Feldman @ the flicks

Raya and The Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon

Peter Feldman: Disney’s spectacular Raya and the Last Dragon and The Mauritanian, about a prisoner held for 14 years at notorious Guantanamo Bay, open this week.

Raya and The Last Dragon
Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Gemma Chan, Izaac Wang, Benedict Wong
Directors: Carlos López Estrada, Don Hall, John Ripa, Paul Briggs

Disney has again delivered a spectacularly colourful adventure romp, striking out in a fresh direction with its feisty new Asian heroine, Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran).

This pleasing Martial Arts fundi dominates proceedings against a backdrop of surreal, mind-blowing visual delights.

Directed by no fewer than four individuals, Raya and the Last Dragon hits the right chords throughout its journey, cleverly balancing humour and emotions with a potent social political commentary.

The narrative, which never talks down to its audience, ploughs through a scenario that is both classical and new, seamlessly blending imagery and mythology. It draws for its inspiration from a number of Southeast Asian cultures moulded into its own vision.

It embraces the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons once lived together in harmony. An evil force (perhaps a metaphor for Covid-19) that turns people into stone then threatened everything and the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. It was now a bleak landscape.

The story projects 500 years ahead during a time when the same black evil has returned. It is now up to a lone warrior named Raya to track down the last dragon, Sisu (Awkafina) who can help restore a divided land to its former glory. In order to do this she has to find fractured pieces of a magical gem, overcome numerous obstacles and meet a variety of exciting characters in her quest.

Along the way, she is chased by Namaari (Gemma Chan), the princess of a clan seeking full power. Some memorable supporting characters emerge, including the gregarious young Boun (Izaac Wang), the massive, one-eyed Tong (Benedict Wong), and even a “con baby,” who uses her undeniable cuteness as a side alley con artist.

The movie talks about the power of trust and echoes in its thoughts and actions the world in its present state, with its warring nations, political and economic uncertainty and a raging pandemic.

The dragon in question is not scary at all but more like a fluffy toy with a cute face and a long tail.

Though the characters and storytelling are strong, the movie’s frenetic pace and drive could have been slowed down to allow for a quieter development of the narrative. It falls into the trap of over explaining itself when the imagery and narrative get the job done anyway.

Raya and the Last Dragon will please Disney fans of all ages.

The Mauritanian
Cast: Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley
Director: Kevin Macdonald.
Classification: 16 LP SV VPPS

The Mauritanian is a powerful and disturbing story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who spent 14 years incarcerated at notorious Guantanamo Bay – despite never being charged with a crime.

His lengthy imprisonment was detailed in 2015 in his book, Guantanamo Diary, a worldwide bestseller which has now been translated to the screen by director Kevin Macdonald.

As the narrative unfolds we learn of two tenuous links the US authorities had on Salahi; one of the hijackers spent a night on Salahi’s couch, while the other was a chance encounter and phone call from Bin Laden’s phone. He was accused of being the individual who recruited people to fly planes into the World Trade Center.

With almost no evidence and no charges, this unfortunate soul was held for years in solitary confinement, cut off from the world.

Lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) then takes on his case, assisted by an associate, Teri (Shailene Woodley), who speaks French. As Hollander investigates, she begins to uncover many dark truths about Guantanamo.

Briton Benedict Cumberbatch, saddled with an American accent, is cast in a key role as Lt-Colonel Stuart Couch, a member of the prosecution team who also learns a few things about the infamous prison.

Macdonald has created an old-fashioned drama which, though fascinating in its cinematic drive, fails to fully humanise Salahi’s plight. In the end one is left with the impression that this account is a somewhat superficial and manipulative exercise. The real theme, requiring an explanation from the authorities, perhaps, is how the US pursued individuals and the depths to which it would sink in the treatment of its prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The torture scenes are not spared the viewer – extended sequences of horrendous violence, and while these levels of degradation should not be soft-pedalled, the experience here feels more of a show than mirroring the truth.

The movie is already being mooted for several awards and it will be interesting to see its path to glory. Jodie Foster has already won a Golden Globe as “supporting actress in a motion picture”.

* It must be noted this movie was reviewed via streaming on a laptop and not under normal cinema conditions.

Twitter: @petersdfeldman_
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Peter Feldman has been a journalist and arts critic for almost 50 years and served on The Star in various capacities for 35 years, ending up as a specialist writer on films, music and theatre. During that time, he travelled extensively on assignments and interviewed many international film and pop stars, both in South Africa and overseas. He also covered some of South Africa’s biggest film and musical events. He was one of only two South African journalists to be invited by Steven Spielberg to the Hook film junket in LA in 1991 where he interviewed the famous director as well as Dustin Hoffman and the late Robin Williams. He attended the gala James Bond premiere in London in 1981 and did an iconic interview in a Rolls Royce with Roger Moore who played Bond. He spent a week touring England with Queen prior to their Sun City visit in 1983, interviewed a host of international stars on films sets in Hollywood and London and was the first local journalist to nail an interview with The Rolling Stones prior to their SA visit in 1995. He is active in the freelance field and his work has appeared in a variety of South African newspapers and magazines, including Artslink.co.za. He has also worked on TV and radio (ChaiFM 101.9) in his specialist capacity. Over the years Feldman has been the recipient of several awards for his contribution to music journalism and the SA record industry. He is a recent recipient of the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz award in recognition for his long-standing journalistic support for the arts. He wrote lyrics for some top artists, including Sipho Mabuse, and had a hit disco single, “Video Games,” which was released in 1988. He coined the phrase “Local is Lekker”.