With the coronavirus in the country, it’s not practical to go to the movie house. In my case, I’ve also been basically “quarantined” since last week after dislocating my knee. In the small hours of the first day of March, I had a ridiculously silly accident; I bumped my thigh against a box of clothes at the bottom of our stairs, and because I was born with a shallow trochlear groove, my right kneecap dislocated for six to eight brutally painful seconds, requiring me to undergo six months of rehabilitation therapy.
Thank goodness for online streaming services (I have nine movie-streaming apps in my phone right now) to keep us entertained while confined at home due to a tragedy or a calamity. For this column two Fridays ago, I reviewed three Amazon Originals films that you can stream on Amazon Prime Video. For this week, I’m bringing another review from Prime — this time, the indie coming-of-age comedy-drama Troop Zero, starring Academy Award winners Viola Davis and Allison Janney.
I’m also reviewing Australia’s 2020 Oscar submission Buoyancy, which you can stream on Mubi. I regretfully missed this impressive film in last year’s QCinema and at the Macau Film Fest, and so I was ecstatic to discover that I can stream it right in my bedroom while my right leg is elevated and my wobbly knee covered with ice pack.
Mubi is my current favorite streaming app as it brings classic and contemporary cinema treasures right to your home from prestigious film festivals like Cannes and Berlinale. It’s the dream app for the true cinephile. The few select films are hand-curated by festival programmers and each film has a limited run of 30 days. The app also has reviews and film-related articles. Check it out.
Troop Zero (2020)
Displaying a Wes Anderson aesthetic, Sundance alumni Troop Zero centers on an alien-obsessed motherless little girl named Christmas (McKenna Grace), who is cared for by her loser yet big-hearted dad, Boss Man (Jim Gaffigan), and finds a mother figure in Boss Man’s secretary, Rayleen (Viola Davis).
When a NASA representative arrives in their sun-dappled pastoral town to record the voice messages of the winners of an upcoming jamboree contest to send to outer space for aliens to hear, Christmas becomes determined to join. But in order to qualify for the competition, she must first form a Birdie Scouts group.
Directed by Bert & Bertie, the film doesn’t focus much on Christmas’ preoccupation with aliens as a coping mechanism for the deep-seated grief from her mother’s death. Instead, it indulges on a tired and formulaic plot of geeks-and-freaks versus cruel snobs.
Christmas’ Birdie Scouts group is composed of social outcasts, or the “freaks” — underdogs that are constantly bullied by a group of mean girls with their perfect hair and perfect gait (Troop Zero members keep falling down to the ground).
Set in 1977 rural Georgia, the film lacks a period vibe, and worse, lacks character development. The Troop Zero members comprise of various kinds of misfits with their contrived names, like Christmas, Hell-no and Smash. We don’t get sucked into their world, neither do we experience the bond they form as they prepare for the contest. The girls are hollow slapstick caricatures, begging us to fawn all over them whenever they trip over their own legs or dance with complete abandon. They’re so annoying that you find yourself almost siding with the bad crowd.
The film is clearly aiming to smash superficial societal standards and remind us that every individual, every social outcast, deserves to be heard — even if the only creatures that will hear them are aliens.
With a screenplay by Lucy Alibar, co-writer of the 2012 superior Oscar-nominated drama Beasts of the Southern Wild, Troop Zero is a surprising disappointment. It’s acutely self-aware and flat. Even great actresses like Davis and Allison Janney cannot save this dry film with its Instagram color scheme.
2 out of 5 stars
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Rodd Rathjen’s harrowing tale of modern-day slavery, Buoyancy slowly drowns you in the horror and misery of the helpless victims of human trafficking.
In the Khmer and Thai language, the vivid and visceral debut feature from the Australian director follows a poor 14-year-old out-of-school youth, Chakra (Sarm Heng), who escapes from what he deems as slavery under his father’s (Sareoun Sopheara) rule in a rice farm in Cambodia. As Chakra embarks on a suspenseful journey to Thailand with hopes of a better life — specifically to find some work that actually pays — he instead ends up a real slave.
Chakra, along with several other illegal immigrants, is held captive and forced to work aboard a fishing trawler under a sadistic captain (Thanawut Kasro). With only a cup of rice to fuel them for a 22-hour workday, these unpaid workers also face hair-raising threats of torture and murder every single second of their new lives as slaves.
It is important to note that this is not just the director’s debut feature, but that his entire cast is made up of non-professional actors. Rathjen was inspired by real-life accounts of Cambodian survivors of slavery from the Thai fishing industry, and his film feels like a work of a veteran auteur. He renders Buoyancy with systematic terror and perfect pacing. He balances docu-hyperrealism and poetry and smartly avoids a Hollywood blockbuster aesthetic.
The polished cinematography, which captures the stark beauty of the borderless ocean or the red sun sinking in the horizon or the diffused quality of the sky on another day of slave work, does not visually romanticize slavery — but even highlights the sense of hellish imprisonment in the trawler.
One might argue that we know nothing much about Chakra or his adult slave friend (a brilliant Mony Ros), or any of the characters onboard the fishing boat, but it doesn’t matter. We only have to witness how their humanity, dignity, sanity and morals break down under extreme oppression. Their silence is the silence of the slaves, and their backstories, even their names, become senseless and irrelevant. Rathjen only focuses on the essentials: a crushing portrait of human beings chained to the worst kind of slavery, completely devalued. And with a powerful antagonist played with convincing evilness by Kasro, you feel that escape for Chakra and the others is futile.
Buoyancy is not just a slap-in-the-face moral lesson for bratty, ungrateful kids that feel imprisoned at home and demand payment from their parents for chores. Most importantly, it’s a shocking depiction of a grim reality. A must-watch.
4 out of 5 stars
Streaming on Mubi