REVIEW: Shiva Baby

A college student, her sugar daddy, her sugar daddy’s wife, their screaming baby, and her ex-girlfriend walk into a shiva. This is Shiva Baby, Emma Seligman’s directorial debut. The film’s anxiety-inducing nature has led some critics to liken it to Uncut Gems, but the two films are completely different. Uncut Gems is sensory overload from an extreme scenario with players that are shady and purposefully unlikable, whereas Shiva Baby’s stress stems from how imperfect and therefore relatable its characters are. There is something very familiar about parents trying to be helpful but only succeeding at embarrassing you, extremely judgmental family friends, being forced to talk to the last person you want to talk to, and having to stay friendly and polite the entire time. It’s not difficult to understand the kind of stress Seligman’s protagonist, Danielle, is under.

Shiva Baby’s runtime clocks in at a mere 1 hour and 17 minutes, and this could be a disadvantage for Seligman. However, instead of her characters being underdeveloped and the plot rushed, Seligman simply elects not to waste any time. This is where the relatable aspect of the film comes into play again; everything that occurs is believable and realistic, so Seligman does not have to dedicate very much of her film to extensive exposition. The setting of the film also contributes to this aspect; all scenes but the first take place in one location, therefore containing the film and grounding it in its specific reality. All possible events are limited to interactions between the characters attending the shiva. Here, Seligman avoids the trap of her film becoming repetitive. Rather than beating a running joke to death, she inserts backhanded comments from shiva attendees about Danielle’s appearance right after an interaction has gone poorly, turning what’s already pretty bad into something a little worse. And by simply having Danielle plan to leave the shiva with her parents, Seligman has trapped Danielle at the event where she will only become more and more overwhelmed.

Finally, there’s the character of Danielle herself. She’s just a regular college student who’s about to graduate, and she’s quite terrified for the future. Her parents and family friends don’t particularly understand how she designed her own major and what she’s planning on doing with it, and it doesn’t help that her ex is going to law school and that her sugar daddy’s wife owns three businesses. The one thing Danielle really has any control over is her sugaring, and when she realizes she’s competing with the wife, it’s only natural she is jealous and snarky towards her. And yet, despite Danielle’s messiness, you can sympathize with her and also just hope she can leave the shiva so you can breathe again.

Overall, Shiva Baby is well-written, well-acted, and funny. And due to its claustrophobic and experiential fashion, you can’t wait for it to be over, but only because you’ve become so invested in it.

Shiva Baby is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.

PREVIEW: Shiva Baby

Shiva Baby is director Emma Seligman’s directorial debut starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, and Dianna Agron. The comedy film follows a young Jewish woman who attends a shiva with her parents, her ex-girlfriend, and her sugar daddy. The film has been praised for its Jewish and bisexual representation, and for its ability to be accessible to all audiences at the same time.

One of the most enticing testimonials I’ve heard is that the film is incredibly stressful to watch, and that it features a unique horror-like score that heightens this experience. I know I am going to be overwhelmed, but I am still looking forward to seeing how the film will navigate an anxiety-inducing comedic tone in a very modern setting. Shiva Baby originated as a short film that was part of Seligman’s thesis project, and I am interested in how it will translate into a full-length film.

Shiva Baby is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.

REVIEW: Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s newest film, and it has a lot of firsts for Disney: it is their first film to be inspired by Southeast Asian culture, it has a unique score, and it even looks and feels like a video game at times. But, despite these firsts, the film is quintessentially Disney. It features goofy side characters and has some corny dialogue, and its overall message makes it a Disney film at heart. The titular heroine, Raya, seeks the last dragon, who she hopes will vanquish the menacing Druun monsters that have been ravaging her home. Raya belongs to one of five tribes that had previously been united under the land of Kumandra, but were divided by the arrival of the Druun. Raya’s adventures take her through Kumandra, where she witnesses the widespread effects of the very monsters that have been devastating her own home.

The overall message of the film can probably be ascertained by this premise alone; audiences have a pretty good idea of what lesson the characters will learn early on in the film. As the runtime is just under two hours, the story and Raya’s development feel very simple. Perhaps the film could have focused exclusively on Raya and her foil introducing a kind of complexity and grey area Disney does not explore as often. That being said, the film is not overly predictable, nor does lack redeemable qualities.

Most of the film’s strengths are technical. The film features a beautiful soundtrack, with whimsical themes for the fantastical moments, and also lively themes to accompany the thrilling action sequences. It’s amazing to see how much Disney’s animation has evolved over the years as this film showcases some of Disney’s most exciting fight scenes to date. There is a battle near the end of the film that is flawless – Raya’s rage comes across so strongly just from the lead-up, locking audiences in for the actual fight.

Whenever Disney is praised for their diversity, it can always be called into question. The film’s creators took great care to travel to Southeast Asia as well as hire cultural consultants, however the majority of the principal voice cast is East Asian. East Asian roles in film are already minimal, but there are even fewer opportunities for Southeast Asian actors. Though the film celebrates Southeast Asian culture, the casting can come across as a misstep. The film is streaming on Disney+, which is not currently available in Southeast Asia. However, the voice of Raya, Kelly Marie Tran, is the first actress of Southeast Asian descent to voice a lead role in an animated Disney movie. Tran was harassed online by Star Wars fans following her breakthrough role in The Last Jedi, only to be written to the side in the trilogy’s conclusion. Despite this, Tran has persevered, and her determination makes her the perfect fit for the role of Raya.

Raya and the Last Dragon is imperfect, but it is a worthy film that teaches trust and forgiveness to kids in the most Disney way possible.

REVIEW: WandaVision

Is WandaVision the internet’s favorite TV show right now because it’s the best thing on TV, or is just the only thing on TV? WandaVision is a new Disney+ original series that follows the characters Wanda Maximoff and Vision, who had not been featured in their own solo MCU projects up until this point. Starring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, the series riffs off of TV sitcoms through the decades, depicting Wanda and Vision trying to fit in with suburban life, only to discover that not everything is as it seems.

What makes the series so enticing is that it provides a much-needed release from the worn-out Marvel movie formula. WandaVision sticks out from the rest of the MCU stylistically, but it simultaneously patches up pre-existing plot holes in the MCU canon. The series explores some of the direct effects of the events of “The Blip” in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, but mostly importantly, it proves Wanda and Visions’ each have a place in the MCU. Wanda and Vision have both been minor characters thus far, and their characters lacked personality and motivation as they were bounced around from director to director. I was excited when Wanda was first introduced as a new female character in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but she was subsequently pushed to the side and thrown into a seemingly rushed romance with Vision, who had just as little development. However, creator and head writer, Jac Schaeffer, has dug into the characters’ messy foundation, revealing their complexity and prepping them with compelling characterization for their future in the MCU.

Although Wanda and Vision are both fantastical individuals with extreme, otherworldly abilities, Schaeffer has highlighted their sense of humanity in this crazy fictional world by crafting a heart-breaking story about their bond. This transforms Wanda and Vision into characters that audiences can empathize with rather than dismiss as lovebirds that were thrown into the film franchise as an afterthought. Episode 8, “Previously On,” delves into Wanda’s past, explaining her choices that were previously glossed over, and provides context for her connection to Vision. The episode is seemingly specific to Wanda and the toll Vision’s death in Infinity War took on her, but the episode also acts as a general representation of grief. The episode is timely, showing that even something as silly as a sitcom can provide some sense of comfort during troubling times.

That being said, the penultimate episode of a miniseries is a strange place to insert a backstory episode. If the episode had not been so beautifully written or if it had not provided the much-needed backstory for the series’ titular characters, I would have been more upset with the pacing of the show. The show’s plot is rather slow most of the time with a sudden cliffhanger at the end of each episode. This has been upsetting for some fans, who have spent the past seven weeks developing elaborate theories, only to be underwhelmed by the show’s conclusion. However, I have come around to the way the series progressed – but only after I realized exactly what the show was about. The show is about wise Vision, who is an android created with artificial intelligence, yet he is the character who best understands human emotion and empathy. And it is about loving Wanda, who is not an object in need of protection, but someone who discovers strength in emotion.

PREVIEW: Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s newest film, set to drop on Disney+ Premier Access tomorrow, March 5th. The film has been marketed as inspired by Southeast Asian culture, and stars Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran.

Raya’s story takes place in the fictional world Kumandra, a land where dragons used to roam and live in harmony with humans. 500 years later, Raya is tasked with tracking down the last dragon to stop the sinister monsters that wiped out the dragons in the first place.

I’m excited to see that this film is based on a culture Disney has not explored yet, but I am wary they are just checking off a box on their diversity quota list. The voice cast is primarily East Asian, which is disappointing given that Southeast Asian actors have been presented with fewer opportunities than East Asians actors in Hollywood. That being said, I have seen a lot of positive buzz and excitement towards the character designs in the film, and I’m generally glad Disney is making some sort of an effort to represent more of its audience.

Raya and the Last Dragon will be available to stream to those with a Disney+ subscription for an additional $29.99.

REVIEW: Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman is perhaps one of the more divisive films of this awards season. Some audiences love the ending of the film, whereas others claim it ruins the entire film. I initially stood somewhere in the middle, but the more I think about it, the more I agree with the latter perspective. And when I think about it even more, I realize that the film as a whole might not be as effective as it hopes to be. The film addresses rape culture, and how the skepticism and victim shaming that come along with it affect not only the victim but also the victim’s loved ones. The film has been marketed as a revenge thriller, but it fails to deliver any real, satisfying sense of justice to its protagonist.

The lead character, Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, is a young woman who is haunted by a traumatic event that led her to drop out of med school. Formerly at the top of her class, she now works at a coffee shop and frequents bars and nightclubs where she can be found completely wasted, struggling to sit up and form coherent sentences. Each time this happens, without fail, a man offers to take care of her and her home, but they always end up at his apartment where he tries to take advantage of her intoxicated state. However, each time, she reveals she is stone-cold sober and confronts the man about his behavior. Then, once she gets the guy to kind of admit what he did was wrong, she leaves. And this whole plan doesn’t even work. One of the first guys that Cassie confronts is named Jerry. Later in the film, she is scooped up by a man in a fedora, who says, “You’re that girl Jerry was talking about!” when he finds out she is sober. Let’s break that down: Cassie forces Jerry to see the error of his ways, who tells his friend in the fedora about his experience, and the friend in the fedora goes on to do exactly what put Jerry in his situation and fully believes he can get away with it.

Cassie does genuinely make some people feel really bad, and she does so them by employing pretty twisted methods. And then there’s the highly polarizing conclusion to the film. I don’t want to spoil the film, but I will say that the writer/producer/director, Emerald Fennell, described the ending as “realistic.” But this “realism” is unsatisfying as the main instigator of Cassie’s grief may see some sort of consequences, but he never directly admits and recognizes his wrongdoing. As an audience member, I’m unsure what to take away as the message of the film, nor can I find a particularly encouraging message. I don’t believe that Cassie saw any justice or received any closure for her past, and the “realistic” tone to the film was pretty disheartening.

 

Promising Young Woman is available to rent on Prime Video, Apple TV, VUDU, Google Play, and Fandango Now.