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Indie Focus: A new hero in ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Even after last weekend’s Golden Globe Awards, there was continued fallout from The Times’ bombshell reporting on the ethical lapses of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and the membership of the group itself.

While the fact the group has no Black members was briefly addressed during the show, almost immediately the activist group Time’s Up released a statement calling for more concrete action.

As Stacy Perman subsequently reported, the HFPA explored the possibility of hiring a diversity consultant last year, but opted not to.

Nevertheless, the show did go on, and an unquestionable highlight was Jane Fonda’s riveting speech in accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award.

“Let’s all of us make an effort to expand that tent, so that everyone rises and everyone’s story has a chance to be seen and heard,” she said. “I mean, doing this simply means acknowledging what’s true, being in step with the emerging diversity that’s happening because of all those who marched and fought in the past and those who picked up the baton today. After all, art has always been not just in step with history but has led the way. So let’s be leaders.”

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As it happens, a new restoration of the 1972 movie “F.T.A.,” which documents a raucous traveling antiwar variety show hosted by Fonda and Donald Sutherland, is playing in virtual cinemas.

This week on “The Envelope” podcast, I spoke to Steve McQueen, director, cowriter and producer of the monumental five-film anthology “Small Axe,” which is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

The movies explore London’s West Indian community from the ‘60s to the ‘80s. As Times TV critic Lorraine Ali recently wrote, “New decades bring new styles and soundtracks, as well as fresh signs of progress — and new problems. But at the core of it all are the people whose lives are enriched and upended by a society that wasn’t designed with them in mind.”

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‘Raya and the Last Dragon’

Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is the first Disney animated film inspired by Southeast Asian cultures. In the film, set in a land called Kumandra, the young warrior princess Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) must protect a dragon named Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), the last of her kind. The film is playing in theaters where they are open and is available as PVOD on Disney+.

Tran and Awkwafina spoke with Tracy Brown about the film and what it has meant for them to be part of a project that expands the representation presented by Disney animated films.

“I do think that there is progress being made and hopefully this movie is part of that progress,” Tran said. “But I will also say that there’s still more work to be done. I don’t think that we can talk about equal representation until we really see that in front of the camera, behind the camera, across all races, socioeconomic classes, abilities, gender identities, the list goes on and on and on. There has been progress, but there’s also more progress to be made.”

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “As with most of Disney’s past stabs at multiplex multiculturalism, the representational value of ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ will be lauded, debated and found wanting in roughly equal measure. … The movie is an ambitious, imperfect stew of cultural inspirations, in which sharp new flavors and textures jostle with flat, derivative ones. The specific pan-Asian details — a bowl of shrimp congee, a price paid in jade pieces — are amusing even when they brush up gently against stereotype. And the pleasing range of faces, skin tones and body types on display helps offset the anonymous quality that plagues even the most sophisticated three-dimensional character design.”

For The Hollywood Reporter, Inkoo Kang wrote, “Tran’s pitch-perfect performance makes organic even the heavier character beats, while Muppet-voiced Awkwafina remains a master at finding the humor in the most humdrum dialogue through offbeat line readings. ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ occasionally crawls, but most of the time it’s got urgency and momentum to spare. Just as impressively, it builds to a deeply moving climax whose resolution is unexpected yet consummate. This is a film that knows how to soar.”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “However intentional the timing, ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is on a level all its own — a dystopian saga that feels disorientingly primed for a release at the tail end of the pandemic, under a president who ran under messages of healing and unity. It’s a movie that takes place in a landscape ravaged by a plague, and one in which, we’re told, the only chance at a future appears to depend on its characters figuring out how to overcome the tribalism that’s splintered their nation. Who could ever relate? Thank God there’s a cute baby to focus on.”

A scene from "Raya and the Last Dragon."
(Disney)

‘The Truffle Hunters’

Codirected by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, the documentary “The Truffle Hunters” follows a group of aging Italian men (and their dogs) who go into forests in search of valuable truffles to be sent to restaurants around the world. It is a world of fading tradition and startling intrigue. The film is on the Oscar documentary shortlist and is playing at the Vineland Drive-In and in limited release where theaters are open.

For The Times, Katie Walsh called it “a film that lies at the intersection of documentary, Italian neorealism and Renaissance painting, a wholly singular visual experience that is inextricably tied to the film’s storytelling. Pioneer documentarian John Grierson defined documentary filmmaking as ‘the creative treatment of actuality,’ and ‘The Truffle Hunters’ is one of the finest and most unique examples of that ethos on screens this year, a cinematic delicacy as rare as the truffle itself.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Some of the most astonishing and dizzying sequences in ‘The Truffle Hunters’ show us exactly what the dogs do see, by means of a camera mounted just above muzzle level. The underbrush rushes by, and suddenly we’re poised above a patch of dirt and frantically digging paws. A human hand snatches the thing we were chasing as soon as we’ve found it, and off we go again. This is an intriguing movie, as far as it goes. If I were a dog, I might object — in a friendly way, of course. But since I am not a dog, it will sit at the top of my list of essential truffle movies, at least until [a dog named] Birba decides to direct one herself. That film will have all the answers.”

For Variety, Tomris Laffly wrote, “Buried underneath the picture (and vaguely hinted at by the filmmakers) is also a sharp divergence in socioeconomic class between the hunters and their increasingly scarce product’s end users, who pay a small fortune to enjoy shaved truffles in fancy restaurants. It’s a complex picture that Dweck and Kershaw navigate with respect, curiosity and a sense of awe, managing to excavate the essence of a tight-knit, lovably atypical commune out of it. Upon seeing ‘The Truffle Hunters,’ don’t be surprised if you start seeing the elusive ingredient sprinkled over your risotto in spiritual terms.”

Angelo Gagliardi in "The Truffle Hunters."
(Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw / Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

‘Boogie’

Written and directed by Eddie Huang in his directorial debut, “Boogie” is about a New York City high school basketball player known as Boogie (Taylor Takahashi) with dreams of a college scholarship and moving on to the NBA. The supporting cast includes Taylour Paige as Boogie’s girlfriend and, in his only screen role, the late rapper Pop Smoke as a rival player. The film is playing at the Mission Tiki Drive-in and theaters where they are open.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “It’s a familiar setup approached from a less-than-familiar angle, and ‘Boogie,’ ambitious and clumsy by turns, cycles rapidly through the conventions of the teen sports melodrama, with an eye toward fulfilling some and subverting others. It has friendship and romance, testosterone-fueled banter and high-stakes game play, all of it nimbly shot by cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz and set to an energetic wall-to-wall soundtrack of hip-hop and teen pop. But it’s also a deliberate rewiring of the coming-of-age story, something the movie self-consciously acknowledges in a few clever-clunky scenes from English class, where Boogie denounces Holden Caulfield as a figure of insufferable, unrelatable privilege.”

For the New York Times, Teo Bugbee wrote, “The movie’s seriousness does have its drawbacks. There is a sense of posturing toughness to Boogie as a character that the movie also displays. And while it gives Boogie space to be introspective about his identity, it is less considered when it comes to its Black characters. It’s a competent movie, but it doesn’t quite make it to the big leagues.”

Taylor Takahashi and Taylour Paige in the movie "Boogie."
(Nicole Rivelli / Focus Features)


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