RāViewz: Film & TV | October 2021
With a focus on addiction, superheroes and stories of colour, here's what Rāwiri is watching this month...
Shang-Chi & The Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), Marvel Studios
The Marvel Machine entered Phase 4 at the top of the year with its debut TV series WandaVision, but it would take six more months before the first cinematic entry. With the summer release of Black Widow now firmly in 2021's rear-view mirror, audiences were keen to see how the next few films would fare.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton had just come off of Just Mercy, an affecting death row drama, when he was hired to helm the 25th feature of Marvel's Cinematic Universe. Having guided fellow Marvelites Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson (Killmonger and Captain Marvel) to stunning performances, it was probably no surprise that Cretton would similarly evoke inspired turns in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
It's an origin story by now well-worn in Marvel circles, and extrapolating the plot points here, its almost a syncopated rhythm we've seen with Iron Man, Cap America et all. Dysfunctional familial ties? Check. Embued mystical power? Check. Comic relief side kick? LOL CHECK. Elaborately CGI finale? Double Check!
And yet, despite it's lack of plot originality, Shang-Chi is one of the standout origin stories ever delivered by Marvel. Its performances - from Simu Liu as the titular hero, to Tony Leung, Meng'er Zhang and Michelle Yeoh - are tied with Black Panther and Iron Man for sheer gravitas. It's stunt work, bold and busy, rivals Winter Soldier and Civil War in its execution.
It's a film that leads with its heart, (it opens with the gorgeous romantic subplot of Wenwu and Ying Li) and runs heavy with humour mainly thanks to the charismatic Awkwafina. In both cases, we're treated to a film that both understands the tropes its delivering, while still finding new ways to deliver it.
And while the Third Act gets a little far away from the intimacy of its set up, it has to be said that Shang-Chi's fantasy battle sequences are some of the most exquisitely-realised computer imagery scenes Marvel has ever produced.
An incredible introduction to the MCU for Simu Liu and Shang-Chi, and one of the better films of its canon, period.
Reservation Dogs (2021), Hulu & Disney+
An older white couple are driving through the country roads of Oklahoma when they pass a graffiti message that reads 'LAND BACK'. Confused, Mr. White wonders if this means that 'the Indians' want *all* the land back. Or just some. Mrs. White affirms that their land was stolen and getting all of it back would be reasonable. She then calls him a shitass and he hits a deer.
The bloodied animal corpse is later picked up by the titular Rez Dogs, who don't quite fit it correctly in the trunk of their car, but whose general care of the animal in comparison to the couple who ran it down, is a telling scene.
The teenagers eventually cook the deer but not before learning to fight bare-handed from a distant Uncle, and getting high off of weed that had been buried since the 90s. It's just another day in the Rez.
Reservation Dogs is the brainchild of Native American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, in collaboration with native Māori filmmaker Taika Waititi. It's the comedic coming-of-age story of four Indigenous teenagers - Bear, Elora Danan, Cheese and Willie - as they plot to escape their disappointing surroundings of Oklahoma for the bright lights and promise of California.
The young cast - D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, Devery Jacobs and Paulina Alexis - are superbly attuned to their characters and bring to life a handful of affable scripts that both lean in to, and subvert expectations with equal fervour.
Dear White People, Volume 4 (2021), Netflix
The three simple words of its title provoked controversy before a single episode had even aired back in 2017, and since then, Dear White People has occupied a unique position within pop culture television; a beacon of honest race relational content few other series dared to even touch.
Thanks to tight scripting, deft direction, an ongoing mystery and an exceptional young roster of talent, Justin Simien's examination of black students on white campuses has been a consistent addition to Netflix's original programming for four years. Covid-19 has caused delays but the fourth and final season set at Winchester University is here - and its musical!
Concurrent storylines show the final year of school for Sam, Troy, Lionel, Coco & co, and the not-too-distant-future setting that deals with the fallout of our core group. Amongst all that, romantic relationships begin and end, tech giants seduce some of the cast, reality TV stardom enamours one, and the road to film making success is paved with personal sacrifice.
Dear White People leaves nothing left on the table by the time that curtain falls on the final episode. Each of central characters gets a centric episode to focus, and the cast once again do a fantastic job of bringing their arcs to a close. Logan Browning (Sam), DeRon Horton (Lionel), and Brandon P. Bell (Troy) roundly deliver as always, but in particular this season we get even more stunning work from Marque Richardson (Reggie), Antoinette Robertson (Coco) and Ashley Blaine Featherson (Joelle).
Considering how ahead of the race conversation Dear White People has always been, it seems almost fitting that the show find its conclusion a year after the BLM protests that enacted real change within state legislation around police reform. It is apparent that the creators went to great effort to push the conversation and remain respectful of its subject matter.
The wild card we didn't expect to see this season was its reliance of musical interludes, and as Troy conspires to put on a 90's-inspired theatre gig, we as the audience are treated to the cast turning SWV, Jamiroquai, NSYNC and Montell Jordan songs into truly cool television moments.
Dear Dear White People cast and crew: thanks for the memories.
Squid Game, (2021), Netflix
Since coming to realise that Western audiences are quite capable of enjoying foreign content so long as its high quality, entertainment powerhouse Netflix has been investing in a range of new shows from specific international markets. Lupin, Dark and especially Money Heist were massive critical and commercial successes in their own rights. Now one show from Korea - 10 years in the making - is about to eclipse them all.
Over 9 gripping episodes, Squid Game grabs wrestles with the morality of economic disparity by offering its central characters the opportunity to clear their various debts and live in considerable riches. The only catch? A series of adult-versioned kids games where competitors are eliminated by brutal means of death.
We follow reckless but likeable father Seong Gi-hun into the games, as he tries his best to survive each task without causing premature endings for the fellow competitors he's beginning to care for - former friend Cho Sang-woo, petty thief Kang Sae-byeok and forgetful elder statesman Oh Il-nam.
The show's central premise sounds and feels a lot like the Hunger Games and Battle Royale before it, but is given a fresh lease of life thanks to stunning production design and deft character development that gives insight to our central players both in and outside of the arena.
You'll be shocked, appalled, angry and distraught as each passing episode brings the brutal and imminent threat of danger. This relatable, redeemable bunch of down-and-outers (superbly and sublimely portrayed by Korean film and television royalty) make Squid Game the must-watch new series of 2021.