Friday, March 5

Boogie Review


Dir: Eddie Huang

Starring: Taylor Takahashi, Taylour Paige, Pamelyn Chee, Perry Yung, and Pop Smoke


There is an undeniable formula that composes the structure of a basketball sports film. You'll often have a headstrong coach, a talented superstar who must understand their true potential and seemingly insurmountable odds that the team must come together to defeat. "Hoosiers," "He Got Game," and "Hoop Dreams," while entirely different basketball movies, still each embody the formula but in different ways. At the center of all these films are characters just like Alfred "Boogie" Chin (Taylor Takahashi), talented young men trying to balance the harsh realities of the world with the dream of playing basketball on the professional level. 


What separates writer/director Eddie Huang's film "Boogie" from other sports films it resembles is you don't often see basketball stories told from the perspective of a Chinese American protagonist. Huang understands the teenage sports melodrama, taking the familiar elements we are accustomed to and weaving components of culture, tradition, family dysfunction, and adolescent insecurity into the spaces that will ultimately frame the sports formula being manipulated.


Boogie has just transferred to a new elite private high school, one with a losing basketball record and desperate need for a superstar to lead them into the winning bracket. Boogie, however, is more concerned with how this opportunity can help him gain more exposure and help him receive a full scholarship from a top-ranked university. Boogie isn't just eyeballing a college scholarship, he has dreams of playing in the NBA and hopes of helping his family get out of the constant financial struggle they have been in since he was born. 


Boogie’s brash ego complicates the route into a college program. He is consistently at odds with his coach (Domenick Lombardozzi) to the point that he gets kicked off the bench and sent to the locker room because of his attitude and defiance; all this happens in clear view of a college scout who is watching from the bleachers. Making matters worse are Boogie's dysfunctional parents, Mr. and Mrs. Chin (Perry Yung and Pamelyn Chee), who continually tear into one another and often use Boogie as the bargaining vessel for their anger and frustration. Both parents see a life for Boogie that is strictly their own.


Huang does a great job of composing the core relationships for Boogie. When the family is sitting around the dinner table, talking about the future and what Boogie might do to make it to the next level, they are wonderfully composed. Pamelyn Chee, playing Boogie's mom, is completely convincing in her cold and impatient demeanor. Perry Yung, playing Boogie's dad, also has a few shining moments, one in particular when he talks about the importance of the 1989 French Open match between Michael Chang and Ivan Lendl, he calls it "the greatest moment in Asian American history." 


However, the film's shining star belongs to Boogie's love interest, Paige, played with confidence and energy by Taylour Paige. Her character challenges Boogie, forcing him to see beyond the self-pity of a problematic family, uncertain future ambitions, and the cultural identity that consistently plays a role in Boogie's decisions. Taylour Paige is magnetic throughout the film.


Unfortunately, even with such interesting characters, the narrative is a mess of unnecessary sports and teenage melodrama troupes that undermine Huang's realistic and authentic approach. The pacing fluctuates; in one moment, you are provided a fascinating conversation about race and growing up in strict cultural boundaries. In the next moment, you get a lackluster basketball scene that is devoid of energy or tension. For a film that balances much of the dramatic stakes for Boogie on a basketball game against a city legend named Monk, the first and final performance from Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke, killed in February 2020, the build-up doesn't work. The showdown feels like an average regular-season game instead of the championship it should resemble. 


Eddie Huang displays an engaging filmmaking style that will hopefully continue to develop as he makes more movies. The characters are fascinating to watch, and the story of a young man trying to carve a path through culture, family issues, and adolescence can be amusing from Huang's perspective. Unfortunately, "Boogie" struggles most with finding a balance between these elements and the sports story it is trying to tell.


Monte's Rating

2.75 out of 5.00

Friday, February 19

Nomadland Review


Dir: Chloé Zhao

Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, and Linda May

1hr 24min


Quartzsite, Arizona, with a population of fewer than 4,000 residents, is a blink-and-you-missed-it border city with a string of fast-food restaurants and gas stations just off Interstate 1o. In the summer months, Quartzsite is an almost deserted desert city with empty roads and some boarded-up shops in the Arizona heat. However, in the winter months, Quartzsite turns into a haven for RV travelers, swap meets, and various festivals found in big tents on open lots. 


Writer/director Chloé Zhao utilizes this location for a portion of her melancholy and mesmerizing film Nomadland. Quartzsite is a road trip stop for Fern, played with nuance and raw honesty by Frances McDormand, who has modified a van into a living space on wheels. During the winter holidays, Fern, working in an Amazon warehouse, travels to Quartzsite as a retreat from the cold weather. She encounters a group of nomads just like her, a group of resilient and resourceful people living on the margins, some by choice and some because of necessity. 


Fern is still learning the lifestyle, and her venture to a place with like-minded people helps her understand how to maintain freedom while staying safe. She meets Dave (David Strathairn), and the two strike up a friendship, sharing experiences from their lives before they pulled the roots. Fern finds peace in the solitary moments of her life, keeping those who may want to help at arm's length. Even old friends, who knew Fern before her husband died and before she lost her job in the town she lived in, are only provided short visits and the most basic forms of information. Fern is either unable or unwilling to connect with those around her; the answers are rarely provided easily in Nomadland.


Chloé Zhao's minimalistic approach to the film composes some affecting emotional moments centering on isolation, both the beautiful moments someone can find in a place not consistently walked through and the heartbreaking moments when the world begs a person for some companionship. Nomadland embraces loneliness that echoes more pertinent amid a pandemic.


Except for Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, Nomadland is supported by nonprofessional actors. These real people aren't playing a role in a film but live the experience the story is trying to explore; this makesNomadland so compelling. They add authenticity, so much that the viewer sinks deeper into the meditative rhythm Zhao narrates with the meandering yet contemplative story structure. 


McDormand vanishes into the role. It's a performance that feels overly composed initially, as Fern is committing to the transient lifestyle. But as Fern grows more comfortable, so does McDormand in crafting the version. By the end of the film, it doesn't feel like an act or a routine at all. 


Chloé Zhao continues to grow as a remarkable storyteller, composing films that delve deeply into complicated characters' emotions and feelings without straightforward questions or easy answers. Instead, her films wander and roam to places that force analysis and engage a sense of understanding. Nomadland builds and unfolds beautifully, painting a portrait of independence and peace found in a solitary existence. 


Monte's Rating

4.25 out of 5.00

Friday, February 12

Judas and the Black Messiah Review

Judas and the Black Messiah

Dir: Shaka King

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, and Martin Sheen

2 h 6 m


The moment the credits rolled in director Shaka King's impressive "Judas and the Black Messiah," my primary emotion was anger. Heartbroken anger over the many injustices forcefully dealt to people of color throughout America's history. Frustrated anger that progress for equal rights and treatment of people of color doesn't seem too far removed from the feelings found during the 1960s where this film takes place. 


If we judge films based on how they can make you feel, whatever emotion that may be, "Judas and the Black Messiah" wins, hands down. But what director Shaka King and co-writer Will Berson do with this remarkable film is provide a form of clarity to a precarious moment in time, through a cinematic lens and with heartfelt, honest, and controlled storytelling. Pulling the past back into the present to clear the fog of time off events and try to bring the focus back to situations history might otherwise try to forget. 


The situation focused in "Judas and the Black Messiah" centers on Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois branch of the Black Panther Party in 1968, and J. Edgar Hoover's (Martin Sheen) paranoia over the rise of African-American militants who he deemed the greatest threat to national security. 


Bill O'Neill (LaKeith Stanfield) is a thief who often impersonates an F.B.I. agent to steal cars. After he's caught, an actual agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), recruits O'Neill to invade the Black Panther Party's ranks to take down Hampton and the societal movement he is leading. 


Shaka King utilizes two characters, Hampton and O'Neill, to build a tense and provocative story. Betrayal, as the title implies, is the ultimate focus of the story here. A betrayal that reaches beyond just personal ties, showcasing a more tragic and upsetting reality of betrayal, one where America betrays the African-American community. These narrative motivations are always present. During scenes of persecution by authority figures, during moments of peaceful protest, and even in unexpected scenes in fancy restaurants or during intimate moments between two people falling in love. The issues and politics of race are handled deftly by King and Berson throughout the story, layering this historical depiction with subtle and blatant representations of what it was like to be a person of color in an urban community in the 1960s. 


LaKeith Stanfield is spectacular in only a way LaKeith Stanfield can be. Examples of this might be the twitchy, nervous, and anxious moments like when two Black Panther organization members interrogate O'Neill. Or the relieved and happy-to-be-paid demeanor when sitting across from Agent Mitchell, a calm yet downright menacing Jesse Plemons, while devouring a steak and snapping his fingers for more wine; Stanfield wholly owns the character with his unique characteristics. 


And even with Stanfield's impressive performance, Daniel Kaluuya has an equal amount of shining moments playing the embattled Fred Hampton. It's not the bravado of fiery speeches or the impassioned motivational dialogs he provides his comrades that are most striking for the performance (do not be dissuaded, these moments are memorable). It's the smaller personal moments that give substance to the character. The way Hampton falls in love with fellow activist Deborah Johnson (Dominque Fishback) or the sadness in his eyes when he is forced to watch the world he built crumble through newspaper headlines, the anger he indulges when every small step forward is countered with violent pushback resulting in friends and fellow activists' death. These moments that Kaluuya embraces provides the tragedy and subsequent fury felt when Hampton's fight song comes to an end.  


"Judas and the Black Messiah" is a powerful and poignant piece of cinema. Taking a moment in history and shaking off the dust that clouds the underlying sentiments felt during a moment in time, a moment where feelings and attitudes were not so different from what is supposed today. That's the power of filmmaking and its ability to boldly hold a mirror up to the past.  Its power to display that anger and frustration felt then, isn't so different from how we feel today. Its power to show that change and hope are worthy and essential to continue to pursue, so that one day that mirror will begin to show the difference made by revolutionary people.


Monte's Rating

4.50 out of 5.00