REVIEW: “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021)

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It seems like every year I make a pledge to invest more time and energy into animated movies. And it seems like every year I fail to honor that pledge. For reasons I can’t fully put into words, animated features rarely resonate with me in the same way they do for so many others. The ones I like I REALLY like. But so many have the same basic story structure and the same hyperactive approach to humor. Yes I know, they’re animated films and they’re made to also appeal to children. I’m not knocking them for that. But for me, the very things that give animated films their broad appeal are what often push me away.

Well, I can honestly say “Raya and the Last Dragon” is an animated movie I like. In fact I REALLY like this new adventure-fantasy from Walt Disney Animated Studios. This magical and touching feature from co-directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada taps into a lot of things people are looking for today – a strong female lead, representation, etc. But above all, “Raya” has a story pulsating with urgency. It uses its fantastical setting, cultural inspirations, and enormous heart to encourage us to keep our faith in humanity, to trust one another, and to come together as a people. At a time when left-wing and right-wing tribalism is running rampant, I can’t think of a more timely message.

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Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

The film tells the story of Raya (brilliantly voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), a warrior princess who you could say is a little bit Samurai and a little bit Indiana Jones. She’s a descendent of a family sworn to protect a sacred relic called the Dragon Gem. A prologue describes the river nation of Kumandra as a place where dragons and humans once lived in harmony until their land was invaded by creatures known as Druun who kill the world and turn people to stone. These swirling balls of purple gas were vanquished when the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Before doing so they transported their magic into the Dragon Gem which Raya’s people has protected for generations.

But the other four lands within Kamandra believe the Dragon Gem brings prosperity and they resent not having it for themselves. Raya’s optimistic father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) believes he can quell the friction and bring the five lands together. But mankind’s penchant for selfishness and distrust lead to fighting. The Dragon Gem is shattered, the Druun are let loose, and Kamandra plunges into chaos as many people are turned to stone including Raya’s father.

That all happens in the first 15 minutes. The bulk of the story takes place six years later as an angry and bitter Raya searches for a dragon named Sisu, believed to be the last of her kind. Raya believes if she can find Sisu and then reclaim the pieces of the Dragon Gem she will be able to rid the land of the Druun and save her father. But it’s easier said than done. When the Gem shattered it broke into five pieces with the leaders of the five lands of Kamandra each taking a shard for themselves. Raya has one piece, but she’ll need to travel to the other four lands Tail, Talon, Spine, and the most sinister Fang in order to reforge the Gem.

As you would expect Raya meets an assortment of interesting characters, some who join her on her journey. It starts off rocky once she finds Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina). Their meeting begins with a scene reminding me of why I often groan at animated humor. Sisu bursts into the movie with a loud, silly, high-energy entrance. “Look, it’s a dragon full of goofy gag lines and speaking cringy modern-day slang!” My cynical side immediately kicked in expecting Sisu to be the film’s blaring non-stop comic relief. But to my surprise the filmmakers pull back and show incredible restraint. Sisu does shoot for some laughs along the way, but she’s hardly the one-note constant jokester I feared she would be.

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Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

This actually highlights one of the biggest strengths of “Raya” – the confidence it has in its story which shows most in the film’s willingness to be serious. It doesn’t feel the need for incessant gags, big musical numbers, or many other things animated movies will often lean on too heavily. It simply tells its story with sincerity and heart and without crutches. It also helps to have a wonderful array of supporting characters to fill out the world. Gemma Chan’s Namaari is the most compelling, a fellow warrior princess and Raya’s arch rival from the land of Fang. Izaac Wang is terrific voicing 10-year-old Boun, the charismatic captain of a boat/restaurant called the “Shrimporium”. Benedict Wong plays a brutish yet tender warrior named Tong. And of course we get a con-artist toddler and an armored roly-poly (I know how the last two sound. Just trust me.) They all fit nicely and have roles to play in Raya’s adventure.

And then there is the animation itself, some of the most visually striking work Disney has ever created. From the marvelous character designs to the richly textured world, the film’s visual presentation stuns on countless levels and transports us to a place of eye-popping wonder. The look of the dragons are the one weak point, but who cares when everything else is so vivid and detailed. It’s such a treat. And when considered alongside the smart direction, the thoughtful and affecting script from Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, and some great voice talent led by Kelly Marie Tran, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this isn’t an Oscar contender. And it’s only March! “Raya and the Last Dragon” premieres today (March 5th) in theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access for $29.99.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Red Dot” (2021)

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There’s more than frigid weather and armed stalkers threatening a young couple in the tight and tense Swedish film “Red Dot” from director and co-writer Alain Darborg. Despite its familiar framing, “Red Dot” mixes ingredients from several genres to come up with its own unique flavor. It’s a run-for-your-life horror movie one minute and a gritty survival thriller the next. But when blended together the story has some heavy things to say about humanity and the world we live in.

The film is driven by two terrific lead performances. Nadja (Nanna Blondell) and David (Anastasios Soulis) are so in love when we first meet them. He has just graduated from engineering school and they’re about to move to Stockholm where she will finish medical school. But before they go David pops the big question and asks Nadja to marry him. She enthusiastically accepts and the two are ready to spend the rest of their lives together. “It all begins here“, David lovingly pledges.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

Jump ahead eighteen months and things have changed. Now married in Stockholm, David has a great job but works long hours and does nothing but lounge when he’s home. A frustrated Nadja resents that she’s left with all the housework on top of her studies. She’s also hiding a secret from her husband that adds to her stress. After five tests to be certain Nadja has learned she is pregnant. Normally that’s exciting news, but considering the state of their marriage she’s terrified.

Realizing they desperately need to rekindle their fire, David surprises Nadja with a romantic weekend getaway to snowy Northern Sweden. There they can focus on each other, do a little skiing, and camp out under the beautiful Northern Lights. The trip starts by hitting a lot of familiar notes. For example this isn’t the first time we’ve seen city folks venturing into wilderness and having a run-in with some backwoods locals. For David and Nadja it begins with two creepy-acting brothers at a gas station. Then an uncomfortable encounter with oddballs at a lodge. But everything gets on track and after a fun day outdoors they retire to their tent underneath the famed aurora borealis.

Then their night is interrupted when a bright red laser dot (hence the title) appears on the canvas of their tent, moving around like a laser pointer. But as you can probably guess, it’s no laser pointer. Within minutes the two are indeed running for their lives into the ice-cold darkness with bullets zipping by their heads from a shooter they can’t see. At the same time this is where the movie’s survival elements really kick in with Darborg utilizing his snowy environment extremely well. There are a couple of times where the sensation of freezing from the cold is vivid and palpable.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

As things play out the movie does struggle with an issue that many of these films do – questionable and head-scratching decisions. Yes, you can chalk some of it up to the anxiety of the moment and not thinking clearly. But more than once I caught myself asking things like “Why didn’t you grab the gun?” or yelling “Go back and get the snowmobile!”. But the story makes up for it with a twist-filled and slightly subversive final act that does some spirited things with the themes of making shallow judgements and running from your past.

By the end of “Red Dot” I found myself surprised by what it had become. What started as a familiar concept with a routine setup turned into something with a lot more meat on its bones. It fully embraces elements of its genre influences, but the film is built on some heady ideas that are brought together well in a visceral second half that completely throws out any notion of black and white; good or bad. It looks at an ugly side of humanity and what we as people are capable of doing. And of course it looks at the consequences for those actions which we too often fail to consider. “Red Dot” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT- 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Run” (2020)

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Originally set for a theater release them nabbed by Hulu, “Run” is a “Mommy Dearest” styled psychological thriller that highlights an often underrated actress while welcoming an exciting young newcomer. It’s also the sophomore effort from director Aneesh Chaganty who earned a lot of well-deserved attention for his 2017 tech thriller “Searching”.

In “Run” Chaganty (who also co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian) examines mother/daughter relationships through a sleek Hitchcockian lens. In his film Sarah Paulson plays Diane, a devoted single mother who has cared for her wheelchair-bound 17-year-old daughter Chloe (Kiera Allen) since her troubled premature birth. That means raising her, homeschooling, and tending to her numerous medical needs. “No one in the universe loves their kid as much as I do.”

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Photo Courtesy of Hulu

At first look their relationship seems heartwarming, even inspiring. Sure Diane is a bit overprotective but she clearly loves her daughter. Chloe on the other hand loves her mother but she’s eager to leave the nest, anxiously awaiting an admission letter from The University of Washington.

Chaganty doesn’t waste time showing cracks in Diane’s psyche and the smart, resourceful Chloe begins questioning her mom’s restrictions. Things like her refusal to let her daughter have a cell phone, no internet browsing, and Diane’s insistence on being the only one who gets the mail. Things get even fishier when Chloe finds a bottle of her pills with her mother’s name on it instead of hers.

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Photo Courtesy of Hulu

As you can guess things get darker and deranged as we learn the lengths momma will go to keep her baby under her wing. Paulson’s methodical portrayal of an unhinged Diane is terrific, revealing a deeply sinister edge to the character without going overboard. And Allen is a convincing foil, nailing down several demanding scenes with both physical and emotional commitment.

Sadly the movie does run out of steam before sticking its big batty finish. And while I liked the nuttiness of the last act, countless questions came to mind once the obligatory reveals started pouring in. And to be honest, it took a ton of effort to look past them. Still, “Run” is a sneakily absorbing thriller that pokes at the idea of a mother’s domineering love and a child’s blind trust. And the two central performances keep us glued to the screen even when things get a little hard to swallow. “Run” premieres Friday, November 20th on Hulu.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Rebecca” (2020)

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Daphne du Maurier’s classic 1938 novel “Rebecca” is no stranger to the stage or screen. Perhaps the most celebrated adaptation is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Academy Award Best Picture winner. It was Hitchcock’s very first American production and the first film in his rather bumpy seven-year deal with film producer and studio executive David O. Selznick.

Director Ben Wheatley is the latest to take a stab at this alluring romantic thriller working from a script written by the team of Jane Goldman, John Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse. This new Netflix Original stars the vastly underrated Lily James, the busy Armie Hammer, and the always great Kristen Scott Thomas. It gets off to a strong start, smartly and smoothly manages its significant shift in tone, and then brings everything to light in a satisfying but hurried finale.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

In “Rebecca” James plays a young woman working as an assistant to a wealthy and pompous crow named Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). Much like in Daphne du Maurier’s popular novel, James’ character is given no name yet we learn all we need to know about her through the unfolding story. We learn she comes from a meager background. She lost her parents two years earlier. She’s smart, loves sketching, and dreams of traveling which is why she works for the globetrotting Mrs. Van Hopper. “Everything I know is from books. I haven’t really experienced anything yet.” Oh how that is about to change.

The story gets going in Monte Carlo with the young woman and Mrs. Van Hopper settled in at the posh Hotel Regina. It’s the first of several instances where the movie explores the subject of class and upper-crust snobbery. The assistant is repeatedly reminded of her role as “staff” or “help”. She’s verbally belittled by her employer, denied dining privileges, and given those haughty, dismissive glances from the rich pampered guests. This is a theme that the film revisits later on.

While running errands for her boss the young woman repeatedly crosses paths with the tall, dashing aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Hammer). Against all odds, the two hit it off and begin a simmering summer romance. She is swept away by the charming yet mysterious Maxim, a recent widower who brushes aside any questions about his late wife Rebecca.

After a spur of the moment proposal, the two marry, have a brief honeymoon, and then settle into Maxim’s huge Manderley estate. It’s an almost mythological family property that has been passed from fathers to sons for generations. A beautiful and lavish mansion, Manderley resembles something plucked right out of a new bride’s storybook dream. But the new Mrs. de Winter quickly learns that her husband has his secrets and the memories of Rebecca haunt every room and every hall. To make matters worse she quickly finds herself at odds with the cold and devious Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas), the chief housekeeper with an uneasy attachment to Mandeley.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

“Rebecca” may surprise those unfamiliar with its story. It turns a simply-looking romance built around naïveté and secrets into an unexpectedly empowering story driven by three very different women. The delightfully expressive Lily James makes an enchanting lead. Thomas imbues Mrs. Danvers with an unsettling menace. And the third woman, Rebecca herself, is someone we never really see. Yet the film does a terrific job showing the grip she maintains on Manderley well after her death. And the chilling echoes of her influence haunts her husband, their home, and really anyone close to her.

My biggest beef is with the last act. Wheatley flies through the final twenty minutes or so, covering so much ground in an effort to wrangle together the story’s numerous moving parts. It all comes together neatly enough, but you’ll need to be focused and locked in to keep it all together. Still, there’s so much to admire about this latest “Rebecca”. It maintains a wonderful period feel thanks to Julian Day’s costumes and Katie Spencer’s set design. Laurie Rose’s stellar cinematography vividly captures the beautiful sun-soaked Monte Carlo and as well as the gloomy, atmospheric Mandeley. It’s anchored by a wonderful cast and a story that still has the same kick it’s had for 80+ years. “Rebecca” premieres October 21st on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

First Glance: “Rebecca”

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Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel has been adapted several times for stage and screen. Perhaps the most celebrated is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Ben Wheatley takes a stab at this alluring romantic thriller which will star the vastly underrated Lily James and feature Armie Hammer in his second significant October film role (the other being Kenneth Branagh’s “Death on the Nile”).

The first trailer lays out the story well. A young woman (James) is swept away by a debonair widower (Hammer). The two marry and settle into his Manderley estate where the memories of his old wife Rebecca haunt every room and every hall. Add a deliciously devious Kristen Scott Thomas playing the housekeeper who’s happy to add even more tension between the new couple. The trailer shows off a sparkling period production design but melds it with a creepy Gothic feel, both of which fit the story well. I’m excited for this one.

“Rebecca” premieres October 21st on Netflix. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “Radioactive” (2020)

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Biographical films aren’t as easy to pull off as it may seem. There are plenty of conventional biopic trappings and many movies fall victim to them. But I appreciate the ones that open my eyes in meaningful ways to people I’m not familiar with. Shamefully Marie Sklodowska-Curie is one such person and the new film “Radioactive” from Amazon Studios offers a good yet flawed look into her fascinating life.

Madame Curie made groundbreaking discoveries in the world of science while paving the way for other women in a male-dominated field. Among her many notable accomplishments: She discovered two new elements, discovered and even coined the term “radioactivity”, and championed the use of X-rays during World War I which saved countless lives. She also became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person (man or woman) to win it twice, and the first female professor at the University of Paris.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“Radioactive” from director Marjane Satrapi works hard to avoid hitting the routine biopic beats with varying degrees of success. It’s most notable attempts come in its frequent use of flashbacks and (much more prominently) flash-forwards. They’re ambitious choices that yank us out of her personal drama to show the reverberation of her discoveries through the decades that follow. They are mostly well crafted but jarring interludes that leaves the impression of a movie torn between admiration and scorn.

The sturdy, unshakable, and always convincing Rosamund Pike plays Madame Curie and as usual she seems altogether comfortable in her character’s skin. In 1893 Paris, the Polish-born physicist and chemist finds herself booted from her laboratory for her big ideas and willingness to buck the stuffy male authority. She applies for other labs but is turned down by each. Then she (quite literally) bumps into Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), a fellow pariah among the Paris science elites. Pierre offers Marie a spot at his small but suitable laboratory. The socially awkward and boldly independent Marie initially turns him down, but soon after she accepts his offer. The two develop an impassioned, life-changing partnership that extends to both science and marriage.

From their Satrapi zips through chunks of Marie’s story, stopping briefly for key events such as the couple’s discovery of the elements radium and polonium along with their theory of radioactivity. “Well, I guess everything changes now, doesn’t it?” a character asks. Of course we know things do indeed change and the film stresses that many of those changes haven’t been for the better. Flash-forwards to the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima, the Chernobyl disaster, the nuclear testing in Nevada during the early sixties (you even get to watch a baby mannequin burn, melt, and get swallowed up by the ground just to stress the point). A vignette on cancer treatment is the lone positive mentioned although even it comes with its own harmful caveat.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

I like the film’s willingness to wrestle with the pros and cons of Marie’s discoveries, even if it pulls away from the movie’s biggest strength – Rosamund Pike. She carries the load with an undeniable bravura and commitment to detail that captures Madame Curie both inside and out. She’s especially good when the story moves away from beakers, flasks, and test tubes and into a more personal space. Pike really brings out the humanity, showing off Marie’s drive and grit but also her insecurities and vulnerabilities. This is most vividly seen through Marie’s devoted marriage to Pierre, a devastating tragedy, and an ill-advised affair leading to her being ravaged by the headhunting press.

Some of my favorite scenes come in the last act with Marie and her now grown daughter Irene (Ana Taylor-Joy) on a World War I battlefield bringing mobile X-ray machines to field hospitals. It’s such a fitting place for someone who has battled both as a woman and a scientist. But on that battlefield it wasn’t for notoriety or advancement. It was to save the lives and livelihoods of young soldiers. Those scenes speak volumes about Madame Curie. The movie isn’t always as clear spoken. Some of the early science talk is painfully on-the-nose and the flash-forwards are audacious but a bit too invasive. Still, “Radioactive” did what I want biopics to do, and with a performer like Rosamund Pike doing this level of work, it’s hard not to be impressed. “Radioactive” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars