Barring another unfortunate left turn in our tortured collective recovery from COVID-19, we’re getting tantalizingly close to seeing the release of a few of the most highly anticipated movies that have been delayed since the start of this whole hot mess: “No Time to Die,” the twenty-fifth James Bond movie, is out on 8 Oct and “The French Dispatch,” Wes Anderson’s latest, is out on 22 Oct. (Still no “Mission: Impossible 7” for more than twelve months, though.)
I’ll admit to generally feeling ambivalent about the release of each new Wes Anderson production. I’ve found some of his movies captivating and others infuriating, and I always experience a sense of claustrophobia brought on by the director’s preening, highly controlled production design. But, perhaps in anticipation of “The French Dispatch,” I’ve found myself revisiting much of his back catalog over the past couple of months. In July I started with “Isle of Dogs”; then last month I rewatched “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” and “The Darjeeling Limited.” I remember seeing that last one in theaters in 2007; I thought it was a stinker then and I think it’s a stinker now. But to my surprise, my initial distaste for “Isle of Dogs” and “Moonrise Kingdom” dissipated when I saw them again.
Once I was able to set aside some of the incredibly clumsy cultural insensitivity on display throughout “Dogs,” I came to better appreciate its authentically tender rendition of the special relationships that children can form with the canine species. I also saw “Moonrise Kingdom” in theaters when it was released in 2014 and hated it at the time, but I ended up watching it twice in August: during the first rewatch I sort of begrudgingly accepted that it was moderately less one-dimensional than I thought it was. Not longer after I found myself wanting to see it yet again, and then genuinely enjoying how completely it puts its viewers inside a child’s experience of first love.
It’s pretty clear to me now, after watching two decades of Anderson’s films, that he’s really a children’s director. That’s not to say that he makes movies for kids, at least not exclusively, but that he’s making films about the experience of childhood, even when he’s trying to tell tales of adulthood. As it happens, when he fully embraces this impulse, as he did with his stop-motion films (both of which seem to have renewed him artistically), with “Moonrise Kingdom,” with “Grand Budapest Hotel” (the entire movie is a reminiscence about a lost childhood), and with “Rushmore”—all of which put children squarely at the center—he’s fully in his comfort zone. When he’s focusing on “adult” matters, as he did with “The Life Aquatic,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and “Darjeeling” (which, again, is an unmitigated, racist disaster), he’s out of his element. And it’s during those times when I find myself most often fighting the way he uses his arch aesthetic sensibilities to mask essentially incoherent theses about how adults comport themselves.
And that’s how I feel about Wes Anderson!
It’s telling that I found myself thinking a lot more about Anderson’s years-old movies than I did about one of the best reviewed new features of 2021: David Lowery’s “The Green Knight.” This contemporary reimagining of the Arthurian fable of Sir Gawain is beautifully—even masterfully—made but, as with all of Lowery’s films that I’ve seen, more of a showcase for the director’s gauzy self admiration than for real ideas.
It’s inarguable that Lowery has a talent for turning conventional genre conventions and plot twists on their side, unfolding them in genuinely unexpected, artful ways. But that innate ability, along with a sickly sweet, “indie” preciousness that he slathers over every frame, seem like the real focus of his attentions. In this way he’s not unlike Wes Anderson; they’re both beholden to their aesthetic obsessions to the point of distraction, but in Lowery’s case he’s missing a truly animating perspective on his stories.
Most of “The Green Knight” is just a series of showy set pieces with little sense of purpose. Also, I’m not afraid to admit, having been unfamiliar with the tale of Sir Gawain beforehand, I didn’t understand half of what was going on. There’s a certain amount of “just go with it” that I think any movie as exquisitely made as this one is entitled to demand of its audience, and I honestly do enjoy not always understanding what I’m seeing. But in this case, the self-satisfied, willful obfuscation of fundamental plot details just left me cold. “The Green Knight” has the appearance of a movie made with tremendous passion and feeling, but it’s so busy outsmarting itself that it adds up to little more than the sum of its beautiful parts, inspiring little emotional resonance. Within a day I had forgotten about it almost entirely.
Here are all twenty-six movies I saw in August.
“Wrath of Man” (2021) ★★★★Rewatched. Nothing here that hasn’t been seen before, but the execution is marvelous.
“Jolt” (2021) ★★★ Should be a terrible, Wick-ian derivative, but Kate Becknisale totally sells it.
“Knives Out” (2019) ★★★★ Rewatched. A perfect structure and a note-perfect cast.
“The Suicide Squad” (2021) ★★ Better than its predecessors (big whoop), but still a shambles.
“La Piscine” (1969) ★★ Euro art house nonsense adds up to little more than an argument that beautiful people posing blankly can do whatever they want.
“Mädchen in Uniform” (1931) ★★★★ A miracle of early lesbian filmmaking that somehow also retains all of its drama and nuance.
“Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) ★★★ Rewatched. Somehow I went from hating this to adoring it.
“Excalibur” (1981) ★★ Faithful to the legends, I assume, but on the screen this retelling of the legend of King Arthur is bombastic and painfully lacking in self-awareness.
“Crimson Tide” (1995) ★★★★ Rewatched. Military dudes yelling technical jargon at each other! But with rich character nuance and cracking good performances.
“Gravity” (2013) ★★★★ Rewatched. An irresistible entertainment.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I previously watched this past July, June, May, April, March, February, and January, and in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
It’s been two months since I went back to a movie theater for the first time since the pandemic started, but thanks to the Delta variant I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it again since. The studios are streaming first run movies though, so I got to watch, at home, “Black Widow” which, whatever, it’s another consumer packaged good from Marvel, and, more interestingly, Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move,” starring Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro.
I feel like we’re all sleeping on an incredibly rich phase of Soderbergh’s career right now, where he’s regularly turning out fascinating and highly entertaining experiments like “High Flying Bird,” “The Laundromat” and even the uneven “Let Them All Talk.” Along with “No Sudden Move,” a period caper set in mid-Century Detroit, these have all come in the span of just two-plus years, usually with great reviews, and yet they’ve failed to make much of an impression on the general movie watching public. None of these films is perfect but all of them are wildly ambitious in unexpected, experimental ways, typically in their preoccupation with how new production methods can yield new storytelling methods. Through it all, Soderbergh seems to be consumed with a mania for scrambling and reconstituting his own cinematic vocabulary to find his version of what a 21st century film is. And “No Sudden Move” is exactly this: a contemporary reboot of one of his career bests, 1998’s magnificent noir caper “Out of Sight,” taken apart and reassembled again into a new, vibrant form. I found it completely transfixing.
Here are all twenty-two of the movies I watched in July.
“The Ice Road” (2021) ★★ Pretty much what you’d expect from a Liam Neeson flick about ice road trucking.
“King Kong” (1933) ★★★ The protagonists in this movie inadvertently make a really persuasive indictment of themselves.
“No Sudden Move” (2021) ★★★★ Not quite a return to the glory of “Out of Sight,” but still rewarding in the way Soderbergh always manages to be.
“Isle of Dogs” (2018) ★★★★ Rewatched. I was surprised by how much more I enjoyed this than on my first viewing—once I set aside the cultural insensitivity.
“Heat” (1995) ★★★★½ Rewatched. Despite its age, this still feels incredibly vibrant and alive.
“After Hours” (1985) ★★★½ The script isn’t particularly remarkable but Scorsese directs the heck out of it.
“Ant-Man” (2015) ★★★ Rewatched. Still the most charming of Marvel’s movies.
“Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018) ★★ Rewatched. I remembered almost nothing from my first viewing, and I’ll probably retain almost nothing after this one.
“Married to the Mob” (1988) ★★★½ Rewatched. Jonathan Demme takes a not particularly special mob comedy and stuffs it full of surprising and inventive directorial choices.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I previously watched this past June, May, April, March, February, and January, and in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
Short roundup here due to the fact that I’ve been traveling for the first time since the pandemic began. We’ve very luck to have been in France visiting family all month. It’s great to be abroad again though the Delta variant has meant we’re still masking up and taking extra care, and we’re not even allowed into movie theaters. That’s okay as I’ve been walking around taking a lot of pictures including this shot of the old location for Studios Francœur in Paris’s 18th arrondissement. That film company would eventually go on to morph into Pathé Films which still operates today.
As for what I actually watched last month: a lot of random, older stuff. The ones I’d seen before were great; the ones I hadn’t were mostly just okay. I did see Pixar’s Luca which, as usual, was exquisitely crafted but also just kind of annoying in its stereotypes.
“Force of Evil” (1948) ★★★½ Surprisingly rich and dense noir that’s also quite gabby for its 76-minute runtime.
“The Gambler” (1974) ★★★ James Caan is the most ridiculous high roller ever in this macho take on the gambling lifestyle.
“El Condor” (1970) ★★★½ You could get a lot worse than Lee Van Cleef as the goof and Jim Brown as the straight man in this rough and ready spaghetti western.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in May, April, March, February, and January, and in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Finally, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
It took me all June to get this roundup of what I watched in May finished partly because life has started returning to normal—at a pretty torrid pace. Suddenly I’ve been seeing people and going to places at a rate that I just wasn’t doing at the beginning of the year. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been great, and I’m lucky to count myself among the vaccinated, but it’s taken some adjustment.
In fact, this return to normalcy started last month when I actually went out to the theaters to see a movie for the very first time since the pandemic. I chose a matinée showing of Guy Ritchie’s unexpectedly well-made “Wrath of Man” (more on that later) and sauntered into the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn feeling vaxxed and somewhat cocky. There were only about a half-dozen other daytime moviegoers in the theater with me, but when I found myself sitting just a couple of seats away from the closest one, I was stricken with a moment of panic. It was either the potential exposure to a complete stranger who’d be unmasked during their meal (Alamo serves food during the show) or just feeling so unaccustomed to letting my guard down. Whatever it was, I had to get up and move to the far end of the row. I realized that I’m not yet a hundred percent sure I’m ready to return to theaters regularly, and definitely not for a full capacity evening show.
My anxiety aside, it really did feel great to see a film on a huge screen, lit up against that singular kind of darkness that only a movie theater can create, with the sound loud and fully immersive, and with my complete and undivided attention. There’s no feeling quite like it.
It helped too that “Wrath of Man” was a real corker of a flick, at least as far as B-level action thrillers go. No one could accuse it of being original, but as a “Heat” derivative, it’s actually far better than it has a right to be. It’s certainly not for everyone—it’ll probably either infuriate or bore many people—but I’m actually not a fan of the vast majority of Guy Ritchie’s output over the past two decades, and I still found its taut drama and sense of restraint to be fully engrossing.
Everything else I saw last month I watched at home, naturally, and a lot of it was, as usual, much older fare. I don’t often talk much about the movies that I watch (or rewatch) from earlier periods in film history, mostly out of an assumption that not many folks share my interest in that stuff. I take great pleasure in looking back on the way filmmakers of the past interpreted their particular eras, and I have a particular soft spot for old noirs from the years immediately following the Second World War. That’s why it was so pleasurable to watch the generically named “The Set-up,” a boxing caper from 1949 starring Robert Ryan that’s bursting with indelible character actors, chiaroscuro lighting and shocking commitment to in-the-ring violence and out-of-the-ring tragedy. It’s the kind of thing that I just eat up, but it’s also so fascinating to see how it clearly influenced pretty much every boxing picture since, from “Rocky” to “Pulp Fiction.”
Here are all seventeen movies I watched in May.
“The Mercenary” (1968) ★★½Laboriously political spaghetti western that’s only intermittently surprising.
“The Watchmaker of St. Paul” (1974) ★★★★ Early 1970s French political drama starts out like a crime thriller and turns into a meditation on the desperations of middle age.
“Iron Man 2” (2010) ★½ Rewatched. Tiresomely self-satisfied.
“The Set-Up” (1949) ★★★★ A grubby, gritty, utterly merciless film noir.
“Wrath of Man” (2021) ★★★★ Unexpectedly gripping “Heat” derivative.
“Raining in the Mountain” (1979) ★★★ A series of elegantly expressive wuxia set pieces; rapturous for a while before stumbling to a finish.
“Whisper of the Heart” (1995) ★★★★ A Ghibli joint that actually focuses on character instead of spectacle.
“Love and Monsters” (2020) ★★½ Too cute post-apocalyptic romcom-horror-thriller-comedy.
“The Last Detail” (1973) ★★★★ Two sailors escort a Navy convict to prison in this dour, overcast and unspeakably sad road movie directed by Hal Ashby.
“House of Games” (1987) ★★★½ Rewatched. David Mamet lays out the basics of the con, and we’re onto the grift even before the protagonist is. But Joe Mantegna’s unmitigated bad guy makes it watchable.
“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944) ★★★ This war movie might be the most Hollywood movie ever made and a masterpiece of superbly executed clichés.
“Private Life” (2018) ★★★★ Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn try to have a baby and you think you know what’s going to happen, but this movie is so much smarter than that.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in April, March, February, in January, and in 2020, 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. Finally, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
Kick back this weekend with our latest season four episode of “Wireframe”” the documentary podcast about the world of design and creativity hosted by yours truly. This one explores the power of data visualization to not just impart knowledge but also to impart make us feel the story behind the numbers. Listen below or subscribe in your favorite podcast player.
From the episode description:
Our society is now more data driven than ever; as everything is quantified, counted, and dumped into spreadsheets, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by numbers. Data visualization designers work to sort through the numbers using both science and creativity to find the stories they have to tell, and help us understand the world a little better. But what goes into designing an effective data visualization, and how do you balance the art and the science of it?
To unpack these ideas, we were lucky enough to talk to designers Amy Cesal and Zander Furnas who used their professional skills in data viz to help them navigate their home lives during their lockdown last year. We also chatted with Shirley Wu, who used data visualization to help people understand the potential upsides—and downsides—of collective action in any pandemic. And finally, Alberto Cairo, author of “How Charts Lie” and the Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the School of Communication of the University of Miami, talks about the responsibilities that designers have in balancing the quantitative and qualitative in data visualization design.
When you get a new Apple device, what do you do with the box? Toss it or keep it?
That questions kicks off our latest episode of “Wireframe,” the documentary podcast about the world of design and creativity hosted by yours truly. The debate over the value of iPhone boxes and similarly high quality product packaging actually ignited a bit of a furor on Twitter not long ago, which prompted us to look into how the world of packaging design is changing. Listen below or subscribe in your favorite podcast player.
To help us get a read on how designers working in this medium are thinking about their work, we talk to Stephen Ango from Lumi and host of the podcast “Well Made.” Ango helps us understand how the pandemic has altered the very role that packaging plays in the lifecycle of consumer products.
We also talk to Andrew Gibbs of the amazing website The Dieline, which serves as a front page for many packaging designers. Gibbs tells the story of his reckoning with the environmental impact of packaging, what he’s doing about it and what he thinks others in this field can do about it, too. For a perspective from practitioners, we then talked to Ian Montgomery and Marisa Sanchez-Dunning, of packaging design firm Guacamole Airplane, about their work designing sustainable packaging for clients.
In this outing, my co-hosts Pippa Johnstone, Dominic Girard and I take a look at the question of what role design can—and should—play in the urgent fight for racial justice in American society. We shine the spotlight on the experience of Teddy Philips, A.K.A. Stat the Artist, who last year unexpectedly found his artwork resonating in the movement to recognize the senseless murders of so many Black people. We also talk to Ivy Climacosa, whose Design Action Collective worked on the first incarnation of the Black Lives Matter logo.
This episode also spends a lot of time with design anthropologist, researcher, academic leader, writer, and educator Dori Tunstall, the Dean of the Faculty of Design at OCAD University in Toronto, who offers frank words on the colonialist underpinnings of the design profession itself. Not only is Tunstall the very first Black and Black female dean of a design program anywhere in the world—a fact that by itself says so much about the industry—but she is incredibly incisive about how design functions in the social context of protest. In our discussion, she offers a framework for how design is valued in relation to craft and art that I found to be particularly enlightening.
Tunstall’s other work in this area is also deeply fascinating, especially her campaign to “de-colonize” design, a key component of which is to “liberate” the profession from “The Modernist Project.” It’s a provocative argument that is a direct challenge to many of the core tenets that undergird virtually the entire design industry. This keynote that she delivered in early 2020 to California College of the Arts’ “Decolonial Unconference” is a terrific introduction to her approach to thinking about design practice and education.
I’m fully vaccinated by now but I have yet to make it out to see a movie at the theater. I briefly considered doing that for “Nobody,” the latest action movie written by “John Wick” scribe Derek Kolstad and directed by Ilya Naishuller, which looked like it was going to be a lot of fun. I just couldn’t make it work with my schedule though so instead my wife and I rented it to watch at home. In retrospect, that was probably a better use of money.
“Nobody” is indeed fun in that it delivers on the dependably irresistible premise of an underestimated everyman exacting revenge on the worst of society. But it’s also a retread of similar themes we’ve seen many times in recent years in the various “Taken” installments and their many knockoffs, to say nothing of “John Wick” itself, which shares more than a little of the same DNA and even many of the same plot details. Hey, I’ve got a lizard brain that slurps this stuff up like a Big Gulp as much as the next person, but after a while the charm of excessively staged fight and gun choreography starts to fade amidst the poverty of truly original ideas. It’s too bad, too, because comedian-turned-dramatic actor-turned-action star Bob Odenkirk does a terrific job as the titular “Nobody,” investing the movie with impressive pathos as well as impressive punching. The movie just falls short of matching that commitment.
One film I watched that would’ve been much better served by a theater viewing was “Godzilla vs. Kong,” the latest installment in, heaven help us, the so-called “monsterverse.” If you haven’t been following along in this latest “shared cinematic universe” where Godzilla, King Kong and, for all I know, Barney the Dinosaur all co-exist, it’s now four movies strong and I have to assume that someone out there is interested in them more than me. On a whim, I decided to watch “Godzilla vs. Kong” via HBO MAX and I was pleasantly surprised that my very, very low expectations were surpassed in just the slightest way. This is a dumb-as-rocks movie, don’t get me wrong, but it’s relatively fleet of foot and the final act’s huge knock ’em down, drag ’em out, no holds barred, destruction-porn brawl between the two title monsters is actually kind of fun. I would’ve liked to have seen it on a big screen.
By the way, I’m trying something different for this movies roundup. You’ll notice an illustration at the top of this post, a photo collage with images from “Nobody” and “Godzilla vs. Kong,” obviously, but I also threw in some of the other films I watched last month that I thought were notable: “The Kid Detective,” “Midnight Run” and “The Big Gundown,” all of which were varying degrees of highly enjoyable. Making this collage is me putting some of the illustration ideas that I’ve been tinkering with for a while into play, to see what comes of them. I don’t get much opportunity to be visually expressive these days, and this was a way to burn off some of that creative energy. For those interested, it’s mostly all done in Photoshop with a smattering of Illustrator vectors. With luck, I’ll be doing a new one each month along with these roundup posts.
Here’s the full list of thirteen (it was a lean month) movies I watched in April.
“Zootopia” (2016) ★★½ Rewatched. A lot of moralizing, even for a kids movie.
“The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1975) ★★ Rewatched, I think? Completely forgettable except for the comedic eloquence of Mr. Don Knotts.
“Man of Steel” (2013) ★★ Rewatched. Zack Snyder is that kid from high school who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stop drawing skulls and knives and demons.
“Flushed Away” (2006) ★★ Shockingly inert Aardman animation—computer-generated, this time—that suggests that the appeal of their stop-motion clay work might be solely in its manual execution.
“The Big Gundown” (1966) ★★★★ What looks like a merely serviceable, B-level spaghetti western is actually a politically complex, highly astute morality play. Superb.
“National Treasure” (2004) ★★ Seems quaint that it once used to be possible to create an action movie franchise out of little more than a bunch of visits to tourist traps.
“Nobody” (2021) ★★½ Everyman actioner that’s hard to resist except for how familiar and tired its tropes are.
“Midnight Run” (1988) ★★★★ Rewatched. Nearly flawlessly constructed Hollywood road movie with what might be DeNiro’s most convincingly inhabited role ever.
“Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993) ★★★½ I saw all the maudlin story beats and the soaring climax coming a mile away, and yet I was defenseless against it all.
“Godzilla vs. Kong” (2021) ★★★ Dumb as heck, but fleet of foot, plus it has a giant ape and a giant lizard knocking the stuffing out of one another.
“The Kid Detective” (2020) ★★★ The premise of a grown up Encyclopedia Brown who refuses to really grow up is almost too cute by half, except it’s executed with just enough gentle humor to see it all the way through.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in March, February, in January, and in 2020, 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. Finally, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
Here’s the second episode in our fourth season of “Wireframe.” This one is all about the user experience design of connected fitness devices like Peloton bikes, Tonal home gyms and Mirror, uh, mirrors. We talk to super smart folks on this subject like Jennifer Clinehens, a customer experience strategist who has written incisively about the intersection of UX, behavioral science and Peloton bikes and Kevin Twohy, designer for Mirror. You can listen below or find it in your favorite podcast player right now.
We’ve also got a couple of designers as guests who have contrasting takes on connected fitness: Ariel Norling is all in on it, and Gene Lu prefers running in the great outdoors, where he makes art from his routes using a GPS.
On that last point, you may be thinking to yourself, “With all of this leading edge technology that’s transforming the way people exercise at home, is there a turkey involved in some way, shape or fashion?” The answer, found on Gene’s Instagram, is yes, yes there is:
Part of the pleasure of watching “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which is by no means a terrible movie, is a thrill similar to the one many Asian Americans like myself felt when we watched “Crazy Rich Asians” a few short years ago: it’s just so great to see Asian faces on the screen in a legitimate Hollywood blockbuster. What’s more, it’s evident that the animators and character designers at Disney went through considerable pains to represent many different kinds of Asian faces. There are many facial designs in this movie that are so familiar and true to the diversity of Asian bone structure—many kinds of faces that I recognized from family, friends and a lifetime of exposure to Asian people that I never expected to see rendered by Disney animators at all—that it was a wonder to behold.
And yet, as with “Crazy Rich Asians” (which was a willfully dunderheaded attempt to subvert Asian stereotypes by creating new ones) the representational virtues of “Raya” ultimately feel somewhat hollow. That’s because in actuality the world of the movie is not very true to Asia at all. The movie is ostensibly about Southeast Asian culture but instead of setting it in a historical version of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines or other, y’know, real places, Disney went another way. They ignored the rich, vibrant histories and mythologies of those lands and chose instead to invent a wholly new, fully fabricated kingdom, populated by new myths and legends that just happen to be owned and copyrighted by Mickey Mouse. Convenient, right? What results is a bloodless, corporatized melange of different ideas, religions, customs, ethnicities and even cuisines.
What’s really at stake here is not just the opportunity to see Asians on the big screen, but also to understand—to understand at least one aspect—of a diversity of cultures that Hollywood has historically lumped together as a generic “other.” It can’t be ignored that this movie’s release last month came in the midst of a rising tide of anti-Asian hatred in America. In fact, “Raya” debuted just eleven days before the Atlanta spa shootings took place on 16 March, which counted six Asian women among its eight deaths. It would be absurd to argue a causal relationship here, but I can’t help but think that “Raya” is symptomatic of the way Asians are understood in America. We all know the common racist refrain that all Asians look alike, but there’s also a common racist assumption that Asian ethnicities, cultures, countries and even regions are interchangeable. Even the majority of the reporting on the Atlanta spa shootings failed to identify the specific ethnicities of the gunman’s victims beyond simply citing them as “Asian” (four were of Korean descent, and two were of Chinese descent).
It probably seems unfair to expect “Raya,” as a kids movie, to resolve this longstanding cultural myopia. But what’s so frustrating about this film is that, while it may have been well intentioned, it’s a whiff on one of the few swings that Asians, to say nothing of Southeast Asians, get at the big screen. Unlike say, Victorian England, the many cultures of Asia do not have both a tremendous backlog of shows and movies behind us as well as an infinite roadmap of future entertainment projects ahead of us that will all tell the story of people who look like us, over and over again, ad nauseam. So when we get one like “Raya,” which in theory could have been a chance for children everywhere—not just Asian, but children of all ethnicities—to learn something actually tangible about other cultures that Americans, let’s face it, know very little about, that feels like malpractice.
An even less charitable part of me views this as a willful refusal on the part of the filmmakers, or the company behind them, to actually engage with the reality of non-Western cultures. In attempting to pay homage to the region only through the constraints of what the corporation can tolerate, “Raya” is really a kind of abnegation of all Asian cultures because it suggests that they’re all the same, interchangeable and indistinguishable from one another. Really, the movie is basically a P.F. Chang’s-style whitewashing of a vast region of the globe. It’s the cinematic equivalent of asking why you’d want to go to a “real” ethnic restaurant on the other side of town when instead you could go to a joint at your local mall, where you can get a half dozen Asian cultures thrown in a wok, stir fried together and presented in Americanese?
You could say that “Raya and the Last Dragon” exploits the low expectations that the American public has for Asian representation, but there was another movie that I watched last month that absolutely killed it in the low expectations game: “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” This bizarrely elaborate (four hours long, US$70 million dollars just for reshoots and additional post-production) redo of a 2017 box office and critical flop is an incremental improvement over the original, it’s true. But that’s only if you’ve subjected yourself to the horrors of that original as well its franchise predecessors, and really to the entire past decade of meaninglessly convoluted super-hero nonsense at the cinema as well, which has lowered all of our expectations drastically. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” posits: if you fail often and hard enough, and then you get tens of millions of dollars and the backing of a mob of entitled fan boys behind you, can you make something that’s only modestly redeeming in the smallest possible way, and then consider that a success? Apparently the answer, for some people, is yes.
Here’s the full list of all twenty-seven movies I watched last month.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in February, in January, and in 2020, 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. Finally, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.