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Raya and the Last Dragon

animation, family film, Review, Streaming, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

After Disney-owned Pixar charged into the 2020s with the one-two punch of Onward and Soul, the mainline Walt Disney Animation has entered the fray with their latest jab at multicultural representation. Much as Moana focused on Polynesian culture, Raya And The Last Dragon seeks to be a platform for Southeast Asia, bolstered by a wealth of Asian-American voice talent ranging from Fandom Menace survivor Kelly Marie Tran as the warrior princess Raya to rising star Awkwafina as the water dragon Sisu, right down to Thalia Tran as Noi the littlest con artist and a brief appearance from Dumbfoundead as Chai the flower guy. Even the main writing credits follow suit, with Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen and Crazy Rich Asians co-writer Adele Lim.

Following Raya and Sisu on an adventure across the vibrant and splintered land of Kumandra as they track down the pieces of a mystical orb, the universe here feels like its own little world. The individual lands of Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail show great variety, and the graphic fidelity in all the little elements that comprise them, from light to rainfall to the textures on the characters themselves, is masterfully presented. Ditto for James Newton Howard’s soundtrack, which hasn’t sounded this splendorous in quite some time.

The story at large deals heavily in the concept of trust between people, with the fractured landscape serving as geographic representation of what happened to the nations within. While it adds certain facets to the characterisation of Raya, easily one of the most morally conflicted of the Disney Princesses, along with her connection to rival Namaari (Gemma Chan), the way this theme manifests in the narrative feels far too simplistic.

It gets to the point where adults with adventurous livers could make a drinking game out of how many times “trust” is brought up in dialogue, and the way that it’s treated as a part of human behaviour is equally as leaden. Trust here is presented as something that is vital for existence, but its exploration never goes further than ‘we must do this thing, just trust us’. With Disney’s last effort Frozen II, easily one of the most challenging animated features of the entire 2010s, Raya being so perfunctory feels beneath their abilities. And not just the studio’s either; co-director Carlos López Estrada going from the likes of Blindspotting to this is quite disheartening.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with Raya And The Last Dragon, it’s merely serviceable.

In cinemas March 4 and on Disney+ with Premier Access from March 5.

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Teaser: The Underground Railroad

Spot the Aussie in this teaser for Barry Jenkins' (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) 10 episode limited series, an adaptation of Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. South African actress Thuso Mbedu leads the ensemble cast, which includes Chase W. Dillon, Sheila Atim, Aaron Pierre, Amber Gray, William Jackson Harper, Chukwudi Iwuji, Peter De Jersey, Lily Rabe, Will Poulter, Peter Mullan and Joel Edgerton.
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I Care a Lot

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Organised crime has certain expectations wrapped around it in the world of popular culture. The tailored suits, the coded conversations, the deals that can’t be refused, the simultaneous alliances and priming for betrayal; in fiction, most audiences know the classic formula when they see it. And it’s not that it doesn’t reflect a certain degree of reality, even today; just that its presence in the modern day is something different. A little more sophisticated. And in some respects, more insidious than even the grizzliest of gangland conflicts.

The latest feature from writer/director J Blakeson (The 5th Wave) explores this within the world of aged care, specifically through the scope of professional legal guardian Marla (Rosamund Pike) and her wheelings and dealings. At once reminiscent of her iconic role in Gone Girl, and yet going even further into sadistic trickery and mind games, Pike serves as the face of aged care as an extension of capitalism. A method of squeezing those last few drops out of its dying population, subverting the human want for care – to care for others in order to game the legal system, reducing flesh and blood into liquid assets.

In typical confidence trickster fashion, the thrill comes from not only seeing Marla at work in her grotesque profession, but also in the possibility that she might have met her match. And when she brings Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest as all things wizened and simmering) into her ‘care’, something’s different from her usual stable of wards. A certain detail that doesn’t fit, a particular asset that seems out of place, and a mysterious figure (Peter Dinklage) with a great amount of concern for her current position.

It plays into the traditional organised crime model, but in its bending of tropes, I Care a Lot highlights how this newer breed of criminal has even colder blood running through their veins. Along with the bigger signifiers of the genre as art aesthetic, one of the main pillars in organised crime on film is that of family. The close-knit unit that looks out for one another, that respect those that sit at the same table, and that turns grifting into a generational business.

Marla doesn’t have that. Her entire area of expertise is predicated on the absence of such respect, of such acknowledgement, and that all that accumulated knowledge and insight into the world is more worthless than priceless. Everyone’s either a digit to be added to a larger sum, or a calculator that pushes those numbers together and squeezes.

I Care A Lot opens with Marla directly addressing the audience on how kindness and looking out for anyone other than No. 1 is a fool’s errand. Audiences may feel the urge to argue against such things, but let’s face it, that argument is only in its morality, not its efficacy. It succeeds as chilled and wicked thriller because the only thing colder than its outlook is its reflection in our reality.

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Trailer: The Falcon and The Winter Soldier

Disney+ looks to continue their exciting streaming output with this 6 episode series featuring Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson aka The Falcon, and Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier, as they get into all sorts of mayhem after coming together in the final moments of Avengers: Endgame.
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Country Music

Documentary, Home, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Though he’s been at work way since the coining of the term, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is the very definition of the “deep dive.” Famed and acclaimed for his exhaustive, no-stone-left-unturned investigations into various aspects of American history, sport and popular culture, Burns’ plainly and definitively titled TV series The Civil War (1990), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), Baseball (1994-2010) and The Vietnam War (2017) are widely regarded as the pinnacle of television documentary. Burns now turns his scrutineer’s eye to a deeply American art form with Country Music, which documents the long and wildly winding road of, yes, country music.

With reams (and reams, and reams, and reams) of historical footage and photographs, along with astute, informed and impassioned talking head interviews from a long list of music historians and A-list musicians and performers (Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Merle Haggard, Marty Stuart and Roseanne Cash, just to name a few), Ken Burns begins at the very beginning (the exporting of English folk songs to the Americas, and their slow, gradual, eventual morphing into something truly peculiar to The New World), and then moves with studied assurance through pretty much every chapter of what would become “country music” since. Yep, it’s all here: the emergence of Ground Zero pioneers, The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers; game-changers like Hank Williams; the birth of Texas Swing; the melding of country and rock’n’roll; the “outlaw” movement; the ascendance of country stars to popular international stardom; and the different pockets and variants of country music that bubbled away in disparate parts of the US.

Nothing short of an at-home, on-screen university course, Country Music is a lengthy learning exercise that provides swinging door access into an often misunderstood, maligned and misrepresented music form. But don’t mistake this exhaustive brand of investigation for some kind of dusty, musty form of televisual academia: Country Music is engaging, entertaining and alive at every turn, popping and fizzing with humour, warmth and wonderful anecdotes told by natural born storytellers. Get ready to go deep…

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Greenland

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It’s been some time since we’ve seen a decent, large-scale disaster flick. They accounted for some of the highest grossing films of the ‘90s and director Roland Emmerich (Godzilla, ID4, The Day After Tomorrow) single-handedly tried his best to keep them alive – however, these days filmmakers seem less interested in the catastrophic event and more so in the post-apocalyptic world that follows.

Hence why Greenland feels rather fresh in its timing, and even more relevant given the fear and uncertainty that COVID triggered. Having witnessed actual footage of people fighting over toilet paper and protesting health protocol with machine guns, seeing them react very similarly on screen makes the whole thing way more terrifying.

And sure, we’ve also seen this premise before (twice in the same year with Armageddon and Deep Impact), but, given the fact that in 2021 an asteroid the size of the Sydney Opera House came within close proximity, it doesn’t feel as far-reached as many computer or alien-based threats.

Gerard Butler and Morena Baccarin lead the film as John and Allison Garrity, a married couple on the rocks, reluctantly living together for the sake of their son. Around them, people are fixated on an asteroid referred to as Clarke, which is hurtling towards Earth but according to the media is supposed to disintegrate before it enters our atmosphere. Everyone quickly realises that’s not the case and with the world-ending impact now imminent, the Garritys (and most of America) race towards a super-secret bunker in a highly classified location… which isn’t revealed until about halfway through the film, even though it’s right there in the title.

Thankfully, that’s about as dumb as this gets. Sure, it’s a tad too long, the score by David Buckley is super cheesy and the two leads are borderline overacting most of the time, but somehow it all feels intentional and therefore tolerable.

Director Ric Roman Waugh, responsible for the impressive prison flick Shotcaller, again demonstrates a real knack for keeping the stakes high but not at the expense of personal connections. He smartly dodges many disaster film clichés, such as spending too long on epic landscape destruction, and he doesn’t dwell on the loss of minor characters unless it’s warranted.

Here, the action set pieces always feel localised and therefore there’s real emotional stakes. Even as the family split up, we’re aware of what’s going on around them and where they are in relation to one another. In that sense, this is more of a road trip flick than a global catastrophe, and that’s probably why it works.

That said, many clichés still remain, such as random strangers coughing up important information when they need it, the kid’s medical condition causing most of the trouble they encounter, and the fact that Butler’s character – a construction engineer – can impressively fight multiple people at once. However, if you don’t overthink it too much then the parts that make sense easily outweigh those that don’t.

In any other year, this would be a mid-tier blockbuster, but given the scarcity of similar-scale films, this one delivers – especially when the other releases we did get were so underwhelming (*cough* Wonder Woman 1984).

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Fisher Stevens’ Redeeming Qualities

A busy actor (Succession, upcoming The French Dispatch), producer (The Cove, Tiger King) and director (Stand Up Guys, numerous documentaries), Stevens rarely works on projects that he is not passionate about, and feature film Palmer is no exception.