worries of his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), assuring her that everything will work out, that he knows what he’s doing, and they won’t be stuck separating (or “sexing”) baby chicks for the rest of their lives. He even goes as far to say that if the new farm does fail, Monica can take their two children back to California and do whatever she wants. The stakes are high, but Jacob has Belief — a belief he is also trying to pass on to his young son, David (a delightfully precocious Alan Kim). David has a heart murmur, and isn’t allowed to run and play like little boys are wont to do, but he’s clever, and loves his parents, and hates when they fight.

All of this and more is drawn from Chung’s own childhood memories, sometimes painfully so; the microaggressions from their neighbors (“Why is your face so flat?” one white boy asks David) stack up; a man named Paul (Will Patton) proves an able farmhand but a religious zealot; the crops are perpetually on the brink of disaster. Then the arrival of Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Yoon, fantastic) upends the already delicate family dynamic — to David, she can’t be a “real grandmother” because she swears and doesn’t bake. She teaches him and his sister (Noel Cho) cutthroat card games. She makes fun of his “broken ding-dong” when he wets the bed. But over time, their relationship provides the film’s emotional fulcrum, and Chung’s exceptional screenplay deepens the rest of the characters alongside them.

Even Paul’s spirituality, initially treated like an uncomfortable curiosity, is shown to be more authentic than what the Kims experience in the local Baptist church. (If there’s an essay out there on the film’s fascinating inversion of the White Gaze, do let me know.) Most of Minari’s story unfolds like that, a series of moments that slowly fill in the mosaic, ultimately revealing through triumph and heartbreak that it’s not merely what we do that matters, but what we do together. It’s a special film. See it.

Collective (VOD)

On October 30th 2015, a fire broke out at a Bucharest club called Collectiv that killed 28 people and injured hundreds. When reports came out that the venue lacked fire exits and had been given a sham permit by the mayor, the tragedy grew into a political scandal that shook all of Romania. The entire government resigned, replaced by an ad hoc administration of technocrats. Even still, burn victims continued to die in Romanian hospitals, and no one knew why, even as health officials had maintained that they were giving care of equal quality to Austria’s or Germany’s. And that’s when documentary filmmaker Alexander Nanau turned his cameras on some of the only journalists willing to speak truth to power: the team led by Catalin Tolontan at, of all places, the Sports Gazette.

Collective is searing, engrossing, and infuriating. Nanau’s observational style — no interviews, no narration — makes the film feel more like a Paul Greengrass docudrama than non-fiction, with the story providing more twists and turns than an episode of Law & Order. Nanau, often alone or with just a sound recordist, followed Tolontan for over a year as they pursued leads and conducted interviewers with whistleblowers, methodically uncovering corruption at an obscene scale — from the manufacturer supplying diluted disinfectants at markup, to the hospital administrators taking kickbacks, all the way down to the doctors bribing those administrators to be placed in operating rooms where they are more likely to collect bribes from patients. It’s rotten all the way down, they learn, and has been for decades; how many thousands have died as a result of intentionally shoddy care?

Nanau is given an even more unprecedented opportunity when the new Minister of Health, a former patient advocate named Vlad Voiculescu, allows him to film official meetings as the interim government struggles to reform the system before the next election puts the same corrupt officials back in power. Nanau captures moments of hopelessness and frustration, along with Voiculescu’s belief that an informed public is the only mechanism for lasting change. But his political adversaries are shameless liars and fearmongers, and we see the defeat in his eyes long before election day. To this American viewer, at least, it is all painfully familiar. Collective’s ending may be downbeat realpolitik, but the story it’s telling is a vital and universal cautionary tale. It’s the best documentary of 2020.

Promising Young Woman (VOD)

Review added March 18th

Emerald Fennell’s pitch-black satire(?) is a tremendous film, worthy of the nominations it collected this week for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and for Carey Mulligan’s electrifying performance. If that’s all you need to know, cool. The VOD price just went down to $5, and it’s worth more than that. But I’m not going to go long on it, either, for two reasons: the story unspools in more directions than I want to spoil; and, as a guy, I kind of feel like I should get out of the way and let Promising Young Woman speak for itself.

I’ll say this — it is savage. Initially a kicky, candy-colored, feminist thriller, Fennell’s script features more tonal shifts than a Schoenberg concerto. It spares no one in depicting Cassie’s (Mulligan) efforts to avenge the suicide of her best friend after she was raped at a medical school party seven years before: not the authorities who didn’t believe Nina’s story, or the legal system that went out of its way to discredit her, or the girlfriends who should have known better, and certainly not self-described “nice guys” who wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of a girl too drunk to stand. To hammer home this last point, Fennell brilliantly casts her film with an array of likable actors — Bo Burnham, Adam Brody, Sam Richardson, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, etc. — who take turns puncturing their on-screen personas in increasingly hideous ways.

But this is Carey Mulligan’s movie, period. After breaking out in 2009’s An Education (though I’ve known her since the all-time-best episode of Doctor Who, “Blink”), the English actress has steadily built a CV of critically-acclaimed work in Inside Llewyn Davis, Drive, Shame, and Wildlife, and is asked here to command every scene with a withering glare and barely-veiled grief. Partnered with whip-crack editing (Frédérick Thoraval, also Oscar-nominated) and cleverly idiosyncratic needle drops (from “Toxic” to The King & I), Fennell & Mulligan are in total control of every moment, even as the film steers into more and more unsettling territory. As a directorial debut for the former, it’s remarkable. For Mulligan, it’s the performance of a lifetime.

Quick Hits:

  • I should say something about the WandaVision finale, and that something is… it was fine. I’m not bothered by some of the most interesting internet theories not panning out (save the use of Evan Peters as not just a red herring, but a troll job), and I thought it did a pretty decent job of centering Wanda’s emotional arc and the sacrifice she chose to make at the end. The “superpowered people flinging blobs of magic” climax was obligatory, but engaging. And I loved the reference to the Ship of Theseus, which joins the The Good Place’s use of the Trolley Problem in this new age of Philosophy via Entertainment. But something about the ending didn’t really sit right with me — in particular, how Monica had to be the one to let Wanda off the hook for what she had put the people of Westview through. I suppose that’s par for the course with this stuff, but it felt like the show had to keep hedging its bets to allow Wanda to continue shifting from good to bad as future stories demands it. I’m a fan of WandaVision overall, especially the early episodes, but the finale is not what I’ll remember.
  • Mr. Mayor only had nine episodes to air in its COVID-shortened debut but hopefully they won’t be the last, because it really had turned the corner in the last few. Beginning in the bottle-ish episode “Respect in the Workplace,” Tina Fey & Robert Carlock had started to figure out what made the characters distinctive and funny. Most of all, a comically furious Holly Hunter lifts all boats. Mr. Mayor isn’t the out-of-the-box success of 30 Rock or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but it deserves another look.
  • We are now fully caught up on Apple TV+’s For All Mankind (so a few episodes into Season 2, airing now), and I’m really, really digging it. I’ll have a lot more to say next month — it already had me hooked as a space nerd, but I didn’t expect it to be so dramatically compelling. (The S1 episode “Hi Bob,” where the lunar base crew slowly unravels with nothing to do but watch old episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, was a real standout.) It’s not a perfect show — the character motivations are too often mined for drama, not authenticity — but super engaging all the same.

Looking ahead to… The Falcon and the Winter Soldier drops next Friday (Disney+)… Anthony Hopkins vehicle The Father hits VOD (3/26)… If we’re lucky, Godzilla vs. Kong will be the good kind of stupid (3/31, HBO Max)… Raoul Peck examines the history of colonialism in hybrid docu-series Exterminate All the Brutes (4/7, HBO)… a truly unusual Academy Awards are coming on April 25th.

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