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Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry. Lorem Ipsum has been the industry’s standard dummy text ever since the 1500s, when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book. It has survived not only five centuries, but also the leap into electronic typesetting, remaining essentially unchanged. It was popularised in the 1960s with the release of Letraset sheets containing Lorem Ipsum passages, and more recently with desktop publishing software like Aldus PageMaker including versions of Lorem Ipsum.

 

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Entertainment International Review

Tenet (2020): Nolan’s Half-Empty Vessel With Barely Any Noise

Let’s get one thing straightened out — Christopher Nolan makes resplendent cinema.

Whether its chronologically mischievous narratives in 20th century breakthrough Memento, bouncing Joseph Gordon-Levitt off twisting corridors à la Inception, or the (literally) star-spangled intergalactic regurgitation of Interstellar, the mercurial filmmaker requires no introduction to his mastery of tapping into our childlike wonder whilst simultaneously turning our adult psyche into mush.

When it comes to commandeering tropes which are often deemed tried-tested-expired by even the most venturesome filmmakers, it’s Nolan who wraps his claws around stale waters, promising riches in waterfalls and Trevi fountains. Where many see difficulty it’s Nolan who sees opportunity.

Which makes writing this all the more gruesome. I wanted to love Tenet.

It encapsulated much of what pandemic fatigued movie-goers needed after being holed up indoors; a paradoxical, mind-melting plot device anchored by time; a Black ‘James Bond’ display of nitty gritty action sequences; a devilishly handsome cast; and another Nolan puzzle that would dominate dinner party conversations for months.

Tenet dons the classic ‘spy saves the world’ suit by introducing our Protagonist (which is also his only callsign throughout), played by John David Washington, embroiled in a mysterious global war he doesn’t yet seem to understand, spearheaded by equally talented counterparts in Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branagh for its pivotal characters.

For its score, longtime collaborator Hans Zimmer took a backseat for a more sentimental project, meaning Nolan relied on Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther, The Mandalorian) to curate the grand synergy between visuals and sonics that’s trademarked as a Nolan signature in his blockbusters.

We’re steadfastly thrown into disarray as Tenet’s opening seconds follows Protagonist into an asset extraction mission that takes place in an Opera house. All seems to be going well (or not, we can barely tell because of intentionally murky character dialogue, a well-documented gripe audiences have with beloved Nolan) until, amidst the swarm of gunfire, we’re shown that a single bullet is un-fired from an object of which it has already hit, closing its initial entry point, ricocheting back to its firer’s direction, and the surface is spanking brand new again.

Our visibly perplexed Protagonist spots this anomaly, now etched into his mind, before scurrying on with his time-sensitive extraction mission. This is the film’s first tease and entrapment of what its sci-fi element entails, reminiscent of Inception’s opener/Di Caprio’s dream-state flurry, and in we go to the whirlpool of time travel.

Except it isn’t. It’s inversion, the reversal of an object’s entropy, allowing it to move backwards in motion while everything else around it tick-tocks forward as per normal. How it all works is briefly explained several scenes later, with Protagonist and an inversion scientist convincing him (and invariably us) that understanding it is futile — feel it, she says. To grasp inversion she advises him to first picture traditional movements in his mind’s eye, then to execute it backwards. And what follows is brilliant absurdity.

In the realms of Tenet, punches, or inversion punches, are sonically portrayed as vacuum-like suctions accompanied with the visual motion of arm moving backwards, yet still inflicting damage. Try picturing an inverted wrestling match with multiple participants.

Inversion car chases mean engines roar to strange screeches when being driven. Devastating explosions deconstruct from clouds of smoke into atom-less nothings, with surrounding damage reconstructing back into its original form. A Boeing 747 is un-blown to smithereens to form its whole again. Inversion fire? Sub-zero ice.

All of which makes for fantastic viewing, and when coupled with backwards sound design, Tenet is unlike anything any film has offered in such elaboration, unless you count putting on Transformers entirely on rewind.

But the grandiosity stops there.

The same intricacy and accuracy to sound, however, is alarmingly absent for the aforementioned character dialogue. A substantial amount of understanding the film hinged upon its explanations, and in all his inversion whimsy, Nolan seems to have forgotten that his audiences aren’t soppy sacks of toddlers that salivate at mere booms and swashbuckling action.

For all the cerebral lunacy which he wants us to feel when watching Tenet, the sheer inaudibility of speech meant viewers are left with more questions than answers, and not in a fun ‘solve the mystery’ notion.

If Inception was an unsolved Rubik’s cube, Tenet is that cube, but with its sides so disheveled and banged up to the point where you could no longer discern its colours. The cube becomes unplayable and  thus unsolvable, similar to how Tenet was at times unwatchable because a plethora of its key plot points and explanations was, to put it mildly, audible mumbling.

We’re left pondering over every minute detail in its major action sequence, which consisted of an impressive inversion ‘Pincer movement’ of soldiers in differing timelines, before we could indulge in all its glory. But by then, the pace of the movie had already swept its viewers into incongruent abyss. Purchase a second screening in attempts to re-hear what was said? Not in this economy.

Unlike in Dunkirk, where dialogue wasn’t pivotal, and Inception, where visual cues already contained precedence in meaning, it’s deplorable that Nolan’s post-pandemic endeavour suffers from something that could so easily be rectified.

All this, without even getting started on the casts’ poor character development, his tiresome, sexist caricature of Elizabeth Debicky’s character, and his continuous blindspot for female portrayals.

Under the guise of ‘the next Inception’, or even as a standalone, I wanted to love this film — but this was too far off the mark. If Tenet was intended as a pandemic reprieve, look (and listen) elsewhere.

Overall Rating: 2.5/5

Tenet/Cinemablend
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Entertainment Review

Little Women (2019): A Beautiful Sisterhood 

A period drama film, Little Women is the latest adaptation of the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott. Directed by Greta Gerwig, the coming-of-age film follows the lives of the four March sisters played by a stellar cast: loving Meg (Emma Watson), hot-tempered Jo (Saoirse Ronan), sweet Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and sheltered Amy (Florence Pugh). Chronicling their lives, Little Women illustrates the sisters’ joy and struggles in two intertwining timelines. 

Set in 1868, the protagonist, free-spirited Jo is working in New York City as a tutor. An avid writer and aspiring novelist, Jo visits the unreceptive Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) who owns a publishing house. Selling her work under an alias, Jo struggles with Mr Dashwood’s criticism on how “Morals don’t sell nowadays”. However, Jo manages to publish her work albeit largely truncated according to the public’s appetite. Her desire to make a living from her literary works puts her at odds from the stories she truly wishes to write.

The film pans between the past and the present, and a flashback shows the fateful encounter between Jo and neighbour Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). Dressed in an elegant gown and a handsome suit respectively, Jo and Laurie became fast friends, the two goofing around inappropriately in a high society setting while Meg revelled in the festivities. Their friendship deepened, with Laurie being absolutely charmed by Jo and her family. Despite their seemingly compatible personalities, Laurie’s marriage proposal was turned down by Jo. 

In New York, Jo’s work is lambasted by acquaintance Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel) who is sincere in his words, believing that Jo should not write to accommodate the scandalous tastes of the public. Their blooming friendship is immediately nipped in the bud by Jo’s temper getting the better of her. Returning home to Concord, Massachusetts for her ailing sister, viewers are now introduced to Beth who suffers from scarlet fever. Quiet Beth, she frequently seeks solace in the piano, revealing a reserved character that deeply cares for the people around her. 

“Why does she (Amy) get away from everything?”

Jo is furious when Amy, the youngest, is still travelling in Europe with their Aunt (Meryl Streep) in blissful ignorance while the two older sisters tend to Beth. Carrying herself like a proper lady, Amy is seen to be vain and self-centered at times. In contrast, Meg is shown to be living rather frugally, having married a penniless tutor out of love. Their Aunt March has pointed out many times, the only way to be unmarried is to be rich and to marry poor is a failure in life. Little Women has made such bold statements, reflecting the status quo of the high expectations society has imposed on women. 

Returning to the halcyon days when the four sisters still lived together, their days were filled with joy. Enacting plays from Jo’s stories, they would don elaborate costumes and perform for the neighbouring children. Laurie, who was easily accepted into the group, was their unanimous sibling back in a simpler time. It was the age when the sisters had each other, and Laurie. 

In the past, Beth had recovered once from the disease. Jo’s memories are melancholic, remembering how they had celebrated Beth’s recovery in conjunction with their father’s return from war. The crowded house of March was filled with laughter and joy then. In stark contrast, the present is silent and painful as Beth’s health deteriorates and she eventually passes away. Gerwig’s use of the flitting past and present narratives is excellent in accentuating the inevitable changes of life. From an overjoyed Jo celebrating Beth’s recovery with the others to a miserable Jo weeping silently for the loss by herself. 

In the present, Amy is shown to be arguing with Laurie about how marriage is an economic proposition. As Jo has stated, “Marriage is not romance but mercenary”,  the repeated theme highlights the distinct gender inequality and women’s lack of rights. Amy further informs Laurie, feeling dispirited about how her money, her children, and everything that she owns will eventually be her husband’s property. Reminiscing of Aunt March’s constant reminder of “Save your family by marrying well”, it is emphasized by Amy’s frustration at the shackles a woman wears. The coddled sister is forced to grow up following the reality of society.  

Later, a sincere Professor Bhaer appears at the Marches’ doorstep to see Jo for the last time before his leave for California. In a twist that defies gender expectations, Jo stops Professor Bhaer, urging him to stay for her. 

The film then ends on a happy note, Meg and her husband promising to work hard for the family, Laurie and Amy finding love in each other, and Jo opens a school with her perfect match, Professor Bhaer. The sisters’ bonds are shown to be stronger than before, fulfilling a wish of their late sister, Beth. The final scene closes with Jo’s successful negotiation with Mr Dashwood, retaining her copyrights and publishing her book based on their lives, Little Women. 

Little Women speaks volumes of the expectations placed on women while serving as an inspiration for all looking to transcend those weights. The scene whereby Jo and Amy argue about publishing Jo’s Little Women has struck a chord in me. “Writing confers importance,” Jo seems apprehensive about publishing a work based on their ordinary lives while the encouraging Amy retorts, “Writing about something makes it more important.” After all, the most beautiful thing in life is usually found in the mundane. 

“Women, they have minds and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they have ambitions and talent as well as just beauty. I am sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for.” In particular, I have loved this line as spoken truly by Jo. 

Little Women is a beautiful film, succinctly sharing the emotional yet inspiring narratives of four very different women struggling to make their voices heard. 

IMDB; Gerwig, G. (Director). (2019). Little Women [Film]. Columbia Pictures, Regency Enterprises, Pascal Pictures.
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Entertainment Review

The Danish Girl (2015) —A Step Towards Documenting Transgender Experiences in Mainstream Media

The Danish Girl is a biographical romantic drama based on the novel of the same name written by David Ebershoff, depicting one of the first sexual reassignment surgeries performed in history. It follows the lives of Danish painters, Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener) (played by Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (played by Alicia Vikander), who reside in Copenhagen in the mid 1920s. Newly-married, all seems well with the couple as they seem to genuinely be in love with each other, reflected through their loving glances and embraces early on in the film. There seems to be a slight foreshadowing of events to come when Einar is backstage at a theatre, showing a deep fascination for fur costumes, and intensely gazing at Ulla Polsen (played by Amber Heard) — a close friend of the couple — while she rehearses. 

However, something seems to spark when Gerda asks Einar to stand in for Ulla, who is the model for one of her portraits.  After donning a pair of stockings, Einar has a profound emotional reaction, which sets off a series of events that cause him to question his gender identity. Ulla walks in on the couple and jokingly names Einar’s new ‘persona’ Lili. 

On a whim, the couple then decide to attend a party with Einar dressed as Lili, who has been learning how to present himself as a woman in terms of dressing and mannerisms. Gerda has also begun painting portraits of Einar in his newfound feminine form. 

Over here the audience witness Einar’s first foray into feminising himself, participating in an alternative gender performance. Taking Gerda’s lead, he studies female body language, adopting the way in which ladies tilt their heads and coyly avert the gazes of others, their posture and gait. What may be surprising to audiences here is Gerda’s support for her husband’s attempt at crossdressing as she buys him his own pair of stockings, and praises the way he does his makeup. 

At the party, Gerda tells everyone that Lili is Einar’s cousin. At the party, Lili meets Henrik (played by Ben Whishaw) , who is immediately attracted to her. They share a kiss, and Einar becomes convicted of his newfound gender identity, which culminates in the scene where he is seen tucking his genitals to create the silhouette of a woman. Lili eventually finds that presenting as male is becoming too hard to bear, and he comes clean to Gerda, admitting that he identifies as a woman. 

Lili thus begins her transition to align her body and gender expression with her inner gender identity. This is a herculean task, as doctors dismiss her as chemically imbalanced. She is threatened with incarceration, and is beaten up by homophobic thugs. Despite all this, Gerda remains supportive and continues to stay by her side. 

At the recommendation of Lili’s childhood friend, Hans (played by Matthias Schoenaerts), Lili and Gerda seek the opinion of Dr Kurt Warnekros, who explains that he is familiar with individuals like Lili. He then proposes that Lili undergo a controversial procedure — a two part operation that would remove Lili’s male genitalia, and fashion a vagina thereafter. However, the catch is that such a procedure has never been performed before, and thus presents an extremely high risk. Nonetheless, Lili agrees to travel to Germany for the surgery, in a bid to “correct a mistake of nature”. 

Although Lili eventually dies from complications resulting from the surgery, she remains a notable transgender pioneer till today. 

Directed by Tom Hooper, the film has been applauded for its efforts in documenting the experiences of transgendered individuals, and providing an insight to the struggles they face as they work to align their physical appearance to their inner identities. Not only do they have to navigate the intricacies of ‘passing’ as another gender, but they are also beset with the negative reactions from the people around them. Furthermore, critics are also impressed by artistic filmography, which are highlighted through the picturesque scenery, and the attention to details in the costumes and sets. 

Conversely, members of the trans community have also shown their disdain for the film, citing it as “regressive, reductive, and harmful” to trans representation in the media. In particular, Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili is perceived as a hypersexualised version of transwoman, as he is seen to mimic the body language of a stripper in his attempts to appear more convincingly feminine. The exaggeration of his female gender performance in the film can be argued as a performance of womanhood by stereotype. 

In terms of exploring the emotional depth of the protagonist, the film also tends to fall short. It limits Lili’s most vulnerable and intricate thoughts to mere silences as she caresses female clothing, and fails to adequately capture the emotional turmoil that she goes through as she is subjected to multiple treatments and ridicule from those around her. 

Overall, The Danish Girl seems to be a positive step in terms of trans representation in film, but requires a greater sensitivity towards the presentation and recounting of trans character’s experiences for it to be fully realised as a thought-provoking social commentary.

IMDB; Hooper, T. (2015). The Danish Girl. Working Title, Artemis Productions, Amber Entertainment, Revision Pictures, Senator Global Productions
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Entertainment Review

Jumanji: The Next Level (2019): A Game of Life and Death

Welcome back to Jumanji

Viewers are once again transported to the fantasy world Jumanji in the equally compelling sequel to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017). The cult classic,  Jumanji (1995) has its fantastical creatures from the titular board game coming alive and running rampant in the real world. Meanwhile, The Next Level has retained the similarly riveting premise with its protagonists entering the role-playing adventure game instead. Introducing an all-star cast of both race and gender diversity, viewers are treated to an extravagant performance that involves a lot of action, a gripping plot, more humour, and a little poignance.

Three years has passed since Welcome to the Jungle (2017) when four students were transported into the fantasy world; they succeeded in clearing the game and had destroyed the console quickly after. Now, the same group of young adults has made plans for a reunion after leading separate lives. However, the main character, Spencer GIlpin (Alex Wolff) is reluctant to meet. The apprehensive college student is feeling rather inferior about his dull life in comparison to the rest’s seemingly fulfilling ones, especially that of his long-distance girlfriend Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner). Ultimately, Spencer’s inferiority drives him back to Jumanji after his attempt at repairing the broken console. Seeking a sense of purpose in the imaginative world, Spencer hopes to regain confidence in the body of his former avatar, the charismatic Dr. Xander Smolder (Dwayne Johson). 

Anthony Johson (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha, and Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman) are aghast to learn of Spencer’s return to Jumanji where three strikes of in-game deaths would mean an immediate demise of their real bodies. Albeit grudgingly, their deep-rooted friendship has encouraged the hesitant rescue of their old friend. Eddie (Danny Devito), Spencer’s grandfather, and his estranged friend and business partner Milo Walker (Danny Glover) are transported unwittingly into the fantasy world as well. 

With the exception of Bethany, it is revealed that the mismatched group of nervous younglings and two cranky old men are assigned avatars at random. A different storyline from the previous game, the adventurers are now facing a different trial with  Jumanji suffering from a drought. To exit the game, they are tasked to recover the legendary necklace, Falcon Jewel, from the nefarious warlord Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann).

Herein ensues a hilarious adventure with Eddie and Milo struggling to understand the severity of the situation. Chased by a flock of terrifying ostriches across seemingly endless sand dunes, the group finally meets Spencer’s new avatar, the nimble thief Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina). New in-game characters and items such as the Jumanji Berry and magical waters are introduced; the original players (including latecomers veteran Alex Creeke (Colin Hanks) and Bethany) eventually revert to their former avatars. 

Humour, wit, and a pinch of life lessons, The Next Level is not only about breathtaking backdrops and thrilling actions. Although the death bridge sequence with its predatory monkeys is rather heart-stopping, relatable real-life problems are explored at the same time. Eddie’s long-time feud with Milo is explained, Milo had sold their co-owned diner without Eddie’s knowledge, thus forcing the former into a retirement. It is then elucidated that Milo is terminally ill, and he desires to reconcile with his old friend. Through these life-and-death tribulations, Eddie finally accepts Milo’s apology after the long years. 

The group is then shown to successfully infiltrate Jurgen’s fortress for the final showdown. With Martha’s avatar, Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gilian) and Dr Smolder, this scene provides a brilliant confrontation of heavy punches and nimble kicks against an upbeat soundtrack, ending in the annihilation of the enemies. Prior to the chaos, Spencer has admitted his insecurity to which Martha comforts him that they will always be there for each other. Touching on the grappling self-doubts, Spencer is courageous not only in facing the numerous bloodthirsty foes but in his fears as well. 

Finally, the game pans towards the end with Spencer successfully defeating Jurgen and retrieving the Falcon Jewel. As per the rules, the necklace is shone in the sun and the name “Jumanji” is called out thrice to end the game. Ultimately, Milo has opted to stay behind and to enjoy the rest of his life as a free pegasus soaring the skies. After the group gives their bittersweet goodbyes, they return to the real world promising never to touch Jumanji again. As the laughing group of four shares a blissful meal at Eddie and Milo’s old diner, a flock of ostriches rushes past them. To their horror, Jumanji has come alive once more.

As a fan of Jumanji (1995), I was thrilled to learn of the long-awaited sequel directed by Jake Kasdan. While Welcome to the Jungle does not disappoint, The Next Level has indeed brought a new level of comedy and action with a tinge of tears. In particular, I had immensely enjoyed the avatars mimicking their counterparts’ personalities very well. The actors and actresses have done a wonderful portrayal. 

The production design is impressive, as imaginative as one would find in the best video games. From the tumultuous adventures in the jungle, through the treacherous desert to the intimidating dark castle guarded by icy slopes, each and every second of the film keeps viewers on the edge of their seats in suspense. 

The ending is a little poignant, heavily accentuating the message of friendship, courage, and loyalty. After all, life is best meant to be enjoyed with close friends. A highly-lauded film, it is a must-watch for all.

Till the next level.

IMDB; Kasdan, J. (Director). (2019). Jumanji: The Next Level [Film]. Columbia Pictures, Seven Bucks Productions, Hartbeat Productions, Matt Tolmach Productions.
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Entertainment Review

Hurricane Bianca (2016): A Witty Comedy for Drag Race Fans

In recent years, drag queens have taken over mass media by storm, largely due to the rising popularity of American reality show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, which sees drag queens going head-to-head in a variety of challenges to be crowned America’s next drag superstar. With the show becoming a household name among many, it’s no surprise that it has also given many drag queens a platform to develop their own careers — whether in music, movies, or even books!

One such drag queen is none other than Bianca Del Rio (Roy Haylock), the winner of season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Known primarily for being an insult comedian with powerful one-liner comebacks, Haylock has produced a televised comedy show on Logo. Having already made his debut on television, breaking onto the big screen seems like the natural next stop. This foray onto television and movie is a significant one for the drag community, whose exposure has largely been limited to the internet and nightclubs prior to Drag Race. 

Haylock plays a school teacher, Richard Martinez, who moves from New York City to a small town to Texas to work at a new school. Although a little on the timid side, Richard is still dedicated to transforming his students’ lives. However, his new career doesn’t last long. His sexual orientation is exposed and he is fired — a cruel reality that is legal under Texas’ state law. Richard then meets Karma Johnstone, a transwoman who runs her own radio show in the town. Richard’s friendship with Karma is what inspires his next steps. Determined to exact revenge on those who treated him unfairly, Richard returns as Bianca Del Rio, and causes mayhem in order to teach them a lesson. Bianca Del Rio returns to the school which sacked Richard to begin her teaching career. Unlike Richard, she is not afraid to express her opinions and teach others a lesson where necessary. Despite being well-meaning at heart, she is unapologetic about not mincing her words with snappy comebacks — just like the Bianca Del Rio we know from Drag Race.

Although the plot of the movie is pretty simplistic, the diversity of cast members makes up for it. Aside from Haylock, the film also stars comedian Rachel Drach, who plays the bigoted and mean-spirited school vice-principal, Deborah Ward. Other well-known drag stars, and Drag Race alumnus, Willam and Shangela also make an appearance in the film as Richard’s friends. The jokes in the film are definitely enjoyable, but they are a far cry from what these comedians are capable of in real life. Avid fans of Drag Race will be familiar with the comedic potential and sheer wit of the likes of Bianca, Willam and Shangela, and might be disappointed by the blandness of their characters, but the silver lining is that these queens’ appearance in such a feature film could potentially pave the way for their successors to garner more screen time on mainstream media. 

In terms of social commentary, Hurricane Bianca also makes a worthy candidate. Beyond the humour presented in the film, it also tackles current issues that are at the heart of LGBTQ discourse today, such as discrimination and bigotry — which are unfortunately still present in certain aspects of American society today. In an interview, Director Matt Kugelman expressed his intention for the film, saying “My hope is that Hurricane Bianca will change minds and bring awareness to the issue. The film deals with a serious topic in a comedic way.” 

Another reason as to why this film may be excused for its ‘basicness’ is its limited budget, as the film was completely crowdfunded. Hence, it must be acknowledged that the cast, producers and directors were able to make the most of what they had, and produce a comedy which still serves its function of tickling audiences, all while giving them a taste of the vibrant and crazy world of drag culture. 

In sum, Hurricane Bianca may have missed the mark in terms of what makes a Hollywood worthy film, but it definitely provides Drag Race fans with more of what they love — tacky, crass drag queen humour. The cheesy storyline and production value (or lack thereof) could just be the cake topper for lovers of drag queen-style humour. 

Hurricane Bianca (2016) - IMDb
IMDB; Kugelman, M. (2015). Hurricane Bianca. Cranium Entertainment
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Entertainment Review

Just Mercy (2019): A Poignant and Timely Call for Equal Justice

Just Mercy is a biographical legal drama that traces the work experiences of Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B Jordan), a Harvard-trained attorney who has dedicated his life to providing legal assistance to criminals on death row. The film encapsulates Stevenson’s work mainly through the case of Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx), a black man wrongfully convicted of the murder of an 18-year old white girl, Ronda Morrison.

The film opens in Monroe County, Alabama, showing Walter McMillian — a pulpwood tree feller — who is apprehended by police. The next scene shows a young Bryan Stevenson visiting a death row inmate as part of his internship to inform the latter that he is not due for execution anytime soon. The inmate’s reaction — shedding tears of joy — is a defining moment for Stevenson, who then becomes inspired to provide legal assistance to those who are unable to afford it.

After obtaining his law degree, Stevenson travels to Alabama to provide legal assistance to poor people who are unable to afford proper legal representation. Through his meetings with inmates, we are shown that a disproportionate number of them are African American — reflective of a disturbing trend in prison populations in the United States, even today.

By the time Stevenson and McMillian cross paths, the latter is awaiting execution with little hope of reprieve, and has long become cynical towards attorneys who claim to be able to help. Determined to take on McMillian’s case, Stevenson demonstrates his determination by travelling to the outskirts of town to meet McMillian’s friends and family, who vehemently insist that he is innocent.

The journey to prove McMillian’s innocence involves Stevenson interacting with members of law enforcement, who are outraged at his attempts to overturn the court’s decision. Stevenson is also frustrated at the blatant lack of legal provisions that were made for Mcmillian during his trial — a common reality for many poor African American inmates.

The film also introduces us to McMillian’s neighbours on death row, whom Stevenson has also offered to help. We are introduced to Herbert Richardson (played by Rob Morgan), a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and accused of capital murder after a bomb he constructed accidentally kills a young girl.

Despite being an attorney, Stevenson also finds himself at the mercy of bigoted white folk. He too, is stopped by the police while driving late at night, and is forced to be strip-searched at the prison before a legal visit. The poignant depiction of Stevenson’s discomfort at the officer’s behaviour and clear abuse of power is a powerful reminder of how one’s skin colour is a large determinant of how one is treated, regardless of status.

Although Stevenson manages to present evidence to prove Richardson’s preexisting mental health condition, the appeal is ultimately rejected by the court, and the latter’s execution day is set. One of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the movie — before Richardson awaits his execution by electric chair, he has a moment with Stevenson and wants to give his veteran flag to him because he has no one else to give it to. The simple scene sheds light on the grim reality on many death row prisoners, who have no one by their side as they face their last moments.

Richardson’s execution is traumatising for Stevenson, who then becomes even more determined to prevent McMillian from suffering a similar fate. He visits one of the key witnesses in McMillian’s case, convicted felon Ralph Myers, who was previously coerced to provide false testimony in exchange for a lighter sentence in his own trial. Stevenson also garners public support for McMillian’s release by bringing McMillian’s case to 60 Minutes, a famous investigative series on television. At the same time, Stevenson also appeals to the Supreme Court of Alabama to grant McMillian a retrial. After a retrial is granted, Stevenson files a motion to have all charges against McMillian dismissed, much to the displeasure of prosecutor Tommy Chapman (played by Rafe Spall), who maintains that keeping McMillian on death row is for the benefit of Monroeville’s citizens.

In a twist of events, Chapman also decides to join the motion to dismiss all charges against McMillian, hence allowing for the latter’s release from prison. McMillian, upon hearing the news, has an emotional breakdown in court, and is immediately surrounded by his overjoyed family and friends.

Despite a happy ending for McMillian, the end of the film shows Stevenson and McMillian advocating for equal justice, which reminds the audience that there are still countless of African Americans who are wrongfully incarcerated, or face much longer jail terms because of the inherent racism in the American judicial system.

Despite being set in the 1980s and 1990s, Just Mercy is a film that powerfully illustrates some of the struggles that African Americans have to contend with because of institutionalised racism. Its release is also timely in light of the Black Lives Matter movement that has erupted across the United States, calling for an end to institutional racism and police brutality towards people of colour. The film’s focus on the pain and struggles of the characters — although limited and brief — as they deal with repercussions of incarceration and capital punishment are pressing reminders for the audience that much still needs to be done to achieve equal justice for all.

Just Mercy (2019) - IMDb
IMDB; Cretten, D. (Director). (2019). Just Mercy. Endeavor Content, One Community, Participant Media, Macro Media, Gil Netter Productions, Outlier Society

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Entertainment Review

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011): The Love for the Old in the New

Studio Ghibli brings us another heartwarming film, From Up on Poppy Hill, a poignant tale of identity, love, and change. Directed by Gorō Miyazaki and written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, the story follows Umi Matsuzaki (voiced by Masami Nagasawa) and Shun Kazama (Junichi Okada from V6) navigating their high school life in 1963 Yokohama,  Japan.

Viewers can expect beautiful animated art in From Up on Poppy Hill as with all of Studio Ghibli titles. Transporting us back to a post-war Japan, the sentimental story begins with a strong-willed, independent heroine, Umi Matsuzaki. 

Sixteen-year-old Umi manages her family’s boarding house, Coquelicot Manor, that overlooks the Port of Yokohama. The heavy responsibility of caring for both her family and the two lodgers falls on the young girl as her mother is studying abroad. Every morning, Umi will raise a pole of signal flags diligently with the message “I pray for safe voyages”. It is a melancholic tribute and a hopeless yearning for her father who is lost at sea, during the Korean War. 

Introducing the male protagonist, Shun Kazama is a brave, outspoken, and eloquent boy. A member of the journalism club, Shun had penned a poem when he caught sight of the flags Umi had melancholically raised everyday. Their paths crossed when Shun performed a daring jump from the roof in their school. This has marked the start of an unusual friendship, with Umi assisting Shun and his friend, Shiro Mizunuma (voiced by Shunsuke Kazama), for their school publication. 

Quartier Latin, a dilapidated Meiji-era building that is poorly maintained, houses all the student clubs in its antiquated splendour. The first difficulty arises when Quartier Latin is planned for demolition, to pave way for a modern architect in lieu of the upcoming 1964 Summer Olympics. It is an era of transition, when the country is moving on from the post-effects of the bloodied war to the contemporary with a booming economy. 

The nostalgia for the past as one moves forward to the present is evidently captured in the film. The entire student body has gathered in a united front, deciding to renovate the building to showcase its former glory in the effort to protect their history. In spite of their efforts, the Kanagawa Prefectural Board of Education uncompromisingly opted to proceed with the demolition. A last-ditch effort, Shun, Umi, and Shiro headed to Tokyo directly in hopes to convince the school board’s chairman, being incredibly brave and resolute to take things into their own hands. 

Throughout their turbulent high school life, Umi and Shun have become closer, supporting each other while attempting to protect the beautiful landmark many students have called home. In the meantime, Shun’s birth is also unveiled, in turn realising that he could be the long lost child of Umi’s deceased father. Grappling with his blooming feelings for Umi, Shun is unable to face the girl he likes in the possibility that they could be siblings. This led to a strain on their friendship that leaves the two confused and in pain.

Ultimately, the conflicts come to a sweet close, the clear pacing of the story giving way to a fitting ending. Umi’s mother has finally returned home, revealing Shun’s birth mother and father have unfortunately passed away. Umi’s father had temporarily taken Shun under his care, registering the orphan under his family registry before eventually leaving him to the Kazamas. Shun’s doubts are cleared by their parents’ friend as well. 

On the other side, the chairman is unequivocally impressed by the students and their passion for the historic building, agreeing to preserve Quartier Latin. Shun and Umi then profess their feelings for each other. The curtain finally closes to Umi who resumes her routine of raising the flags, now for all in the seas.

From Up on Poppy Hill speaks about the aftereffects of the wars, the tragedy that comes when families are torn apart and the heartrending pain of waiting for someone who will never return. Orphans with no known relatives are implied to be left in limbo, with uncertain futures during times when the society is so desperately trying to rebuild itself. The film also depicts the strong student activism, reflecting the actual campus activism back in the 1960s when students were motivated to speak strongly for what they had believed in. 

The warm film has wonderfully depicted the lives of a teenager back in 1960s Japan, of the uncertainty, the love, and the pain they had felt growing up in a life that was marred by wars. The music scores are aptly woven into the film, amplifying the emotions of each scene as the viewers watch the story unfold in the shoes of Umi and Shun. 

The beauty of the scenery is distinct; the intricate details of the ships, the cars, the streets, and especially the Quartier Latin have evoked a desire to visit the past. From Up on Poppy Hill is more than a tale of the old Japan; its message is clear, it is pertinent to understand and respect the past in order to move forward. And that, is the beauty of life.

From Up on Poppy Hill
高橋千鶴/佐山哲郎/GNDHDDT
Categories
Entertainment Review

Oculus (2013): A Haunted Mirror or a Sick Psyche

Oculus is not your run-of-the-mill horror film filled only with jumpscares accompanied by loud, jarring sound effects. It is a wonderful blend of the supernatural and the psychological, leaving an indelible memory as one ponders endlessly on its story. While the trope of a haunted artifact possessed by a malevolent force may be overused, this film has added a twist of preying on the minds. 

Set in the modern United States, the film has two plot lines that take place in parallel, the troubled childhood and the tormented adult lives of the siblings — Tim and Kaylie Russell. Viewers can expect a sublime performance from Brenton Thwaites and Karen Gillan as the adults and Garrett Ryan Ewald and Annalise Basso as the children.

First, viewers are introduced to the accursed mirror when Alan Russell, the father (Rory Cochrane), purchased it innocuously for his home office. A seemingly ornamental mirror, the intricate antique holds a mysterious power that induces hallucinations. Marie, the wife (Katee Sackhoff), was driven insane by the phantasm that she believed her husband was cheating on her with. The loving family spiralled quickly and both parents became demented under the insidious influence. The slow decay of the human minds is perhaps the scariest of all horror elements. 

Oculus then pans to the current year, 2013, after the siblings’ innocent childhoods ended abruptly. Alan had murdered Marie, prompting Tim to protect his sister and himself by pulling the trigger reluctantly on their father. Next, viewers are shown the adult Tim who is discharged after years of receiving psychiatric treatments in a mental facility. No longer believing in the supernatural events that had unfolded, the physicalist Tim was finally reunited with his older sister.

Kaylie, however, has spent much of her life researching on the mirror to exonerate her brother. Adamant and a little obsessive, Kaylie has finally gotten her hands on the mirror once again despite Tim’s apprehension. Tim’s attempt to erase those bitter memories, believing the supernatural to be an effect of his mental illness, in my belief, is his innermost desire to get back to their happier days. 

Kaylie eventually convinced Tim to assist her, striving to document the entity using various high-tech equipment to find justice for their family’s demise. They return to their old house with the mirror, and predictably, everything has gone wrong. The reappearance of the same disconcerting ghosts accompanied by spine-chilling sound effects, the outcome is pretty much slated in stone. 

Kaylie’s meticulous plans with the technology on hand are triumphed by the mirror yet again. The sibling’s minds are influenced, behaving erratically as they could no longer believe what they saw. Trapped in the nightmares of their younger days, Tim and Kaylie are forced to relieve the pain over and over again, haunted by beckoning spectres. In the end, the pain finally ends when Tim killed the sister he had so desperately tried to protect in a mishap. And as the story repeats, Tim is taken away for a crime he had guiltlessly committed.

Oculus has done very well in the theatres, receiving generally positive reviews despite its small budget. The use of only a haunted object and focusing on the tales of the two characters, Oculus has succeeded in amplifying their psychological fears while playing with ours as well. 

The minds are fragile, as the director Mike Flanagan put prominence on, unnerving the mental, emotional, and psychological states leaves a much deeper scar than the physical one. Leaving the viewers a perpetual state of unrest throughout the entire film, whether in the past or present scenes, I had indeed felt the same dread as the characters. “Why don’t you believe in Tim?” I wondered, “The mirror’s powers are real, Tim did not commit the crime!” The impending doom and the isolation the characters felt, especially Tim, was almost palpable. 

Ultimately, one may argue that the mirror is a mere object, the only supernatural events that occurred were all along in the mind. Was the father truly under the control of a phantom force or was it due to his lapsing lucidity? Was the mother genuinely delusional due to the strains of their marriage? Perhaps Tim had fallen prey to his mind as well, was it really the mirror behind the violence and blood? 

In Oculus, the horror is simple and deeply rooted, preying on our darkest fear — the insecurity of self. While many may contend the possibility of the unknown, this film with its ambiguity leaves much to debate and think upon the truth of our version of reality. 

Oculus has successfully played with the minds of Tim and Kaylie, and in turn, ours. 

Flanagan, M. (Director). (2013). Oculus [Film]. Blumhouse Productions, WWE Studios, MICA Entertainment, Mist Entertainment, Intrepid Pictures.