On DVD & Blu-Ray: May 18, 2021

The latest Disney princess to enter the chat is a Southeast Asian princess named Raya and she absolutely rules. It's always impressive when storytellers can manipulate your standard archetypes to somehow create what are still compelling characters experiencing fanciful if not familiar situations that they somehow manage to derive a particular meaning or elicit a specific theme from. That all to say, Raya and the Last Dragon isn't necessarily anything audiences haven't seen before, but it's so well thought out and so well executed that it makes the tropes it takes advantage of feel exceedingly fresh; as if one were experiencing them for the first time. It also doesn't hurt the film was inspired by cultures from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos among others which inherently adds a certain vigor and resonance to the piece. It's abundantly clear how much the representation in the film mattered to its makers given Raya is Disney's first feature film inspired by Southeast Asia as the creative team that was put in place - namely screenwriters Adam Lin (Crazy Rich Asians) and Qui Nguyen - brought as much experience as they did research to the table. Having writer's representative of the culture at the heart of the story lends the film certain subtleties, nuances, and truths it would undoubtedly have gone without otherwise. Raya's strongest trait isn't how focused it is on diversifying the Mouse House's princess portfolio, but rather how seamlessly it integrates these cultures into Disney's age old formula while remaining true to the ancestry and traditions that have inspired this variation on the hero's journey. There is a difference in representation and concentration though, and while the representation in Raya certainly matters what makes it even more exceptional is how the film doesn't concentrate solely on the culture by placing it at the center of the narrative, but more by building the context of the story in a land many will consider fictional, but who just as many will recognize as home. Raya treats all princesses equal by giving the titular Asian princess as rousing an adventure as Mulan and as moving a quest as Elsa with nary a prince or romantic subplot in sight. In short, the representation occurs by using the tropes of the action/adventure genre to enlighten non-Asian audiences to a culture that isn't their own. By showcasing the importance of trust as its primary theme, delivering beautiful visuals that are meaningful even if all may not fully realize or comprehend why, as well as simply being a positive portrayal of what said trust, optimism, and understanding can do for the world Raya and the Last Dragon is a near-perfect film that takes the best of what movies have to offer and delivers them in spades if not necessarily breaking the mold. Full review here. A

Minari is a film based largely on writer/director Lee Isaac Chung's own experiences of being of Korean descent and moving to middle-of-nowhere Arkansas in the 1980's in order for his family to start anew and his father to start a farm. It is then, obviously, a very personal story and therefore undoubtedly includes what must be several specific details that transport Chung back to what he likely remembers as a very brief, but meaningful time in his life. I say this up front because of how much the red hat the character of the father wears in the film struck me. Nothing is ever said about it, nothing really happens to it or with it, but it's always there; it's as if it is Jacob's (Steven Yeun) safety blanket and a staple of his appearance critical to how his children will always remember and picture him. I have a certain shirt I always associate my own father with and I'm sure this is true for many others as well, but it is the fact Chung's screenplay and eventual film make sure to include this level of detail while never zeroing in on it that really relays why Minari is not only a story of the American experience as seen through the lens of Korean heritage, but simply a story of the American experience; maybe even the most American of experiences. 

As Jacob along with his wife and children emerge from their vehicles after pulling up to their new house - on their new land - it's not hard to sense the contribution that at least Jacob is ready to make even if the rest of his family aren't sold on the idea yet. Much in the way a character later plants the Korean vegetable minari from which the film takes its name, Jacob is ready to put down his own roots, but unlike the minari Jacob is somewhat hesitant to begin to assume the values, behaviors, and beliefs of his new surroundings. It's in this kind of juxtaposition of Jacob wanting to utilize the land to fulfill his own dreams and his own purposes while expecting the land to take nothing from him in return that a sense of the family dynamic can be observed as well. As much as Jacob wants to fulfill the idea of the American dream that he's been chasing since moving from Korea a decade or so prior he is simultaneously driving away what would make achieving said dream worthwhile. Minari is a story of a family assimilating into their new environment, yes, but it's more specifically a story of the adjustment period within their own circle than it is with the one around them. It is due to the specificity in Chung's writing and the gentleness of his direction that the whole of the film is as significant as each individual moment. A masterclass in presenting complex emotions through a simple guise, Minari is an exceptional work. Full review here. A+

What do you do with the people you love when they no longer know who they are? Writer/director Florian Zeller's film adaptation of his 2012 stage production, The Father, attempts to find solace in the answers to this question. What's so striking about this feature directorial debut though is not how assured it seems (which it absolutely does), but more how well-balanced and complete it is despite the narrative and its origins suggesting a rather small, narrow window through which the material might view the world. The confined setting certainly gives way to the roots of the piece, but there is also something distinctly cinematic to the film as if Zeller was intent to not simply exercise his skills as a first time filmmaker, but justify why this piece of writing was worth being adapted to the screen (one possible reason for this being this is actually the second time Zeller's work has been adapted after the 2015 French film, Florida). This is almost laughable though, as the structure and quality of writing alone make Zeller's work more than worthy of being told time and time again. That said, it's not simply the insight garnered through the elegant prose, but more it's how Zeller is able to both take the viewer inside the mind of an individual experiencing the aggressive progressions of dementia as well as simultaneously lend awareness and understanding to the roles closely associated with this disease and how those who must go through this experience with a loved one are equally impacted by it. 

Needless to say, Zeller is a master storyteller and in his directorial debut (I keep repeating it because I can't believe it) he carefully - and probably meticulously, as re-watches will undoubtedly assure - creates this ever-shifting and insular world in which Anthony Hopkins' Anthony is trapped. The awareness of every facet of his film is what creates this environment for which we, the audience, immediately buy into completely. Zeller has purposefully paired his protagonist with this somewhat stuffy yet still pristine London flat where the green of trees can be seen through the window, children can be heard running along the sidewalks outside, and classical compositions largely dominate the sound waves within the apartment. It's a context that feels familiar and thus the reality of it is without question, but as the severity of Anthony's diagnosis becomes more apparent it's clear Zeller is not simply conducting this film as a shared experience for the characters and the audience, but as a piece of art in which the audience willingly plays an active part; we're participating. As eye-rolling as that may sound, it becomes true the further one follows The Father down its path as the fundamental choices of the film not only invest the viewer in these people, but put us inside their heads and help us understand the fear and the confusion - among other things - constantly enveloping them. Full review here. A+

Harry Macqueen's Supernova opens with a demonstration of what the title refers to: a star exploding thus allowing its molecules and all the other fantastical, unknown elements it's made up of to fall from the heavens. Some of this dust is destined to make its way to the earth where one day it will help to make-up the organisms that populate the planet. An exploding star, a burning love...we're lucky if we experience either in our lifetime. The film fades from this demonstration to the serene, static shot of two men in bed together, their hands intertwined and their love apparent. A crossfade to an overcast sky where pillowy white clouds still manage to somehow pop through pans down and lands on an older model RV where the two men we first met a moment ago are now on a road trip together. Despite the quick-wit and sarcasm of one Tusker (Stanley Tucci) and the frustration of the other, Colin Firth's Sam, it's already been established this is not a tale of two aging, grumpy fellows on an adventure to sow their wild oats, but rather it is a tale of two lovers hoping to find some peace and solace in what is likely the last moments of their being together. We are first made aware of the reasons for this holiday when Sam stops at a grocery store on the side of the road only to return to find Tusker has disappeared. While Sam locates his partner shortly thereafter it is clear to both men that Tusker's early onset dementia is getting worse at a pace neither was likely prepared for. How could anyone ever be prepared for as much? No matter the amount of time given to process the pain it would never seem to cease. The film though, is a brisk and very tidy ninety minutes and that is all Macqueen requires to paint his sweeping yet pulverizing love story. It's almost astonishing really, how invested we become in both Tusker and Sam despite the brief running time and further, how many moments are absolutely a punch to the gut whether it be in the way Firth's voice cracks when he gets emotional or through as simple a gesture as one helping the other button his shirt. Anchored by these two effortlessly affectionate and grounded performances from Tucci and Firth (but especially Tucci, my God!), Supernova is a film about coming to terms with reality no matter how inequitable it may seem and the honest conversations that are eventually unearthed around it. A true portrait of companionship, a meditation on legacy, and the impact it all has on the lives of those most important to us. Full review here. B+

As a huge fan of writer/director Sean Durkin's 2011 breakout feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, I was very much looking forward to his follow-up which unfortunately has taken nine years to craft and unfortunately feels like it should have taken less than half that time. It's not difficult to see where folks who enjoy the art form that is the motion picture will derive pleasure and satisfaction from Durkin's The Nest for, despite watching hundreds of films a year, I still consider myself very much a novice when it comes to movies of bygone eras-especially those prior to the turn of the millennium. This could certainly have influenced my perception of The Nest as not only is the film set during, but very much feels like a film born of the late seventies to early eighties. That said, it's not difficult to see what Durkin is going for here with this assessment of preserving one's own identity within a marriage while simultaneously preserving the illusion of a unified union to the world at large as everyday actions threaten to tear it apart, but even that summarization makes the proceedings sound more exciting than they actually are and furthermore, lends me no idea as to how well Durkin is achieving his goal. To this untrained eye at least, the writer/director takes far longer to build the basis on which we will see the cracks that come to divide this family unit than he does on actually exploring those crevices. The Nest is the type of movie most modern moviegoers wouldn't consider a story-or more appropriately, a study-that necessarily needs or deserves to be told on the big screen. Of course, this is also the type of movie that the parents of modern moviegoers watched in droves in the seventies as this feels akin to the kind of work I expect Mike Nichols and the like were doing at the time. These smaller, character-driven pieces analyzing the fractured American dream and how the layers of such a facade easily fall apart when that's all it was to begin with: a deceitful outward appearance meant to conceal a less pleasant reality. Though Durkin's seeming objective of depicting an unpleasant reality is an unequivocal success, whether the film as whole is equally successful is more up for debate as what The Nest achieves is far easier to appreciate than it is to experience. Full review here. C

The nineteen year-olds in this movie are so aware of themselves, so in touch with their emotions, and so mature that they rationally deal with said emotions and situations like I wish my thirty-four year-old ass could. Like, seriously-I don’t know that I would have ever realized as a college freshman that doing what I need to do rather than what I want to do is what would ultimately allow for the necessary growth to take place. And though I can’t specifically relate to Alex’s college experience I can certainly relate to the position he’s in; where the comfort and safety of one option is calling yet the unknown and intriguing lingers and will continue to do so - ultimately and inevitably leading to regret if you don’t give yourself the chance to conquer the unknown. Writer, director, and star Cooper Raiff is searingly honest in all aspects, but it’s his commitment to the awkward, harsh, and overwhelming aspects of his experience that elicit both sympathy and laughs from the audience. A modern take on Linklater largely consisting of a potential couple chatting it up over the course of a single night, Shithouse manages to carve its own space alongside its influences thanks largely to the fact its thesis centers on the balancing act of finding one’s self while adapting to change and how much that effects who you become. RIP Pete. B

As of today, its physical media release date, Tom & Jerry is the third highest grossing film of the year with $45 million. Honestly, pretty impressive given its day and date release in theaters and on HBO Max - I still haven't seen it though.  

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