Sunday, February 28, 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah: A Review (Review #1464)


JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

In this era of black rage Judas and the Black Messiah is just as easily about the present-day as it is about the late 1960's when the film is set. Well-acted if a bit heavy-handed, Judas and the Black Messiah isn't quite as lofty as it thinks it is, but should serve as an acceptable primer to this most controversial of figures.

After getting caught both stealing cars and impersonating an FBI Agent, Bill O'Neil (LaKeith Stanfield) gets an offer he can't refuse from Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), a real FBI Agent. O'Neil can either go to prison or infiltrate the Black Panther Party and get close to the Chicago chapter's charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). 

The FBI, in particular its Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) is alarmed at how the Socialist Hampton is working to unite not just all black people under the BPP but also various disparate groups under a Socialist revolutionary banner. Hampton not only courts street gangs to join the struggle, but even such groups as white supremacists the Young Patriots and Puerto Rican radicals the Young Lions. He does this by convincing them that they, despite their differences, are all being oppressed by the "pigs" (law enforcement) and capitalism.

O'Neil starts to struggle between saving himself from the FBI and loyalty to Hampton and the Black Panthers. He is especially concerned when he learns the fate of another FBI informant whom the BPP not just killed by mutilated. Hampton for his part continues a romance with Deborah (Dominique Fishback), a poetess who is both inspired by and inspires Hampton. At last, the order comes out: eliminate Fred Hampton with extreme prejudice.

O'Neil must betray Hampton, who is about to be a father for the first time. The betrayal culminates in a raid where a drugged Hampton is unable to defend himself and his followers are shot or killed. Deborah, eight months pregnant, survives. In a post-script, we learn Bill O'Neil committed suicide after his only on-camera interview for Eyes on the Prize 2 aired, while Deborah (now Akua Njeri) and their son Fred Hampton, Jr. continue the struggle.

Judas and the Black Messiah is overt about how it looks on Hampton, O'Neil and the Black Panther Party. The title alone is enough to tip off how director/cowriter Shaka King sees the two main figures. The BPP is here almost a benevolence society, more about running free breakfast programs and medical clinics than the violent overthrow of governments and establishing a socialist system. Hampton is open about his views, early on declaring that one doesn't fight capitalism with black capitalism but with Socialism.

Judas and the Black Messiah is, I'd argue, also overt about how it is about our troubled times now as it is about the troubled times of 1968 Chicago. O'Neil's rationale for using a badge as part of his robbery is "A badge is scarier than a gun", as loaded a phrase for those who push to defund the police as has been spoken. Black Panther disdain for the Young Patriots' use of the Confederate flag and how the symbolic name changes of buildings seem applicable now as then. 

Our first sight of Hampton is at a speech where he is not overwhelmed with the renaming of a building as "Malcolm X College", insisting this is essentially papering over issues; at this time when statues Confederate and non are being taken/pulled down and all sorts of buildings are being renamed during this "racial reckoning" the screenplay echoes these last few tumultuous years as much as the film's period.

I think the quibble about both Kaluuya and Stanfield being too old for their parts has merit. This is particularly true for Kaluuya, who looks every bit his 32 years and is a decade too old to be the 21-year-old Hampton. He did a strong job as Hampton, though to me at times he did come across as humorless and slightly pompous with his pronouncements of socialist revolution, more symbol than man.

However, in other elements from his speech cadence to romantic moments with Fishback, Kaluuya made Hampton into a more fleshed-out figure than the script made him. I am surprised to see him pushed as a Supporting Actor because to my mind he is at least co-lead. Though he has less screen-time than Stanfield, I thought Kaluuya dominated every time he was on, so perhaps that led to my impression of him being practically a leading character.

Stanfield slowly shows the fear and troubled heart of O'Neil, particularly in his last scene where he tearfully offers Hampton another drink, the knowledge that he will spike it to allow the police raid that ends up killing Hampton hidden from his fellow Panthers haunting him. 

While Kaluuya and Stanfield give standout performances, I am distressed that Dominique Fishback has not received enough praise for Deborah. She is the one who appears the most human, not some grand mythic figure or conflicted double-dealer but a woman in love with both a man and a movement. Whether reciting a poem expressing her fears of motherhood or remaining stoic as her love is killed behind her, Fishback never hits a wrong note. It's a terrible disservice that she has not been promoted as much as her male costars. In any just world, she would be making waves, and I hope Judas and the Black Messiah serve as a strong calling card for future roles.

Sheen is a weak point in that he neither looks or sounds like J. Edgar Hoover. Worse, in one of his scenes I was falling asleep. The film's length does not help, as one feels the wheels spinning until we move, a bit haphazard, to the next moment. Certain moments are effective, such as Hampton talking to the mother of a now-dead Panther or the raid to take Hampton out. Others, such as the formation of the Rainbow Coalition, seem to come and go.

On the whole, Judas and the Black Messiah is fine, neither thrilling or terrible but somewhere in the middle. Given that if anything Fred Hampton was never in the middle, it seems surprising to find him in this middling project. 

DECISION: C+

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Red Dragon: A Review

RED DRAGON

Things have come full circle now, as Anthony Hopkins recreates for the second time his most famous role. There is however, the pesky detail that Red Dragon is essentially a remake that had another actor in the role of gentleman serial killer Hannibal Lecter. As most people don't remember Manhunter, the previous adaptation, Red Dragon has a little more leeway in its telling. With mostly strong performances Red Dragon does well in its telling.

FBI forensics officer Will Graham (Edward Norton) barely survives his encounter with Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), who had been working with the FBI on a missing person case. Graham's PTSD forces his retirement, but FBI Special Agent Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) talks him into merely consulting on a new case.

It is that of a serial killer nicknamed "The Tooth Fairy", and despite his misgivings Graham finds himself delving deeper and deeper into the case. However, to solve the case he needs the help of two people he despises. One is tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who made Graham's life miserable especially after publishing photos of a barely alive Graham. The other is Lecter himself, who takes this opportunity to taunt Graham.

Lecter and the Tooth Fairy however may be more involved than the former lets on. They've secretly communicated, putting Graham's family in danger. As Graham closes in on the Tooth Fairy, we find it is Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), who is currently making awkward pursuit of blind coworker Reba McLane (Emily Watson). Dolarhyde has a fixation with the William Blake painting The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, believing it has the power to change him into a powerful being. With Lecter playing both sides against the other, Graham and Dolarhyde come to a dramatic conclusion.

I think one of Red Dragon's qualities is that it managed to bring back Ted Tally, who had adapted The Silence of the Lambs, to adapt the earlier Thomas Harris novel. He added elements that establish both Lecter's murderous calm and the Lecter-Graham relationship. In the pre-title sequence we know what Lecter has done to the unfortunate flutist who couldn't play in tune. We also see that Graham is both intelligent and naïve when it comes to the wolf at his door.

Brett Ratner is not known as one of the best directors around, but I was surprised at how good Red Dragon was under his supervision. He moved things well and did not give in to some of the more gruesome aspects of the story. 

To be fair though, no matter how much music is cranked up, you can't make someone literally eating a painting look scary. It looks comical, and Red Dragon loses a bit of steam after Francis and Reba have their sexual encounter. It revives slightly at the concluding standoff between Dolarhyde and Graham, but by now you pretty much expect this "twist".

Red Dragon has very good performances on the whole. Norton is either blessed or cursed with a seemingly eternally youthful face, but here it works. His Will Graham is a haunted, tormented figure, one who is simultaneously appalled and lured by the darkness of human depravity. His scene where he attempts to explain to his son what caused his breakdown is a strong bit of acting, and he gives Graham an assurance that allows him to stand toe-to-toe with Lecter, betraying little fear.

Keitel is equal to the task of Special Agent Crawford, professional and rational. Hoffman is unscrupulous as Lounds, making his end if not scary at least surprising. I thought he wasn't taking the situation as seriously as Red Dragon was asking, but nothing horrible. Watson too handled her American accent and the blindness well, though I think nowadays there would be calls to have Reba played by a blind actress.

I think it was the villains who seemed to veer a bit into spoof. Fiennes' Dolarhyde was more buff than usual but at times I found myself suppressing chuckles when he was arguing with the "Red Dragon" or attempting to be menacing. Seeing him devour the painting was also a bit hard to swallow (pun intended). Hopkins for his part was running on fumes, almost a bit camp as Lecter. Perhaps Lecter fatigue was finally setting in. It wasn't terrible but not as calm as controlled as his first effort. Anthony Heald, who along with Hopkins returns to recreate his role from The Silence of the Lambs, continues to make Dr. Chilton a most obnoxious and arrogant fool.

I was surprised at how well Red Dragon holds up even if the ending seemed a bit too much (why did the Grahams not verify whose corpse was in the burned-out mansion?). While The Silence of the Lambs will always be a hard act to follow, it should be noted that Red Dragon technically precedes it. As such, we can be a bit more forgiving.

DECISION: B-

HANNIBAL LECTER FILMS

Manhunter

The Silence of the Lambs

Hannibal

Hannibal Rising

HANNIBAL LECTER TELEVISION SERIES

Hannibal

Clarice

 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Birds of Prey: A Review


BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN)

I genuinely don't know what to make of Birds of Prey, this addition to the DC Extended Universe. It's colorful, loud but it is also repetitive and unnecessarily long despite being less than two hours long.

Our unreliable narrator Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) tells us that after her breakup with the Joker, she finds herself hunted by everyone whom she has wronged now that she is no longer under his protection. That's a lot of people in Gotham, but it ultimately narrows down primarily to two. One is Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a Gotham City Police Detective who despite cracking major cases always loses credit to her male partner.

The other is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), criminal kingpin who also goes by Black Mask. His psychopathic nature gives Harley a run for her money, but now she is the one on the run. To save herself she offers to return a teen pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), to him. She stole the Bertinelli Diamond from Roman's right-hand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), unaware of how important the diamond is. 

Etched in the diamond are the account numbers of the exterminated Mob family, which will give the owner a mass fortune. Sionis wants it to rule Gotham, but his plans are now up against not only an unstable Quinn and relentless Montoya but Helena Bertinelli aka The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who seeks revenge for her family's execution. Into the mix is also Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett), a singer at Sionis' club who has been shanghaied into being his driver. 

With Sionis now after all of them for various reasons, it's up to this ragtag group to join forces.

I figure Birds of Prey screenwriter Christina Hodson was attempting to echo Harley Quinn's voice through the rambling narrative, flashbacks and eccentric worldview. However, she and director Cathy Yan didn't know when to rein things in. The lengthy stream-of-consciousness manner to Quinn's voiceovers takes on less of a demented manner and more of a dull one. It takes a full eight minutes before we actually start the film, and that's after a three minute self-consciously cute animated opening where we hear Harley talk about her abusive childhood and bad romance with Joker.

Birds of Prey soon takes on a convoluted manner where things seem to spin wildly out-of-control. We have Harley for example about to raid the police station to get Cassandra, then pause to get her narrating of what happened prior involving the stolen diamond and Dinah's rescuing of Harley from being taken advantage of. Yes, I know it comes from Quinn's crazed point of view but soon it becomes rather repetitive. I felt taken for a ride as I had to sit through yet another tangent.

Add to that a certain repetitive nature in the fight scenes. It seems that every time someone was about to get into a brawl, it had to be accompanied by a song and slow-motion. Yes, at times it was visually arresting, such as a deliberately cinematic fight at the police station with the sprinklers going off and the battle at the theme park ride The Booby Trap (which I figure was a pun). However, again it becomes rote and predictable. One or two fight scenes with this kind of set-up would be fine, but why did almost all of them have to have them?

In terms of performances they vary wildly. Robbie knows Quinn well and delivers a strong performance as our unhinged yet weirdly peppy criminal. Anyone who can shout "YOU KILLED MY SANDWICH!" with intense sincerity is going for gold. You can also see flashes of Harleen Quinzel pop out, particularly whenever she adopts a calm tone to psychoanalyze the person's motives or actions. On the opposite end is McGregor, unleashing his inner camp demon as the wildly theatrical Roman Sionis. With no filter to hold him, McGregor is relishing the outlandish over-the-top cartoonish nature of his villain.

I would think McGregor was playing a spoof version of a villain, but there it is. 

The other Birds of Prey were on the whole well-acted, even if Winstead's mob version of Grand Duchess Anastasia seemed a bit blank. Perez did well playing it mostly straight (and no that's not a bisexual joke). 

I think a major issue with me is that for a film called Birds of Prey, the actual creation of the Birds of Prey seemed almost an afterthought. As I have little to no knowledge of comic books, I was surprised that the Birds of Prey were a vigilante group which Harley has contempt for. I thought it would be her own Legion of Doom, but the mixing of the anticrime Birds of Prey and the master criminal of Harley and her new apprentice Cassandra seems a curious mix.

Birds of Prey is a bit too violent for my tastes and while one can appreciate the effort to be that mix of wacky and whacked-out, it didn't quite pull it off for me. It's a bit of a letdown, especially as it takes over an hour for all of them to finally come together. Lots of noise, lots of color, lots of tangents but not a lot there.   

DECISION: F 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Hannibal: A Review

 

HANNIBAL

It took ten years but at long last Hannibal Lecter was able to say, "Hello, Clarice". Whether this quote, misattributed to The Silence of the Lambs, came specifically from Hannibal or was included in Hannibal due to its popularity I cannot say. Hannibal is a curious film, curious in that it adds nothing to the Hannibal Lecter mythos, a lot of style but very little substance.

Ten years after Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) escaped American justice, he is living in Florence. His frenemy FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore) is still enduring the patronizing of men. After a botched drug bust that she is blamed for, she is contacted by Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), the only Lecter victim to survive. 

Verger, a wealthy child molester who disfigured his own face while under Lecter's drug-fueled therapy, hopes to lure Lecter out of hiding to enact his revenge. This revenge plot eventually ensnares Italian detective Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), who endangers his life when he learns of the $3 million dollar reward. Despite a last-minute warning from Starling who has through her own detective work found Pazzi, he is murdered by Lecter.

Now Lecter starts his own plan to meet up with his unofficial muse, a plot that traps Verger in his own plot and gets Starling's nemesis/former lover Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) to literally take a bite out of himself. The cat-and-mouse game ends for both Hannibal and Clarice, but not in the way one would think.

For all the talk of the gore Hannibal indulged in, I found it a surprisingly dull film. I think it has to do with how long Hannibal is: at over two hours it felt as if the wheels were just spinning until we got to the most talked-about moment. Even this infamous moment where Ray Liotta's character is fed his own brain is not as graphic as I thought it would be. Other elements, such as a flashback where Verger slashes his own face, is shot in a manner that is gruesome but not perhaps as visually horrifying as it could have been.

That isn't to say that Hannibal is restrained: in quite a few ways it seemed to be overtly sadistic with its killings, and I can see how audiences may have found it far over-the-line. However, thinking back part of me thinks "killer pigs" is hilarious than horrifying. OK, they're boars, but it still just seems such an absurd way for Verger to get revenge: by feeding Hannibal Lecter to cannibal boars.

Hannibal spends far too much time with its various subplots to where it is almost a traffic jam. There's the botched drug bust, a seemingly endless Italian subplot, the Verger subplot, all of which are supposed to connect but have a hard time doing so. It takes a full thirty minutes for Lecter to finally appear outside of a flashback, and then over an hour before he and Starling even make contact. I think screenwriters David Mamet and Steven Zaillian as well as director Ridley Scott thought they were making an arthouse horror film, but instead they made a slog.

It says quite a lot that in the opening title sequence, a flock of pigeons form to make Hannibal Lecter's face.

There is also a curious thing of there being absolutely no character to care about. Verger is a child molester (his claims of redemption through Christianity rather dubious). Pazzi is a greedy, almost corrupt cop. Kregler is a sexist pig who demeans Starling (as a side note, why would Starling, one of the stronger female characters, even contemplate an affair with Kregler even if it was in the past). 

Oldman was going for a full-on performance, and it's to his credit that he was unrecognizable in his voice (his face wildly disfigured). Still, there seemed to be something almost hammy about his role. It's to his credit though that it was, given that everyone else in Hannibal acted all this with such stern seriousness that they came across as fully aware of how "important" all this was when one would think their characters would be more scared than somber. 

Oddly, only Andrea Piedimonte as Italian officer Benetti seemed to have any sense of fun or reality into this. Actually, I take some of this back: Ray Liotta's diminishing capacity when drugged is oddly funny too.

Literally, cannibal boars!

The two lead performances are also an issue. Let's say that Julianne Moore originated the role of Clarice Starling and pretend Jodie Foster's version in The Silence of the Lambs didn't exist. Moore's Starling was not human. She was remote, cold, all business. There didn't seem to be an ounce of humanity, of vulnerability, of any emotion within her. This Clarice Starling mistook "hard" for "strong", and moreover her accent was excessively strong to where it seemed deliberately exaggerated. 

Hopkins was essentially coasting through Hannibal, making Lecter almost dull. He is meant to be scary but he seems oddly more amused by the goings-on than a force of true evil. 

Hannibal, I think, might disappoint some Hannibal Lecter fans. It is a poor follow-up to one of the great films, and you wonder why anyone was involved in all this. Dull, slow, slightly pretentious, Hannibal is more graphic and more boring than it should be.

DECISION: D-

HANNIBAL LECTER FILMS

Manhunter

The Silence of the Lambs

Red Dragon

Hannibal Rising

HANNIBAL LECTER TELEVISION SERIES

Hannibal

Clarice

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ginger and Fred: A Review (Review #1460)

GINGER AND FRED

Ginger and Fred is not often remembered as part of Federico Fellini's oeuvre, probably because it is less fantastical than what he is known for. While Ginger and Fred is more grounded in reality, it still has those Felliniesque touches that the director was known for. It is also a tender, sweet story of that beautiful thing called the past.

Thirty years after their heyday as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers impersonators, Amelia Bonetti (Giulietta Massina) aka "Ginger" returns to Rome to appear on We Are Proud to Present..., an Italian television Christmas special spectacular. This variety show features impersonators, interviews with guests eccentric and heroic and a cavalcade of oddities from dancing midgets to a cow who has anywhere from 15 to 18 tits.

Amelia is a bit appalled by the gaudiness all around her, but she also has hopes for her reunion with Pippo Boticella aka Albert Light aka "Fred" (Marcello Mastroianni). While Amelia has moved on, married and had children since she and Pippo broke up in every way, he looks disoriented and disheveled. Pippo is also displeased by what he sees as almost obscene television, yet can't help also be fascinated by the overtly sexual nature of television: both programs and commercials.

As they prepare for their special appearance, Amelia observes the sadness behind Pippo's outward frivolity as she learns that he may not be in the best of health. Despite this an a stumble by "Fred", they are a hit. However, especially for Amelia, this was a one-night only appearance, yet as they part at the Rome train station you sense an enduring love between Ginger and Fred.

Ginger and Fred is a very sweet, tender, nostalgic story about loss. Fred looks upon the guests on We Are Proud to Present... with more contempt than enjoyment. He is displeased that they will be followed by an admiral, finding the celebration of a war appalling. Yet he makes up randy verses about the girls hawking pizza. Ginger, however, is grounded in reality. She too finds a lot of this surprisingly tawdry, but unlike Fred accepts that things have changed. 

She for example is confused by a transvestite who thinks can get pregnant, but Ginger treats her with if not kindness at least respectfully. She is also proud of her work and is fully professional. She is clear on wanting to rehearse and the importance of it versus winging it. She is not one to hang on past glories, but also wants to journey at least once to the past, where Fred would sweep her in his arms.

Ginger and Fred also looks like a sly critique of Italian television and television in general. We Are Proud to Present... has a production crew thoroughly uninterested in the performers save for getting them on stage. Early on, a production assistant is clearly bored with all these "has-beens": her monotone voice, her lack of interest all make clear that for the television crew it's a job, not a calling.

We Are Proud to Present... does give Fellini a chance to show some grand visuals along with the opening Rome train station scene. You also have various characters speaking almost simultaneously. However, Fellini crafted a loving tribute to two of his best collaborators.

Massima is beautiful as Ginger. She crafts in her performance a woman aware of the present, reminiscent of the past but not a slave to it. She has doubts about appearing among the eccentrics to downright vulgar (among the guests on this Christmas special are a good-looking young Mafia boss and the creator of an edible underwear company who brought living models). However, Massima also makes Amelia a professional, one who is there to perform, and see her Fred one more time.

I couldn't help but wonder if when a punk rock wig is mistakenly placed on Ginger, if Fellini was making a subtle comment on how the present is tainting the past, but that's just me.

Mastroianni is equal to the task as Pippo/Fred. He shows that beneath an almost frivolous exterior is an angry man, hurt and haunted, mourning the loss of Amelia personally and professionally. We can see shades of the Continental charmer Pippo was, but also see the ill man that he is. It's never overtly stated whether Pippo is in poor health physically or mentally, but either way you see a man at the end and in his own way defiant.

Ginger and Fred may be a shadow Giulietta and Federico, a loving farewell to a time and place where grace and elegance were the norm. I found myself charmed by this sweet, simple story of old vaudevillians taking one last turn on the dance floor. More grounded than most Fellini films, Ginger and Fred is a charming story.

DECISION: A-

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Manhunter: A Review


MANHUNTER

Hannibal Lecter has become an iconic figure, the embodiment of sophisticated evil. While it was The Silence of the Lambs that brought Lecter his status, many people do not realize our wicked cannibal psychiatrist made his literary and cinematic debut in another project. Manhunter, the first cinematic version of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon, has been lost in the shuffle of Lecter-related work. While it is a bit dated and more interested in style than substance, there is enough in Manhunter to make it worth a viewing.

Former FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) reluctantly comes out of retirement to just consult on a new serial killer case. His former boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) needs Graham's help on a gruesome case the FBI agents nickname "The Tooth Fairy" for the killer's penchant of biting his victims.

Graham works methodically, but the Tooth Fairy case is connected to his last case. That case nearly killed him and left him emotionally traumatized. The Tooth Fairy case brings him full circle, as he has to confront Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), the cannibal who nearly killed Graham last time. Lecktor may have insight into the Tooth Fairy case, but he isn't about to let a chance to get back at Graham go by.

As a side note, Manhunter opted to change the spelling from "Lecter" to "Lecktor".

The actual Tooth Fairy, after a lot of detective work, is eventually identified as socially awkward Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), who has already killed Graham's nemesis, tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang) as part of Lecktor's revenge. It's a race now to save both Graham's wife and son from Lecktor's machinations and Dollarhyde's blind coworker Rita (Joan Allen), the Tooth Fairy's next potential victim.

There is not much in Manhunter to suggest it is anything more than a B-Movie with suggestions of creepiness but not much in terms of gore. This is actually a plus in writer/director Michael Mann's adaptation, as he resists the temptation to be graphic in terms of the on-screen violence. Even the moments that suggest horror (like a scene where a tween accidentally sees crime photos) are quite restrained. 

Whether this is what audiences want or not I cannot guess at, but Manhunter is not interested in the crimes themselves, let alone the gory details. Instead, it is meant as an exploration of Will Graham's tortured psyche. Perhaps that explains why Petersen is restrained and almost passive in Manhunter, displaying a man who doesn't display much.

As played by Petersen, Will Graham is a still man, one who doesn't want to let the past haunt him but which still does. I think people may find him a bit emotionalless and remote, but I think this is how the character is meant to be. As such, his general passivity works.

Manhunter may also disappoint Lecter fans because the bad doctor does not feature prominently in the film. It takes a good twenty-three minutes for him to even appear, and Cox doesn't play him as a major threat, let alone a psychopathic criminal genius. Instead, Cox makes Lecktor into the cliché of someone who thinks he is a psychopathic criminal genius.

A lot of the performances in Manhunter are surprisingly quiet, stripped of grandiose manners. Up to a point this is good, but at times it seems unrealistic. Kim Greist as Will's wife Molly seems merely slightly perturbed at having to hide out with her son to avoid the dangerous Tooth Fairy. There's little to suggest anger or fear, merely inconvenience.

I think it is because Manhunter is more interested in the investigation: the forensics, the actual detective work, than it is in plunging into both the horrors of Lecktor and Dollarhyde or the psychological toll on the FBI agents. Manhunter is quite respectful of how the note from the Tooth Fairy to Lecktor is quickly investigated. 

Manhunter is also a film that is awash with visual splendor: deep blues and greens dominate the film, along with a synthesizer score and songs that make it play like a Miami Vice spinoff. One senses that Mann was trying to go for some great visual moment, but the concluding confrontation between Graham and Dollarhyde to Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida didn't feel as cinematic as he wanted it to. The visuals also become dominant when Dollarhyde spies Rita with a fellow coworker. He sees something almost erotic, while the reality shows something quite innocent.

If one thinks on Manhunter, some things just seem so odd. Rita opting to make love to Dollarhyde make her look like a tramp (and despite her work, the casting of the sighted Allen would now be called "problematic"). It doesn't seem to fit, as does Lounds' harassment of Graham and his abduction.

Manhunter feels and looks like an 80's film. This isn't a slam on it, just an acknowledgment that it is a bit dated now. However, it isn't a bad film and has a nice visual style that can be appreciated.       

DECISION: C+

HANNIBAL LECTER FILMS

The Silence of the Lambs

Hannibal

Red Dragon

Hannibal Rising

HANNIBAL LECTER TELEVISION SERIES

Hannibal

Clarice

Monday, February 15, 2021

Aaron Hernandez Uncovered. The Television Documentary


AARON HERNANDEZ UNCOVERED

The NBC-owned Oxygen Channel has jumped onto the Aaron Hernandez bandwagon with its two-part series Aaron Hernandez Uncovered. This documentary has two benefits. First, it's the only one so far to feature the participation of Hernandez's long-term fiancée Shayanna Jenkins. Second, it is the only one to not feature Daniel SanSoucie, the man who claims to be Hernandez's first known same-sex lover. If one reads between the lines you can see the hand of Hernandez's attorney Jose Baez in both of these situations, but I'll touch on that later. Aaron Hernandez Uncovered is a surprisingly informative series, even if one senses it attempts to dress up some of Hernandez's more seamy sides.

In four parts: What Started It All, On Trial for Murder, Accused Again and The Final Chapter, the documentary series takes a generally more sympathetic view of Hernandez the man. In Part One, we see Hernandez happily playing with his puppy while at the University of Florida, cheerful in the dog licking his face and mouth. We hear from Jenkins that Hernandez was "the class clown" with a bright smile. This is a Hernandez not usually seen: one with a more upbeat personality whose only real flaw is that he kept bad company.

Hernandez did have a troubled background that he brought to both the University of Florida and the New England Patriots. His father Dennis' shocking early death seemed to have killed something in Aaron himself. As he continued on in his career and life, he could not get away from the thug life that held fascination for him. In the words of one of the reporters covering the Hernandez case, he was "a thug that got lucky". 

It was the lure of this thug life that ultimately brought down the NFL tight end. Despite warnings from his circle of friends such as fellow teammate Brandon Spikes, Spikes' then-girlfriend now-wife Lela Spikes and Jenkins herself, Hernandez couldn't cut off the people he'd known. That helped bring Hernandez to the horrifying crimes he was convicted and charged with. It also brought about his suicide.

Aaron Hernandez Uncovered has Hernandez's defense attorney Jose Baez as a "consulting producer", which should at the least raise eyebrows as to whether the documentary will be more advocacy for the late tight end than truly objective. Baez remains stubborn in his insistence that the police targeted Hernandez early on due to his name, refusing to consider the two other men who were with Hernandez and the late Odin Floyd that fateful night. 

This seems to be echoed by Jenkins, who also thinks Hernandez's fame put a target on his back. Jenkins has a strong dislike for Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a witness for the prosecution. Kraft testified that Hernandez told him the evidence would prove he was at a club when Floyd was murdered, leading jurors to wonder how Hernandez knew the time Floyd was killed to begin with.

Jenkins comments on Kraft's lack of loyalty after years of them going to Kraft's house and telling them how much he loved them.

Bits like those, while understandable, also make me wonder whether Aaron Hernandez Uncovered isn't a bit of a whitewash. However, that isn't to say or suggest Aaron Hernandez Uncovered is pro-Hernandez propaganda. To its credit, it features people who are intensely hostile to Hernandez. The trio of reporter Michelle McPhee and sports talk radio hosts Gerry Callahan and Kirk Minihane are pretty open about their disdain for Hernandez.

It was McPhee who went on the Kirk & Callahan Show to essentially out Hernandez as gay, throwing in some double entendres about "tight ends" and "wide receivers". None show an ounce of sympathy towards Hernandez, with Callahan and Minihane particularly dismissive of how Hernandez's CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) was a potential cause for Hernandez's actions.

Anyone watching Aaron Hernandez Uncovered comes away with a deep respect and admiration for Shannaya Jenkins (who receives special thanks as Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, which struck me as odd as I thought they had never legally married). Jenkins is eloquent and dignified throughout her interview, giving us insight into her life with Hernandez and the agony of the trials. Mostly maintaining her composure, Jenkins makes a good case for her man. The Aaron she knew was a good man: loving fiancée and devoted father. He, however, was also too enthralled with people she knew better to stay away from.

The documentary gingerly avoids asking Jenkins flat-out whether she knew exactly what was in the trash Hernandez asked (or told) to throw out, or even if she perhaps suspected that in that trash was the missing gun. This again may be due to Baez's participation, but ultimately one is deeply impressed by Jenkins. She appears elegant, with a soft demeanor that belies a will of iron.

Baez's participation also makes one wonder whether Aaron Hernandez Uncovered wants to throw doubt into the various cases. Both he and fellow defense attorney George Leontire hold to Hernandez's innocence long after Hernandez's death. They may believe it, but it seems a bit odd to continue to dismiss why Hernandez kept finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.

Aaron Hernandez Uncovered gives us a better insight than some other Hernandez-related documentaries. It may be a bit more sympathetic to him given that the police appear to be the only ones to care about Odin Lloyd. However, with Shayanna Jenkins giving us her insight and little to no focus on the salacious same-sex life of Aaron Hernandez, Aaron Hernandez Uncovered is a strong series on this case. Its only real flaw is the appearance of collusion between the filmmakers and the defense. A minor point perhaps but one that didn't sit right with me.   

7/10

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Wild Mountain Thyme: A Review

WILD MOUNTAIN THYME

For the longest time I planned to watch the Wild Mountain Thyme screener, yet for the longest time I resisted, resisted, resisted. Something just held me back from watching it. At last, however, I plunged into director John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his play Outside Mullingar. I think my instincts proved correct yet again, as Wild Mountain Thyme is a mess, trading in stereotypes, frustrating about what it wants to be and downright nonsensical at times. 

And even that I might forgive if it not for the fact that it's so unbearably boring.

With occasional narration from future dead man Tony Reilly (Christopher Walken), we learn that Irish farmers Anthony Reilly (Jaime Dornan) and his neighbor Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) appear perfect for each other. Rosemary has carried a yearning for Anthony since childhood, but Anthony is more hesitant about it. While the Reillys and Muldoons get along pretty well, there's a slight disagreement on a small strip of Reilly land that technically belongs to Rosemary, forcing them to open two gates every time Da and Son Reilly cross it.

Tony despairs about his puzzlingly shy son, so much so that he's decided to deed the farm not to Anthony but to Anthony's American cousin Adam (John Hamm). Adam may also inherit Rosemary, something that Anthony is not keen on but not making any steps to prevent. For her part, Rosemary seems equally hot and cold with the idea of the Yank coming to invade. One moment she flies to New York City for one day to get Adam to accompany her to her first ballet, the next she's all but forcing Anthony to tell her why he won't love her.

Once we learn the reason Anthony says he won't marry her, the audience that has managed to stay awake will wonder whether Anthony is literally insane or, well, that's really the only explanation. However, all's well that ends well for our White Swan Rosemary and honeybee Anthony.


A lot of criticism has been thrown at Wild Mountain Thyme on two main points: accents and Anthony's reason for not marrying Rosemary despite having feelings for her. On the first point, the various Irish accents range from the plausible to the downright bizarre. Dornan has a bit of a leg up on Irish accents being that he is actually Irish, but his accent seems exaggerated to sound "Hollywood" Irish. The British Blunt let hers come and go, sometimes going too strong and sometimes not strong enough.

Walken, however, had nothing other than his cadence to pass off as Irish. It isn't to say that he didn't try: his farewell to Anthony is a good effort though as directed by Shanley it veers towards quiet parody. One can forgive Dornan for his performance: he is more a good-looking man who can speak. To be fair, he does look lost and confused, and I oddly became fixated on the streak of grey hair, wondering if it was real or added for character. Blunt, too did her best, wandering accent aside. However, she delivered her lines the same way Dornan did: with no sense of conviction or enthusiasm. Few people have been as mismatched as Dornan and Blunt. They look like they're almost trapped in a parallel universe, perpetually confused versus hiding deep romantic yearnings.


On the second point, well given Dornan's performance his oddball rationale didn't come across to me as sincere or shocking. It came across as someone just saying the first thing that came to mind to stop from admitting he was really gay, a virgin or both. It was strange on so many levels, but not on the level of infuriating or outlandish that a lot of my brethren hold it to be. It's a mix of both Shanley's limitations as writer/director and Dornan's as an actor that Anthony didn't seem to believe his own whacked-out confession. It didn't anger me or cause me to break out into giggles.

Instead, it made me think "Is he for real?" in every variation of the phrase: sarcastic, puzzled, you name it. 

Wild Mountain Thyme has a lot of atmosphere, and that's another major issue. It's all too self-consciously cute, too naked an effort to be whimsical and oh-so-twee with wild tales of funny Irishmen telling tales of Anthony proposing to donkeys and Americans renting Rolls-Royces to drive to farms. The movie shifts wildly between wacky and maudlin. It also has wild leaps of logic, such as Rosemary's almost rash decision to fly to New York to see a ballet for the first time.

Because apparently going to say Dublin for such an endeavor is too far-fetched.

I think Wild Mountain Thyme tried desperately to build it up as a light Irish romantic comedy, but it ended up being so deadly dull. Curiously, if it had dropped the Irish whimsy and been a straightforward romantic drama, if it had focused more on the potential love triangle versus trying to build one up with a clearly disengaged Hamm (who probably thought how lucky he was to sound like the American he is), Wild Mountain Thyme would have been better than it was.

There is simply no buzz around Wild Mountain Thyme.


   

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words. A Review

RUTH: JUSTICE GINSBURG IN HER OWN WORDS

Right or wrong, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become an icon both figuratively and literally. What can one say about someone who has appeared on votive candles even before her death? Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words, culls the archives and supplements itself with a few interviews to paint a portrait much like the subject: deliberate, methodical, respectful.

We hear from Justice Ginsburg as through various question-and-answer sessions from children, she remembers the hurdles she faced. There were three: she was Jewish, she was a woman and she was a mother. The course of her life, however, ran through several gender discrimination cases (she opted to use "gender" rather than "sex" to avoid any connotations the latter would elicit).

The various Supreme Court hearings she participated in both as an advocate and a Justice are present via animation. 

As she and others, such as former clerks and litigants in Supreme Court cases reflect on both the Justice and her impact on their lives, we do see some of Justice Ginsburg's private life. There's her family and the pride she takes in them, as well as her long-vaulted friendship with her diametrical opposite, Justice Antonin Scalia. 

Ruth was made before Justice Ginsburg's death on September 18, 2020. As such, hearing Notorious RBG co-author Irin Carmon describing Ginsburg's health as "good" seems rather odd now. That's unfair to writer/director Freida Lee Mock. She couldn't have known Justice Ginsburg would not only be dead by the time Ruth was released to general audiences but be the subject of a fierce battle over her replacement.

Even with this hindsight though, Ginsburg's hope for a return to civility and comradeship in government seem to work in its favor.

Ruth reveals much about the late Justice and rarely slips into worshipful hagiography. Hearing how both Ginsburg the person and Ginsburg the Justice had impact on individuals is a highlight of the film. Then-Jennifer Carroll, for example, became one of the first women at the Virginia Military Institute thanks to the Supreme Court's ruling United States v Virginia. The now-Virginia House Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy could enter politics due not just to her VMI education but through Ginsburg's example.

While Ruth did not spend much time in the famous Ginsburg/Scalia friendship, I admit to being moved by her eulogy at her dear friend's funeral. She quotes from the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, inspired by their surprising friendship and mutual love of opera. To misquote one of the opera's songs, they were different, they were one.  

At times it can be a bit much, particularly when one interviewee is almost misty-eyed remembering the meals the Ginsburgs prepared. It also does not delve into exactly how this tiny senior became "the Notorious RBG", a cult figure held as this quasi-divine figure. Given her cult status, a little worship perhaps should be expected.

That, however, is perhaps being nitpicky. Respectful if perhaps a touch reverential, Ruth is a fine film on a truly monumental figure. 

DECISION: B+ 

Monday, February 8, 2021

Catherine the Great (1995): The Television Movie


CATHERINE THE GREAT

Whether Catherine the Great refers to Catherine II, Czarina of All the Russias or its star Catherine Zeta-Jones one can only guess. An early role for the future Oscar-winner, Catherine the Great showcases Zeta-Jones in all her buxom glory but the television fails through little fault of her own.

After her wedding to Grand Duke Peter (Hannes Jaenickke), German-born Catherine must navigate the dangerous Russian Imperial Court waters. There are enemies all around her, vying for power. Everyone from Chancellor Vorontzov (Ian Richardson) and Vice Chancellor Bestuzhev (Brian Blessed) as well as her frenemy the Empress Elizabeth (Jeanne Moreau), who plays hot and cold. Frustrated that Catherine after seven years of marriage is still a virgin, Empress Elizabeth orders handsome Captain Saltykov (Craig McLachlan) to introduce the Grand Duchess to sex.

Elizabeth can't be bothered with the actual legitimacy of Catherine's child, just so long as she has a child to inherit the throne.

Catherine soon learns not to give her heart to others in this game of politics, though another handsome soldier, Grisha Potemkin (Paul McGann) captures her fancy. Allied with the military, Catherine soon leads a coup d'etat that gives her the throne on her own. With Vorontzov and Bestuzhev now working for her, Catherine fights a war with the Ottoman Empire and a failed revolution led by Pugachev (John Rhys-Davies), a Cossack peasant who once asked for her help only to turn and declare himself the dead Czar Peter III. With the Pretender and her "Emperor of the Night" both gone, Catherine begins her march to be the embodiment of the Enlightened Autocrat.

As one watches Catherine the Great, one gets the sense that things are rushed to almost chaotic, making things slightly incomprehensible. There is reason for that, as the American broadcast from the Arts & Entertainment Network if IMDB is believed chopped nearly 80 minutes from the special. That's over half of a miniseries originally meant for four hours that on A&E clocks in at a little over an hour and a half. 

The bizarre decision to cut so much means that we are not introduced to anyone. When Vorontoz and Elizabeth are having a conversation about Catherine's lack of pregnancy the audience is not introduced to either. They just seem to pop up, and this goes for pretty much everyone save Catherine herself. Whether Saltykov perhaps harbored secret desires for Catherine that the Empress Elizabeth helped, whether he was just a gigolo or whether he had genuinely fallen in love with her or was pretending when forced into exile is unclear.

The rivalry between Vorontzov and Bestuzhev is similarly muddled, as is Catherine's friendship with Elizabeth's own "Emperor of the Night" Razumovsky (Omar Sharif). It seems likely that whole plotlines and characters were cut, making Catherine the Great feel as if the audience is missing things. Mel Ferrer is billed as "The Patriarch", but Catherine the Great gives him at most two lines (and that's being generous). One wonders why "The Patriarch" has any reason for being there. 


Catherine the Great has very little rhyme or reason for the intrigues of Court. Peter III's reign begins and ends suddenly, on-screen lasting less than ten minutes of screen-time. Worse, there's no buildup to why Peter III should be dethroned. From what we see in the special, his worst fault is having a mistress and being rather fond of Germans. He even plays the violin quite well, which makes the case that Peter III was at most eccentric versus flat-out bonkers and a danger to both Catherine and Mother Russia.

Other elements, such as what Pugochev's plan in attempting to pass himself off as the dead Peter III when he had already appeared at Court at an audience before Her Majesty is very strange. 

You sense the Catherine the Great could have been better and set out to be better, but the massive cuts to the project made things if not confusing at least hurried. A strong example of this is when Potemkin scolds Catherine for initially going along with her counselors in using force to suppress the Pugachev Uprising. "I meant what I said in Council," Grisha tells her. Yet what we actually see is him silently putting his fist in his mouth out of frustration of not speaking. It ends up making no sense as the audience saw him not speak, so what is he talking about when he says he "meant what he said" in Council?

There were other issues with the special. The battle scenes were almost comically cheap-looking, with what looked like dozens of extras trying almost sadly to try and pass themselves off for grand armies. Catherine comments to her bestie that Potemkin is "the most handsome man" she's ever seen, but I figure Saltykov is the hunkier of her two lovers. McGann gave a good performance as the gleeful, wise but also arrogant Potemkin, but one wonders whether the much more muscular and physically attractive McLachlan would have suited the role better. 

After all, Catherine herself says in one of Catherine the Great's long list of juicy lines, "It's not just his body which is magnificent by the way. He cares for me. He thinks about me. He...loves me". The Saltykov/Catherine romance would have been interesting to explore, but Catherine the Great needed to rush off somewhere else.

As a side note, Paul McGann's brother Mark McGann also appeared in Catherine the Great as Orlov, and while unintentional it soon becomes confusing which McGann is who. To be honest, I'm still not exactly sure if I got the right brothers in the right roles.

The cutting of so much robbed Catherine the Great of probably good performances from the supporting cast. Moreau seemed to delight in her bluntness, whether it involved making Saltykov into a royal stud, discussing her nephew's inability to get an erection or tenderly leaning on her longtime lover for emotional comfort. Richardson was at his sneering best, Blessed at his masterful manipulator and Sharif as Elizabeth's peasant lover interested only in his mistress.

"The Emperor of the Night takes many positions, but none of them political," he gleefully tells Bestuzhev, another of John Goldsmith and Frank Tudisco's witty script bits.

As for Zeta-Jones, it seems hard to imagine her as an innocent 15-year-old bride given how grand she always is. Perhaps the voiceovers she had were meant to cover up holes in the story, but they only lent more confusion. Who was she speaking to? Inner monologue? Remembering her past? She does have a nice way with some quips to be fair. "I'm about to seize the throne of Russia. What on Earth shall I wear?", she says wickedly, amused at the impending coup.

Zeta-Jones also shows genuine heartbreak and anger when she dismisses Saltykov. "It will remind me that a man can practice the art of a whore as well as a woman," she rebukes her first lover. Still, for most of Catherine the Great, she is too grand, as if she knows she is always acting the Empress rather than being the Empress. The film also at times delights in showcasing the heaping helping of Catherine's buxom bosom. 

Catherine the Great has nice costumes and can be entertaining if you don't think too much on how muddled and confused it is.

4/10 

Catherine II Feature Films & Specials

The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934)

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Young Catherine (1991)

Catherine the Great (2019)

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The Little Things (2021): A Review

THE LITTLE THINGS

The Little Things opens with a notice of "October 1990" but whether that was intended to signal the time it was set or the time is was conceived in I cannot answer. The Little Things, while not a bad film, got in its own way too often for it to be able to rise above a substandard Seven knock-off.

Kern County Deputy Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) is ordered to go to Los Angeles to collect certain evidence. He does not want to go back to his old haunts, as the film reveals bit by by what drove him from being a respected LA homicide detective to a mere deputy far away from Los Angeles.

Deputy Deacon comes just as the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department is facing a serial killer. Sargent Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) is not too keen on this old has-been getting involved in his case but involved he does become when the murders match those of the case that drove Deacon to distraction and eventually out of Los Angeles.

Now working together with Deacon albeit on an unofficial capacity, both zero in their prime suspect, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a repairman with a criminal past and a too-calm & creepy manner. Sparma taunts them both in the way only master criminals do. He is able to manipulate both circumstances and especially Baxter until the Sargent makes a fateful decision. Only Deacon, who himself is haunted by a mistake in his career, can guide our rising cop to live with his sins.


The Little Things is hampered by some unfortunate clichés. The chief cliché in writer/director John Lee Hancock's screenplay is Leto both in character and performance. Albert Sparma is from the "supergenius" school of criminals, ones that are able to stay five hundred steps ahead of the police in every way. It stretches believability to see how Sparma was able to accurately figure Deacon or Baxter were going to break into his apartment. What seems downright ludicrous is how he managed to call the police and convince them that there was an "officer down" at the time of the break-in.

Add to that a very bizarre situation where Baxter willingly goes alone with Sparma with the vaguest promise of finding the body of a missing person. Baxter does not wait for Deacon. He doesn't hold Sparma until he can get help. Instead, he willingly puts his life in danger with no guarantee he'll make it out alive.

Leto's whole performance is almost spoof of these types of master criminals. He speaks in this deliberately calm manner, full of theatrical body movements and quietly taunting words. It's almost humorous how over-acted the role is. At his interrogation, Deacon calls Baxter and asks "You got a feeling he's enjoying this?", and I genuinely wondered if Washington was asking Malek if Leto was enjoying overacting.


Right or wrong, The Little Things has more than a passing resemblance to Seven. I figure the similarities were coincidental, such as when Sparma taunts Baxter about his wife and daughters. However, both are about eager young cops and grizzled veterans teaming up to solve a series of murders by a psychopathic and psychopathically brilliant serial killer. It even features to make the grizzled veteran black and the eager young cop white. 

Again, I'm sure it was coincidence but it doesn't take away from a certain lack of originality. Add to that the times The Little Things aimed for original it ended up being a bit much. I know Deacon carries guilt over what drove him out of the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department. However, the visions of the dead women coming to him at his sleazy hotel don't quite work as well as they could have.

You also have "symbolic" moments that end up accidentally funny due to their overt nature. Having Peggy Marsh's I Will Follow Him play as Baxter and Deacon literally follow Sparma is eye-rolling, as is when Deacon's beloved R&B oldies station sign off permanently to a new format as he leaves Los Angeles.

If there's anything good in The Little Things, it is Denzel Washington, an actor who elevates his material. His monologue with a victim's corpse is a moving and deep piece of acting. One wishes his character had been stripped of the backstory and let this case drive the chaos his life would later have. Malek did his best but at times seem to try too hard to play the smarter, cockier detective though he was good at the scenes of Baxter's domestic life.

The Little Things could have been more than what it turned out to be. A little unbalanced between Washington's quiet performance and Leto's attention-seeking one, with Malek in the middle, The Little Things is not a failure but it could have been more. 

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Son of the South: A Review (Review #1455)

SON OF THE SOUTH

In this past year of racial tumult/reckoning, perhaps Son of the South thought it could ride as a topic film despite being set in the 1960s. A film with good intentions, Son of the South is brought down by some poor directing choices that show the lack of experience behind the camera.

Youthful Southerner Bob Zellner (Lucas Till) seems astonished that he and some friends could be asked to write a paper about race in 1950's Alabama and yet not talk to actual African-Americans. Partially out of naïveté, partially out of stubbornness, he does so anyway, down to attending a black church where Reverend Ralph Abernathy (Cedric the Entertainer) speaks and Rosa Parks (Sharonne Lanier)tells him "Not choosing is a choice".

Bob, son of a liberal Methodist pastor and grandson of a Klansman (Brian Dennehy in one of his final performances) soon goes to the "Communists" like civil rights activists Virginia Durr (Julia Ormond) and Derek Ang (Ludi Lin). Seeing the Freedom Riders beaten does get him more and more involved in the Civil Rights Movement, as does pretty black girl Joanne (Lex Scott Davis). Good thing too, as his fiancée Carol Anne (Lucy Hale) dumps him for putting the Cause over their relationship.

As Bob continues fighting the good fight down to becoming the first white secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) his life may be in danger from his virulently racists former friends and family but his "white privilege" and Southern roots keep saving him.

Son of the South is the second feature film from Spike Lee's longtime editor Barry Alexander Brown, who also adapted Zellner's autobiography The Wrong Side of Murder Creek. Perhaps giving directing, screenwriting and editing responsibilities to one man was a mistake, as Son of the South is rather clunky in all three areas.

As a side note, while it appears that Brown and Lee (who served as an executive producer) could not resist the temptation of the film's title nearly matching another film, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek makes in my view a better title.

The screenplay may actually be close to Zellner's memoir, but it is filled with a whole series of overwrought lines it might be almost a parody of these earnest tales of racial redemption. At the Durr's dinner the allegedly naïve Zellner remarks that America is a democracy.

"It's a republic, actually, which is what Hitler was when he rose to power", Ang replies. My notes granted may have a mistake for I figure Ang meant to say "which is what Germany was Hitler rose to power" and it may have been a reference to Nazi Germany in the dinner conversation. However, not only did this smack of the enlightened minority educating the dim Anglo on the truth but it seems the film asks viewers that they think segregationist Alabama is equal to Auschwitz. 

Early on, there was an even more cringe-inducing line that showed how set Son of the South was to hammer home its message. As Bob celebrates coming of age at a bar with his friends, one offer a toast. "To Bobby: Free, White and 21!". Even if every Alabaman was a Klan member, this seems such an outlandish toast to stretch believability. It might have been real, but it just comes across as lacking in any subtlety, and Son of the South is full of such lines and scenes.

Son of the South has some surprisingly bad moments that with a more experienced director could have been impactful. In a riot between Freedom Riders and protesters we are meant to be horrified and shocked. Instead, there is such a pedestrian manner to it all it almost looks like one can see the smoke machines and Alexander telling his cast and crew not to hurt the equipment or each other. It looks amateurish on every level.

As loath as I am to compare films, compare this riot with the police assault on the Edmund Pettis Bridge marchers in Selma. In that film, the chaos was simultaneously horrifying and mesmerizing, visually splendid and shocking. Here, the riot looked like it was for a bad television special. The film bookends with an attempted lynching, but given that Zellner is narrating this attempt on his life one already loses whatever tension this opening intended. Moreover, the lynching should come across as intense and dramatic, but falls short. 

The film also seems to want to make Zellner into something he never was. Yes, his Granddaddy was a Ku Klux Klan member, but his father it is overtly mentioned is a "liberal minister" who learned racism was wrong when he toured with an all-black gospel choir while traveling in the Soviet Union. The prayer offered by Zellner's daddy before going to work at SNCC talk about "taking up arms to fight for freedom and justice". In short, judging by the information Bob Zellner was not some earnest young man who was transformed and evolved to do right. 

He was already there. 

Alexander did his actors wrong in his directing. Lucas Till looks his age, which is a decade too old to be this twentysomething young man barely starting life. It's a curious thing that despite being a Southerner Till sounded as he was forcing the accent. Even in the moments that attempted a hint of lightness (such as when Zellner is taught to pronounce the word as "Negro" versus his Alabaman-inflected "Nigra") it feels unreal.

Davis did well when showing Joanna's education, but when told of someone's killing there doesn't seem to be a bit of emotion. To be fair though, both are extremely good-looking and make a nice couple.

It is nice to see Ormond again and she did quite well as the liberal Southerner to where one would have liked to have seen a film about her. Cedric the Entertainer had that effect too in his too-brief role as Reverend Abernathy.

Son of the South is a well-intentioned film, but it just falls short of making a case as to why anyone should care about Bob Zellner.

DECISION: D+

Friday, February 5, 2021

Supernova (2021): A Review (Review #1454)

SUPERNOVA

The end of a long-time relationship is a very painful thing both for the one leaving and the one left behind. Supernova is an exploration of the difficult parting death brings, and if not for a bit of a slow start I might think better of it.

Longtime partners Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) are embarking on a road trip across the British Lake District. Sam, a pianist of renown, has a concert date booked shortly after his birthday and his novelist partner Tusker are enjoying this brief interlude before he goes back on stage.

That, however, is not the only reason for this little sojourn. Tusker is suffering from early-onset dementia and as his mental acuity starts to fade they want to be together for as long as possible. On this trip, they go visit Sam's sister Lily (Pippa Haywood) who throws a surprise birthday party for him organized by Tusker.

It is here though that Sam discovers Tusker's plans for his future self which don't involve Sam. The heartache and drama of this tear at them both. It is now decision time for both Sam and Tusker as to how their love story will end.

As I watched Supernova, I think audiences may find the beginning a bit frustrating, as if they were wandering around the same way Sam and Tusker were. You get hints of Tusker's condition such as when an alarmed Sam finds Tusker has wandered off and has no real idea where he is. You also hear it when Tusker admits removing his medication before leaving and referring to a taped recording as "Dementia Radio". 

As a side note, I kept hearing the name as "Tosca" versus "Tusker". I minor detail, but there it is.

By the time we get to Lily's home, one is relieved to be among other people. It means that the long-established relationship between Sam and Tusker won't be the focus. It's a curious thing that despite Supernova playing like a two-person play the film doesn't fully come alive until we get to see them with others.  

It is also here where we start seeing Firth and Tucci give exceptionally strong performances. We see the quiet nature of their personalities when Sam has to read a speech Tusker wrote in honor of his longtime partner. The quiet recitation of Tusker's words of love and pride by Sam coupled with Tusker's obvious pride in both his words and the sentiment is a sign their strengths as actors.

It is also a sign of writer/director Harry Macqueen's debut. Another strong moment is when Sam and Tusker quietly yet forcefully confront each other about Tusker's secret decision and Sam's reaction to it over what is meant to be a nice intimate dinner.

We see through their performances the agony of eventual separation between the two lovers. Firth is emotional without being hysterical, with Tucci as a nice counterbalance with his quiet resignation. Supernova is among their best work: quiet, elegant and mostly not showy. 

However, as good as these moments are, sometimes they do come across as a filmed play versus actual life. In this same scene, one senses that they are not living out this deep drama but acting it. The dialogue does not help Supernova overcome its sense of theatrical.

"You're still the same guy," Lily tells Tusker. "No I'm not," Tusker tells her quietly. "I just look like him". Tusker's efforts at a joke by adding "Which is a shame" don't land as well as they could.

Neither does Tusker telling Lily's daughter about how humans are made up of star particles and how he doesn't want to be a passenger in life. I figure it wasn't Macqueen's intention to bring up memories of both Moby's We Are All Made of Stars and Iggy Pop's The Passenger, but he did nonetheless with his dialogue. 

Supernova is also complimented by Keaton Henson's elegant score and Dick Poe's beautiful cinematography, though perhaps as beautiful as both are they too are a bit too removed for this story. Both of them are lovely to look at, but they can still be a bit chilly at what is meant as a deep, moving love story.

Supernova might, I think, try some audiences' patience by its slow start, but once we see Sam and Tusker engage with people outside themselves it will be worth the trip. 

DECISION: C+

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Aaron Hernandez: An ID Murder Mystery. The Television Documentary

 

AARON HERNANDEZ: AN ID MURDER MYSTERY

It's a curious thing to see the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) dive into the now all-too-familiar and sordid tale of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. However, one forgets that OWN is part of the Discovery Network, so Aaron Hernandez: An ID Murder Mystery can be featured on both OWN and its sister network Investigation Discovery (ID). Aaron Hernandez: An ID Murder Mystery sticks closer to the criminal trial aspects of the various cases and barely touches on the more salacious elements. 

In three episodes: The Boy From Bristol, A Family Affair and Secrets and Demons, the special covers familiar ground with a mix of interviews and reenactments. The special interviews various police investigators of both the Odin Lloyd and Daniel de Abreu/Sarifo Furtado murders. The reenactments also recreate moments from these two cases with the last episode having a small bit of Hernandez's early life, moments that may have related to a very hidden secret Hernandez apparently took to his grave.

The Boy From Bristol deals mostly with the Lloyd case, where we see via surveillance footage Hernandez damning himself with incriminating behavior. A Family Affair shifts from his eventual conviction of Lloyd's murder to the second case after police in the de Abreu and Furtado case put Hernandez at the scene of the crime. Secrets and Demons covers the de Abreu/Furtado trial, one where high-powered and high-energy defense attorney Jose Baez showboats his way to an acquittal. Despite that though, Hernandez killed himself five days later.

Here we get a dual explanation for Hernandez's sudden shift from optimism to suicide: a mix of the effects of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) he unknowingly suffered from and of being outed as gay or bisexual on a local sports radio show. Hernandez's same-sex relationships and attractions are confirmed by his childhood friend/middle school lover Dennis SanSoucie and Hernandez's former girlfriend Alyssa Anderson, who speaks about the conflict Hernandez had about a same-sex relationship he had in high school.

Even now, the only person who could possibly confirm whether or not Hernandez was gay or bisexual is Hernandez himself. It's to An ID Murder Mystery's credit that it never teased Hernandez's sexuality or built it into anything tawdry. In fact, it was close to the end of Secrets and Demons that such a thing was even mentioned; even then, it was more as a potential reason for his suicide than a motive for murder. The only teasing came from brief mentions of "an exclusive interview" with SanSoucie, which I'd argue is not an exclusive given how often he's talked about their sexual relationship.

As a side note, neither here or in the more in-depth Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez has SanSoucie ever mentioned who initiated this sexual relationship or the exact nature of their affair. Was it mere "experimenting"? Sexual release between two friends? A genuine love affair? I have yet to hear SanSoucie say that he loved Hernandez in the romantic form or if Hernandez expressed romantic love for SanSoucie to him. This is not saying that SanSoucie is lying about a same-sex relationship, merely to wonder whether it was merely physical on Hernandez's part or a genuinely romantic/emotional relationship. 

It remains to be seen if two other television specials (so far) on the Aaron Hernandez story, Oxygen's Aaron Hernandez Uncovered or Reelz's Aaron Hernandez's Killing Fields will reveal if Hernandez and SanSoucie were genuine lovers or merely sexmates. Yet I digress.

An ID Murder Mystery is surprisingly sparse in its recounting of this saga, with a small group of interviewees and small number of reenactments. It uses a great deal of courtroom footage that blends well with the interviews. Reporters for example note how in the second trial, the defense went after the credibility of the star witness Alexander Bradley followed by footage of the belligerent, sarcastic Baez going after Bradley on the stand.

An ID Murder Mystery also does not look into the rather unsavory characters in Hernandez's life. Nothing is mentioned about his turbulent family life and little if anything is mentioned about the group of criminals he surrounded himself pre-and-post NFL career. The closest it comes to the former is when it reveals that Aaron's father Dennis faced surprisingly similar circumstances in his college football career. The Boy From Bristol discloses that Dennis left the University of Connecticut when he found himself involved in a police shooting. While Dennis was not the shooter, his potential involvement made things untenable at UConn. It's a strange detail given just how his son's life ended up as one filled with crime.

It's a curious thing that An ID Murder Mystery shows how violent Hernandez was. Assuming that he ultimately didn't kill anyone, that he would shoot Bradley in the face and leave him for dead, along with other incidents when at the University of Florida shows Hernandez to be quite dangerous. 

If An ID Murder Mystery has an issue it is when it states that "This program contains dramatic reenactments. Certain images and details may have been altered" (emphasis mine). One accepts that reenactments will happen to dramatize the story. However, to say that you may alter "details" raises doubts about what one sees. This is especially true in The Boy From Bristol. It is astonishing to see surveillance footage from the police station showing Hernandez destroying his Blackberry, but is it real or a reenactment? I don't remember seeing "reenactment" on the screen, yet what details may have been altered?

Despite this, Aaron Hernandez: An ID Murder Mystery is a surprisingly good overview of the horrifying crimes Hernandez may/may not have committed. Focusing on the cases versus the seamy sides, we can see the how if not the why of three deaths at the hands of a man who seemingly had it all.

7/10