Blue Bayou

Written by Patrick Hao

20/100

Sometimes there is a movie that is so embarrassing, you cannot understand how anyone could take it seriously. Blue Bayou is such a movie. By all reports, critical reviews have been receptive to the film tackling the issue of citizenship status of international adoptees brought to the United States before the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. The film received thunderous applause with some pushback from adoptee advocacy groups over the film’s exploitation of these issues. But, for me Blue Bayou is the nadir of handsomely made art films that thinks it has a lot to say but has nothing to say at all.

At the crux of Blue Bayou is a story of Antonio (played by Justin Chon who also wrote and directed), a tattoo artist who was adopted from Korea when he was three years old in New Orleans. His adoption did not necessarily go well as his abusive adopted father led him to being estranged from his new family in America and towards a felonious life stealing motorcycles. Now older, and more mature, Antonio finds it hard to get a well-paying job to support his pregnant wife Kathy (a game Alicia Vikander) and his stepdaughter Jessie (the too cute for her own good Sydney Kowalske).

Problems start boiling over when the buffoonish Jessie’s biological father Ace (Mark O’Brien) and his even more buffoonish partner (Emory Cohen) begin harassing Antonio. Antonio retaliates thus leading to his arrest. During this process, it is discovered that his adopted parents never filed the paperwork for him to gain his citizenship, leading to removal proceedings by ICE – a real problem that is affecting many adopted international adoptees. His solutions are minimal.

All of this makes for great fodder to chew on. There is intergenerational angst, immigration issues, the pitfalls of bureaucratic government, police brutality, and the meaning of being American. The results, however, are a product of a really insecure filmmaker with something to prove. Justin Chon, whose previous directorial efforts include the interesting works in Gook and Ms. Purple, feels very lost in the material. He knows this is an important story, but it becomes clear that he was not the one to tell it.

Everything from the writing to Chon’s performance to the filmic style is affected in a way that screams, “pay attention to me.” The film is shot in 16mm with no real purpose other than a way to flex his cinematic bonafides. After the third magic hour montage, it starts losing any real meaning. Chon puts on a thick Cajun accent, which could be powerful in highlighting the disassociation viewers have on Asian Americans, but his performance borders upon “Maine Justice ” levels of big.

The most offensive of all is how all the capital “I” issues have the subtlety of an alligator in a clothing store. From the opening moments when Antonio is asked “Where are you from?” to the last 30-minutes which features a level of coincidences and sudden character shifts, it felt like Chon had no respect for his audience. Rather, he presents these ideas and issues that are so superficial. This is the type of movie in which characters speak in New York Times op-eds.  

The one saving grace is the performance from Linh Dan Pham as Parker. She is a Vietnamese refugee who befriends Antonio as she battles through cancer. While she infuses Parker with interiority that the other characters seem to lack, she too is reduced as a “Manic Pixie Mother Figure.” She waxes poetic about identity, comparing them to the rootless flowers of the Louisiana state flower fleur de lis. Her final moment in the film is guffaw worthy.

Ultimately, Blue Bayou suffers from fetishization of suffering – or as I like to call it “oppression porn.” There is a sense that for a movie to be “Important,” suffering needs to be in the forefront. In reality, it feels like a desperate plea for clout, to appeal to bleeding hearts. With all this talk about Asian American representation in the media, maybe it is great to have a film like Blue Bayou. It is so beautifully misguided in its good intentions that it forgot how to be a movie. Asian Americans need their Crash just as much as they need Shang-Chi.

Blue Bayou Trailer

Blue Bayou is currently screening in theatrical wide release.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Drunken Birds

Written by Anna Harrison

60/100

Ivan Grbovic’s Drunken Birds is many things. It’s a love story about a man named Willy (Jorge Antonio Guerrero of Roma) and a woman named Marlena (Yoshira Escárrega), who is the girlfriend of Willy’s cartel kingpin boss. When they declare their love for each other, both are forced to go on the run, and so Drunken Birds also becomes a commentary on the experience of migrant workers as Willy flees to Montreal. 

In Montreal, Willy and several other men, all of whom are also Mexican, share rickety mobile homes, where they wake up at 5:30 every morning to go harvest lettuce under the hot sun. They have the rare excursion to the public library, where they video chat with their families or, in Willy’s case, try desperately to track down Marlena.

The workers are working on a family farm inhabited by Richard (Claude Legault), his wife Julie (Hélène Florent), and their daughter Léa (Marine Johnson), and their dysfunction ripples out into the lives of the workers they hired on. Last summer, Julie had an affair with one of her employees, and family dinners have become unbearable. Richard has sunk into passivity and Léa longs for a way to escape this mundane, broken life, and thus Drunken Birds serves also as a portrait of a fractured family falling apart.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Drunken Birds is so many things, in fact, that it fails to congeal all its spinning plates, and each story thread on its own isn’t given enough weight to hold its own narrative. Guerrero is magnetic, though little screentime is given to Willy and Marlena together, sapping their romance of power; still, he effortlessly conveys Willy’s longing as he searches for home—not a house, not a place, but a person. There are hints of Willy’s less-than-ideal situation as a migrant worker, and as a Mexican in amongst a sea of white Canadians, but the film seems hesitant to commit fully to this idea and instead dances around it; the film’s climax ostensibly hinges on unspoken racial tensions, yet carries less gravitas than it should. The family drama that spills out into Willy’s life, especially as Julie finds herself increasingly drawn to him, feels like an unnecessary addition to the movie up until the final act, where it all crashes together.

Where Drunken Birds soars, though, is its visuals. Cinematographer (and co-writer) Sara Mishara creates simply beautiful compositions, often employing the use of very long takes to track characters as they wind their way through the corn fields, through the streets of Mexico, or through a thrumming night club. Wisps of magical realism make their way into the film, and everything feels slightly otherworldly; Léa’s expedition into the world of sex work and her resulting rescue by Willy in particular stand out. If the story is stretched too thin to entirely hold itself up, the lush cinematography will keep your gaze occupied even if your mind wanders, and the score by Phillippe Brault stands out as well. With a little bit of a tighter focus, Drunken Birds could have been a triumph; as it is, it keeps itself afloat through strong performances and stronger visuals, but never truly flies from the ground.

Drunken Birds was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: The Starling

Written by Taylor Baker

10/100

Theodore Melfi’s long awaited feature film follow up to 2016’s Hidden Figures is a an schlocky melodrama with paper thin characters and paper thin ideas. Melfi reteams with Melissa McCarthy who plays Lilly Maynard. A grieving mother whose child one day doesn’t wake up. Her husband Jack played by Chris O’Dowd checks himself into an institution after his wife wakes up to find he’s attempted suicide.

Along the way there’s a CGI bird, that begins incessantly attacking McCarthy whenever she goes outside at home, on her way to work, or just to garden. Part of the film is spent figuring out a dastardly way to deal with the pesky starling, but each plan always ends with McCarthy holding back and opting not to go forward, or regretting the decision she’d made. Over loud composition forces emotion whenever the occasion arises, which is often. The Starling serves as Matt Harris’s first attempt at a feature screenplay and while it hits familiar narrative beats it lacks personal intrigue, we’re always an arms length away from our characters rather than in lockstep. Watching their emotions rather than feeling them.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

McCarthy’s Lilly interplays with the Kevin Kline’s veterinarian/therapist Larry, who while clever in his moments reinforcements that The Starling is fanciful and entirely unreal. Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, and Skyler Gisondo round out the significant supporting roles as a Grocery Store Manager, Art Therapist, and Grocery Clerk respectively. Each of these players seems forced into the narrative to an awkward level of neither being significant nor briefly shown. Rather they’re in the familiar uncanny valley of, “We got great actors look! And please ignore that we don’t know how to use them.”

Ultimately The Starling doesn’t sing or even warble. It stumbles slumping laboriously through the genre conventions of melodrama. Loss eating up every inch of the narrative without ever really feeling sad. Leaning on a CGI bird for Melissa’s character arc, as she emerges to a more outspoken partner while O’Dowd is away. The Starling isn’t even interesting in failings, not only unoriginal, but uninspired. As too many of these recent Netflix Original Film offerings are.

The Starling Trailer

The Starling was viewed as part of 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival and is currently streaming on Netflix.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Jagged

Written by Maria Athayde

*No Rating/100

How do you review or critique a documentary that has been publicly disavowed by its main subject? This was my biggest challenge when it comes to this review. As soon as I finished watching what I thought was an okay documentary I was alerted, by my editor, Taylor Baker, to this article on the LA Times in which Alanis Morissette decries Jagged as a story she did not agree to tell. Alanis states that she “was lulled into a false sense of security and their salacious agenda became apparent immediately upon my seeing the first cut of the film”. 

As far as documentaries go this one is pretty standard. The documentary starts with an introduction from director Alison Klayman saying how making this feature was making her middle school dreams become a reality but she does not elaborate further on her connection to Alanis or her music. After this brief introduction, we are presented with a standard documentary montage that traces Alanis birth in Ottawa, Canada, her rise to fame, and explosion into stardom which coincided with the release of her third studio album Jagged Little Pill (JLP) in 1995. Sprinkled throughout we have testimony from high school friends, music producers, and band-mates reminiscing about their time together on tour and commemorating the 25th anniversary of the album’s release.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

My biggest qualm with this documentary was how certain aspects of Alanis’ life and career were glossed over. During her on camera interviews, during several occasions, Alanis mentioned how the transition from Ottawa to Los Angeles and the challenges that came along with. What we see on screen seems to suggest that this move affected her deeply. Yet simultaneously what we’re seeing on camera does not go into a lot of detail. Alanis mentioned how she was pressured to lose weight, maintain a certain image, and she even references alleged statutory rape incidents when she was around 15. All these things are presented without much context and what we see on camera does not allow Alanis to fully explain her own story or how these incidents impacted her life and career. Another issue I had was the complete lack of detail paid to the impact Alanis had and continues to have on female artists in the music industry. Aside from 45 seconds where we see Taylor Swift and Beyoncé performing some of Alanis’ songs, her impact in the industry especially for female artists is almost entirely forgotten.     

Documentaries are supposed to be personal but I have a hard time reconciling how this feature is supposed to work after being publicly disavowed by its main subject. All the statements I have read so far do not go into detail into how Alanis’ story diverges from what we see on screen. At the time this article was published no comment has been made by the film’s director or producers regarding these differences. In the end, I wish the doc had explored more than just JLP. I understand it’s supposed to be a commemoration of the 25th edition of the album but it could have been so much more nuanced and painted a fuller picture of what Alanis is all about. Most of all I support artists having a say on how their story is presented. I cautiously recommend that you watch this documentary and read supporting material to have a better understanding of the controversy surrounding the film. 

Cautiously Recommended

HBO’s Music Box Trailer

Jagged was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings: A Conversation hosted by Patrick Hao

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, 2021

Patrick Hao: The latest Marvel release, Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, has been called groundbreaking and monumental by featuring an Asian American superhero with a predominantly Asian-led cast. It certainly did phenomenally at the box office by making $94.4 million during the four-day Labor Day weekend, shattering the previous record from Rob Zombie’s Halloween (30.6 Million). Mind you, we are still in a pandemic. 

As Marvel/Disney is wont to do, they, and the media covering them, have been quick to celebrate the achievement that they themselves have perpetuated by not casting Asian led superheroes and leads. Marvel/Disney has had a history of doing this representational checklisting with their constant trotting out of “exclusively gay moments” and female empowerment.

All of this discourse around Shang-Chi and the importance of representation in Hollywood films has made me, a first-generation Asian American and lover of media, feel very ornery about the whole thing. And this is not the first time. I have felt this way during the discourse around the release of Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians. While I acknowledge that it is a big deal that this movie is as successful as it is, I prickle at the fact that it takes a major studio superhero movie to validate our (Asian Americans) existence in order to feel seen.

So I thought it would be great to have a running dialogue to explore these feelings about representation and media, and what better person to do it with than Drink in the Movie’s resident Marvel expert and overall great mind for media, Anna Harrison.

Anna Harrison: Thanks, Patrick!

Representation is a thorny issue to begin with, and then add on that Disney’s tendency to self-congratulate and tout things like LeFou dancing with a man in Beauty and the Beast as uber progressive and it can be tricky to tackle. Marvel has certainly diversified in recent years and continues to do so, but like you said, most of the time they will tout what should be commonplace as an artistic and personal triumph for them, the most recent example being the discussion around Eternals having an openly gay character kiss his husband.

I think there is something to be said, however, for seeing representation as a superhero. When I saw the original Wonder Woman’s No Man’s Land scene, I teared up in the theater. When I saw Wonder Woman charge across the trenches, I was touched in a way that I was definitely not expecting—I’m normally the very unsentimental type, and so my reaction caught me by surprise. Superheroes have such a mythic status in our culture: they’re supposed to represent the best of humanity, they’re the strongest, the bravest, the smartest, etc., and to see one of those superhumans on screen that reflects you to after so many years of the same can be quite affecting, as I found out. (Captain Marvel would not inspire such a reaction in me, I’m afraid.) It’s a bit like proof that you, too, could be an Avenger/member of the Justice League/whatever, and that it’s not just for hot white guys named Chris. Projection is what superhero movies are all about, after all. I think their prevalence in pop culture and the idealized nature of the heroes themselves makes it mean a little bit more when you finally see a superhero that reflects you. (Whether said prevalence is a good thing is a whole different conversation.)

Read Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series

Patrick: There is no doubt that there is emotional power in representation. I still pump my fists in the air every time the theme song from The Nanny namedrops Flushing, Queens (my hometown). But I’ve been thinking a lot about this tweet from Tao Leigh Goffe recently: “when representation is the only aspiration, it ensures that all firsts will be lasts.

And I wish Tao Leigh Goffe would expand a little bit more on this thought but I interpret this to mean that representation in and of itself is not enough. What matters more to me are the narratives involving diversity. Asian Americans are in a complicated space in American culture. Firstly, the term encompasses a large number of people, races, and countries—many of which are vastly different in terms of cultures and social hierarchy. But, as a social group and monolith created for ease of narrative, Asian Americans fall somewhere between white and black. When it suits the narrative, Asian Americans are used as the “model minorities,” an example to other POCs to the myth of “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” success in America. And then in an instant, xenophobic racism even in predominiantly Asian ethnic enclaves. And from that trauma and contradictions, I think a lot of Asian Americans and culture would like to fit into the former than the latter fueling a lot of anti-POC sentiments within the Asian American community itself. 

I think mainstream Asian American art reflects this desire to be accepted by mainstream audiences (really what I am saying is white America) in a way that irks me. I think there is an interest in creating a universal experience which is great, but what that does is sand off the edges and problems of the diaspora in America. Eddie Huang, the author of Fresh Off the Boat in which the sitcom is based on, famously complained that the show creators of Fresh Off the Boat adapted his memoir of a complicated, angry childhood into a “universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian Americans.” And watching that show, I too was frustrated by how easy assimilation was for this Taiwanese family to crack wise so easily with White Orlando neighbors. 

Getting back to Shang-Chi, it seems fitting that the ultimate conflict I felt within the movie is a story of fitting into the expectations of success of your parents. Shang is escaping the shadow of his father and starts as the lovable schlob who is perfectly content with partying and karaoking while being a valet attendant. Similarly, Katy (Awkwafina) is in a similar situation with her more normal immigrant parents. The movie contrasts this early on with a conversation with their other Asian American friend who followed the traditional path of becoming a lawyer. This trope of first and second generation Asian Americans not living up to parental expectations seem to be the most palpable Asian American story to tell. I suspect it could be because it is cultural but universal in a way that does not necessarily have to deal with the thorny complicated issues of diaspora. To have even the superhero story be about that felt pandering.

Anna: I’ve never seen that tweet before but I think it brings up a great point. Often there’s so much hype around something like Shang-Chi, Black Panther, or Captain Marvel that any missteps they make get lost, and attempts to criticize get shouted down because everyone is so caught up in the idea that we finally have an Asian/Black/woman-led movie it simply becomes enough that the movie exists at all, when really you should be able to level nuanced critiques at them. This, of course, excludes anyone who review-bombed these films; I’m talking more about criticisms like yours. One thing that irks me a lot when people bring up valid criticisms surrounding representation is that often the response will be something like, “Just be grateful you got representation at all.” People shouldn’t have to choose between no representation and subpar representation—that’s not an either/or situation, though some people often act like it is, and mere representation isn’t always enough.

With Shang-Chi specifically, from my standpoint, I think the conflict was less specifically about parent/child relationships—though it’s certainly a part of that conflict—but about reconciling all the disparate parts of yourself and the struggle with identity. There was a lot of focus on Shang-Chi being pulled between two worlds: he ran away from his father to America and Anglicized his name, and resists getting pulled back; he tries to avoid being like his father, but is always reminded that he’s both a product of his mother and his father; in the end, he accepts the Rings and his father’s legacy while still maintaining his sense of self and finding that balance. Of course, it all gets settled easily enough over the course of this one movie (and my commentary is coming from someone who’s descended from a long line of white Americans, so grain of salt!), and, like you said, is all made pretty palatable/monolithic for non-Asian audiences and doesn’t go into specifics. 

Oftentimes when movies that bill themselves as being representative of X race, Y gender, Z culture come out (and allow their producers/distributors to cross off one more spot on their representation bingo card), they run into the issue where one camp will say they wish the movie had been more authentic in showing the struggles that a certain group faces, and another camp will want simply to watch the movie and not be reminded of their own issues they face outside the theater. I think Shang-Chi tried to straddle the middle of that and throw bones to both sides. I personally don’t really know which “side” I fall on, as I think both have merits—and I also think it’s another issue where it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation; rather, they can be threaded together. I was wondering what you thought of that conundrum (and if it’s a conundrum at all or I’m just making it up in my head).

Read Anna’s full Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Review

Patrick: I know, personally, that I feel anxiety whenever I criticize a “seminal project” like Shang-Chi. I believe the phrase for this right now is called “rep sweats,” or, as that article defines it, “the feeling of anxiety that can come with watching TV shows or movies starring people who look like you, especially when People Who Look Like You tend not to get a lot of screen time.”

I do wonder if I would feel any differently if I truly believed in Shang-Chi’s arc in the movie. Trying to avoid spoilers, I never felt him coming to terms with his identity and father issues, which deflated his self-realization at the end. To give positive notes on Shang-Chi, the opening wuxia ballet between Wen Wu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chan) might be one of the best scenes in a Marvel film. What a brilliant move on their part to cast Leung and his devastatingly sad eyes to give the film instant gravitas. 

Speaking of the conundrum you were speaking of—representation of struggles or escapist entertainment—I often feel like, unfortunately, the movie industry has made things feel like one or the other. Either it is Minari or Tigertail in which it feels so oppressively about the struggles of recent immigrants or it is Mortal Kombat, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, and Shang-Chi in which there are Asian leads in blockbusters as prior properties and kung fu/karate ninjas. 

That’s why I felt so attached to movies like Lucky Grandma (dir. Sasie Sealy) and The Half of It (dir. Alice Wu) from last year. Both are not perfect movies, but there is a liveliness—one is a comedy and the other is a coming of age romcom—to these films that felt true to the experience without feeling like “oppression porn.” Authenticity is a hard thing to define but you can immediately feel the difference. 

Anna: I do appreciate that this movie has brought Tony Leung so much international recognition—I even got a friend to watch Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love and now I’m getting sent daily TikToks about how hot Leung is (which… yeah). He’s just so good. I do appreciate that Shang-Chi pays homage to its roots with that wuxia scene and by casting legends like Leung and Michelle Yeoh (though almost all her dialogue was exposition), and it was helmed by Asian creatives, which is something that Marvel’s failed to do in the past. (Iron Fist immediately comes to mind, which was problematic in a lot of ways; Daredevil and Doctor Strange also appropriated certain Asian cultures and used them as either a threat to their main white character, as in Daredevil, or some vague mystic power to heal their main white character, as in Doctor Strange.)

“Oppression porn” is a great phrase. I think there’s also a sense that, by watching those oppression porn movies, you (white people or people whom the movie isn’t about) gain “woke points” for being so supportive of minorities. Disney’s definitely given themselves woke points, not for oppression porn necessarily, but for making any movies involving non-white casts. I think that’s the hardest thing about representation today—it’s so tied up in profit that, even if it starts from a genuine place, it inevitably starts to be seen as a cash grab or a way of courting a new market. It’s really hard to separate the intention of the individual creators from the intention of the huge corporation trying to score brownie points with certain audience segments.

Patrick: Listen, we can easily make this whole conversation about how hot Tony Leung is. It is very heartening to see people discover the power of “Little Tony.” 

In terms of the homages to wuxia, something about it feels affected as well. This results in vague cultural things like the mythical village of Tae Lo, which was very Shangri-La and orientalist—more Panda Express or PF Chang’s than something “authentic.”

I think a lot about this scene from Do The Right Thing where Mookie talks to Pino about how his favorite actor, musician and sports athlete were black, yet he still used the n-word and has racist views. This year the most popular movie has been Shang-Chi, the most popular baseball player is Shohei Ohtani, and BTS is regularly on the radio. Yet this is the same year that Robert Aaron Long killed six Asian women in a spa in Atlanta along with a slew of other Asian hate crimes. Thinking about my childhood, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are the coolest movie stars. Yet when I was called Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan on the playground, it did not make me feel cool. Even if Shang-Chi makes a lot of Asian kids feel proud, being called Shang-Chi won’t make it better. 

That is why I am frustrated by representational checklisting as an end. We hold these works in high regard in the cultural discourse because it feels anointed by a big studio. Yet there are lots of Asian American art that are undervalued and underseen that have been doing the work. I started my time at Drink in the Movies after not writing about film for a long time because I felt so inspired by Drink a Bowl of Tea. This was a 1988 movie directed by Wayne Wang about the problems of diaspora in Chinese communities in the late 1940s. Wayne Wang has continued to make interesting work about diaspora since then, yet it felt like it took a while for people to come around to talking about his work as a filmmaker. Same thing with the previously mentioned Alice Wu, whose first film Saving Face is a cult classic LGBTQ+ film, set in the Asian community. Yet it took her 15 years between that film and The Half of It. When people express appreciation for Shang Chi as it is a savior for representation, as a first of its kind, it feels diminishing to other pieces of valuable art. I do not wish to make this an either/or situation, but Marvel has sold itself as that and continuously fuels that thinking by taking money from mid-budget films and theater space.  

There is a great book by Cathy Hong Park called Minor Feeling: An Asian American Reckoning and in it she presents a lot of ideas of discomfort of Asian American identity in America. She has a passage about Crazy Rich Asians in which she says of the opening scene in which Michelle Yeoh decides to buy the hotel that would not house them because of discrimination: 

“The takeaway from the crowd-pleasing opening scene… if you discriminate against us, we’ll make more money than you and buy your fancy hotel that wouldn’t let us in. Capitalism as retribution for racism. But isn’t that how whiteness recruits us? Whether it’s through retribution or indebtedness, who are we when we become better than them in a system that has destroyed us?”    

In many ways, I feel like the celebration of Shang-Chi is rooted in the idea above. There is a desperate need to be accepted by a system that so easily discriminates. Look into the behind the scenes controversies behind three of the biggest Asian American mainstream works: Fresh Off the Boat, Kim’s Convenience, and Crazy Rich Asians. Despite being prominent shows and movies about Asian Americans, power imbalance continues to brew and racist tendencies appear. 

So my question is, what does Shang-Chi ultimately solve? Do we need an Asian superhero? Well, we have Detective Dee, Bahubbali, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, all of anime. 

Do we need more Asian Americans on screen? Sure, but at what costs are we bending over backwards to a certain ideal to plead to people to look at us as people?

I am not sure if Shang-Chi is the salve that people declare it as—that Disney declares it as.

If you enjoyed this conversation you can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter and you can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Trailer

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently available in wide theatrical release and will be available to stream on Disney+ October 17th.

Cry Macho

Written by Taylor Baker

55/100

Cry Macho as much as anything else seems to be a lingering look at those sleepy border towns that Westerns like those Clint got his start in are so often framed against. The year is 1978 and shortly after Howard Poak (played dreadfully by Dwight Yoakim) fires his old ranch-hand and bronco buster Mike Milo (played by Clint Eastwood) he barges into Milo’s home. While he stands absently fondling the nonagenarian’s trophies and awards Poak begins hemming and hawing his way through a narrative spew that’s goal is to guilt trip Milo into going down to Mexico to save his son from an alcoholic mother and abusive living situation. This is all predicated on the premise that, “Milo owes him one.” Which holds as much water as a fishing net after previously watching a coffee sipping Milo get fired by Poak in the first 5 minutes of the film.

Ultimately Milo agrees to bring Rafo up from Mexico. And heads south of the border in his old manual truck. There are moments along the multiple road sequences that Ben Davis’ cinematography capture the beauty and illustrious ecology and topography of the region. As he also worked with Chloe Zhao on Marvel’s forthcoming film The Eternals, I suspect that Ben Davis’ name will bring more notoriety in November than it does right now. His exteriors which are what the film is primarily sewed together with bring an ephemeral and majestic look that doesn’t come across as forced, so much as a communication to the audience of the place our characters are in.

Ultimately Milo makes it down to where Rafo is staying and is confronted and propositioned by Rafo’s mother Fernanda Urrejola. After a quick back and forth Milo, saunters on confident he can find the boy. Which he does by capturing and threatening to wring the neck of Macho. Rafo’s fighting chicken. Which eventually leads to a fireside chat where Clint’s Milo utters the seemingly timeless line: “If a man wants to name his cock Macho that’s fine with me.”

These two like in any road movie form an unlikely friendship. One is a man in his 90’s doing a favor for his old boss who fired him, and is now being chased by gunmen. The other, a teenager dreaming of more, unsure of his place in the world, and unsure of his place within his family. Represented clearly by the delineation of a border between the two halves. Eventually the two after some roadside meals and stolen cars end up at a sleepy border town. Where Clint’s Mike helps the townspeople with various ailments to their animals, sets to fixing things that don’t work and begins to swoon for Natalia Traven’s Marta, a local mother and restaurant owner who has taken them in.

Like all road movies eventually what you’re escaping catches up with you and after a nice time with Marta and her family our central characters are back on the road with the police on their heels. Along a small dusty road their pulled over by two officers and their cars luggage is strewn on the ground. It’s seats cut into by a knife. The police officers say they have a tip that these two are running drugs and were ordered to stop them. Which conjures that image of Clint on the roadside behind his truck in The Mule to mind. Ultimately they let the two go, and like the film itself it’s all a bit understated. A bit unceremonious. 

Instead of a classic fetch quest narrative in which a renegade or run down lawman has to make one last trip south of the border to bring a person or object back to America and he along with it, Cry Macho opts instead, for Mike to show Eduardo Minett’s Rafo the North side of the border while he plants his cowboy heels firmly in Mexican soil. Cry Macho is slow road movie, about finding a new home when the old ones done in, and having the where with all to know it and return to it. I’m not ready for it to be Clint’s last film but of the last half dozen I’ve seen while he was an octogenarian it seems this first on the other side of 90 is the most contemplative and ultimately the most content.

Cry Macho Trailer

Cry Macho is currently playing in theatrical wide release and streaming on HBO Max.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Ahed’s Knee

Written by Alexander Reams

86/100

A film that oftentimes wants to forget its heritage. Nadav Lapid’s sophomore effort Ahed’s Knee (also one of the stranger titles of a film in 2021), is possibly the most 2021 a 2021 film can be. Inspired by a story of Lapid trying to decide if the child he welcomed to the world with his girlfriend should be raised Israeli or not.

The film follows a filmmaker who is trying to make a film that condemns the government, while the film is being funded by the government. Am I the only one who sees the irony in that? No? Okay, good. It opens on a casting session, where we also find out why the film is titled its strange name, “Ahed’s Knee” in reference to the title of the film “Y” is making. No name, just a letter. I will admit it was disorienting at first but after 20 minutes I adjusted. While this is the surface level, what lies beneath is even deeper. Lapid is searching for any semblance of hope in his native land in a time of turmoil due to the government influence over the nation, as well as foreign policy, and the ongoing issues with Palestine. Lapid is as much a wanderer as his lead is, walking the earth like “Jules” from Pulp Fiction. These vignettes in the desert continue Lapid’s style of gorgeous cinematography, collaborating again with his Synonyms DP, Shai Goldman. Rarely keeping the camera static, propelling a sense of urgency and chaos, which just so happens to be the mental state of “Y”.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Despite all of this, the film falters with a story that does not take the time needed to marinate on its heavy themes, and VERY unique storytelling. You could either blame the writing or directing. This is an issue that unfortunately falls on Lapid either way, as he is commonly his own writer and director. That does however lead to more creative control over what translates from script to screen, something that does help keep the film together. Even still, I found myself confused at multiple points in the film, particularly with one dance sequence that seemingly came out of nowhere. 

A film searching for hope in even the darkest of crevices is something this world needs right now in this season of COVID, political and social unrest, and the feeling of losing freedom. “Y” constantly is fighting something or someone, whether that be the death of his mother, and his denial of that, the continuing issues of casting this character of “Ahed” for his newest film, or the pushback he receives from the Ministry of Culture in Israel. Namely for making a film that condemns the government, under the guise of a warning to other insurgents to not rebel against the totalitarian-esque government.

Ahed’s Knee Trailer

Ahed’s Knee was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Montana Story

Written by Patrick Hao

63/100

In just a short time, Haley Lu Richardson has become one of the most dynamic actresses in American cinema. She has an ability to adapt into whatever locale she is placed in, whether it is suburban California in Edge of Seventeen, a Hooters-esque restaurant in central Florida in Support the Girls, or even in the rough and tumble farms of Montana in Montana Story. Richardson’s naturalistic acting style brings so much life and authenticity beneath the surface of all the characters she plays.

Montana Story feels like it will become a minor work in Richardson’s promising career, but it certainly continues to be a showcase for her immense talent. She plays Erin, a 25-year-old who returns to her family farm in Montana to see her estranged comatose father. Also, there is her estranged brother Cal (Owen Teague), who has been handling the burden of their father alone.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

The childhood ranch is a lot like the fractured relationships of this family: rundown, hollow, with no farm animals but a few chickens and an old stallion. A deep rift fissured the family when Erin revealed to the newspaper that her father was covering up a toxic chemical spill at a local mine leading to their father beating Erin half to death, while Cal stood there frozen.

Large landscapes like Montana have always been used as a backdrop to intimate emotions. Half of the best westerns ever made were built on that. However, despite great performances from Richardson and Teague, who are able to create quiet intimacy, the script by writer-director duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel, often falls to the rote cliché side. This could be fine if the directors had taken the movie in a more melodramatic space like a Douglas Sirk western melodrama, but to stay quietly intimate hurts the film.

The movie also hints at other more interesting aspects of the inhabited surroundings that go strangely unexplored. The Keystone Pipeline protests, and controversy is mentioned on the radio, indigenous characters and actors populate the periphery, and a sweet Kenyan nurse (Gilbert Owuor) taking care of the leads’ father hints at an interesting backstory but never goes beyond. To populate the background with BIPOC characters certainly gives the world more depth but they never go beyond that function. What does it mean to them that Cal and Erin’s father is a man that would cover up environmental crimes? Whatever the case is, Montana Story is an engrossing drama on the effects of abusive parents. None of it is new or surprising, but we continue to see great work from Haley Lu Richardson. Owen Teague holds his own as well. And honestly, sometimes just setting a movie against the beautiful vast landscape of Montana is enough to make a movie worthwhile.

Montana Story was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: The Story of My Wife

Written by Alexander Reams

32/100

Love is a strange concept, those who watch Rick & Morty will know it as a chemical reaction in the mind, and there are others who disregard that definition and go for “you know it when you see it.” In Ildikó Enyedi’s The Story of My Wife, both concepts are thrown out of the window and instead our lead Jakob (yes, I notice the its the same spelling of John Cena’s character in F9, but even Jakob Toretto is far more intriguing than our Jakob here.) portrayed by Gijs Naber’s is introduced in the most masculine of ways, captaining a ship out at sea while dealing with some kind of sickness. He is suggested to go to town and find a wife, as that has solved this issue for many other men. Now have we seen any of these men? No. Is this just a plot device used to introduce Léa Seydoux into the film? Yes. From the opening shot of Gijs Naber, I questioned if he even was a ship captain, his mannerisms, speech, verbiage, was all that of an educated man, which he could very well have been, but compared to his compatriots on the boat, it didn’t make sense.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

As soon as Léa Seydoux enters the frame, the film dive bombs into another 150 (or so) minutes of absolute dreck. The film is presented, and clearly wants to be an odyssey of a man finding love, but is instead drowned by watered down dialogue that is bound to make you as sick Jakob was. The Story of My Wife is a film with a 169 minute runtime. Co-Writer/Director Ildikó Enyedi clearly let the pace get away from her and did not realize the scope of the picture she was making nor how to control it’s bow. Or perhaps she knew what she wanted to do, and unfortunately failed to do so.

The film suffers from an abhorrent script and direction, which caused it’s players to fail as well. The only gleaming note of kindness I can give this film is in it’s cinematography. Captured by Marcell Rév, a frequent collaborator of Sam Levinson, who shot the film with a mix of guerilla and steadicam style. Shooting angles that make the film stand out visually, along with its production and costume design. Unfortunately that is not nearly enough to save this bloated, wretch of a film. I can forgive a bad film, I cannot forgive a boring film, and this film is boring with a capital B. Film is supposed to sweep us away to another world and tell us stories that help us escape reality, here I wanted reality to come back after 20 minutes because what is going on outside in the world is so much more intriguing than this garbage.

The Story of My Wife Trailer

The Story of My Wife was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over

Written by Maria Athayde

65/100

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over co-directed by Dave Wooley, making his feature directorial debut, and David Heilbroner immortalizes a legend, humanitarian, and artist we all know as Dionne Warwick. While there is nothing particularly innovative or different in this feature it still managed to capture the allure, talent, and heart of one Dionne. Punctuated with archival footage of Dionne, amateur nights at the Apollo theater, and “testimony” from the likes of Elton John, Snoop Dog, Alicia Keys, Gloria Estefan, Bill Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and Smokey Robinson one can start to understand the magnitude and impact this woman had in the music world and beyond.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

While one can infer that influence Dionne has in American culture the movie does a poor job of contextualizing it for the audiences, especially those who are unfamiliar with her work. This is particularly true when the movie talks about her experiences in the racially segregated South. Likewise, the documentary also overlooked Dionne’s ability to read music, understand complex melodies, and how she did not fit into one box. Dionne always had this uncanny ability to navigate among soul music, R&B, and pop that I wish was further explored in the documentary. 

Dionne is much more than raw talent. She’s pure skill, technique, and a person who is in full control of her voice. As a person and artist Dionne was always sure of herself which surely contributes to her continued success. This documentary is the perfect introduction for those looking to learn about Dionne Warwick but it definitely lacks that something extra for die hard fans or those who are already familiar with her story.

Dione Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.