Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Aaron Hernandez's Killing Fields: The Television Documentary


The sad, sordid saga of Aaron Hernandez continues to draw morbid attention from television networks. Reelz Channel has almost a small cottage industry around the late New England Patriots tight end. 

In many ways, the Hernandez saga is the blending of its two main subjects. The network that veers between such shows as the true-crime themed I Lived With a KillerCopycat Killers and World's Most Evil Killers and the celebrity themed The Price of Fame, Behind Closed Doors and Breaking the Band has featured Hernandez quite often. Quibble about its Hernandez-themed episodes of Murder Made Me Famous and Notorious given he was both famous and notorious before his conviction, but Reelz has done much work with this story. 

Aaron Hernandez's Killing Fields is its first foray into this story, spinning off two sequels: Aaron Hernandez: Jailhouse Lover Tells All and Aaron Hernandez: Life Inside. Blending a bizarre mix of seriousness and salaciousness, Aaron Hernandez's Killing Fields teases but ultimately makes a mockery of its rather grandiose ideas of itself.

Hosted by investigative reporter Dylan Howard, Killing Fields goes into all sorts of allegations that don't just cover the Odin Lloyd and Daniel de Abreu/Safiro Furtado murders, but also suggest he essentially was a serial killer pre-and-post Patriots. Killing Fields as part of its investigation produces two women whose family members may have fallen victim to Hernandez's reign of terror. The first is Corey Smith, a single father of two who was almost murdered by Hernandez while he played for the University of Florida. The second was Jordan Miller, whose murder may have been due to bearing a physical similarity to Lloyd. 

Killing Fields speculates that Miller's murder may have been a case of mistaken identity, while Smith's case had similar circumstances to the Abreu/Furtado case where perceived disrespect at a club led to a shooting. In a curious twist, the Smith case involves the curiously named Pouncey twins, teammates of Hernandez who were his de facto henchmen. 

Mixed into an already expansive and sleazy story we have the shadowy testimonies of two new witnesses. There's "Q", who claims to have been Hernandez's drug dealer and "Chad", a male stripper hired by Hernandez for his own entertainment that overheard Hernandez planning to kill Lloyd. 

Killing Fields also hired three "elite group of investigators" to delve further into the case. There's homicide detective Michelle Wood, "elite undercover agent" Don Jackson and ex-police detective Bo Dietl. Among their tactics is to rent out Hernandez's former home to do their own search for the missing murder weapon. While this Al Capone's Vault-like search didn't turn up the gun used to kill Lloyd, it did turn up some drugs stashed in the ceiling. 

Despite several teases about what was discovered, we don't get much, but we do get the testimony of Kyle Kennedy aka Pure. In the words of Howard, Kennedy was "Aaron Hernandez's drug dealing lieutenant in the same Bloods gang that Aaron lorded over in prison. He became Aaron's business partner, second in command, best friend, confidant and lover". If Kennedy is to be believed, he wasn't merely Hernandez's sexmate to release his sexual energy. Aaron Hernandez wanted to marry Kyle Kennedy!  

Aaron Hernandez's Killing Fields so far is the worst of the Hernandez coverage. Howard comes across as slightly pompous, making grand pronouncements while titillating audiences with such elements as male strippers and hopes to find the gun in a place one imagines had been thoroughly searched. Said stripper "Chad" was found via Howard "through our own internal investigation", but one wonders how they came upon the idea to search for some exotic dancer to begin with. The cloak-and-dagger manner of the interview ("Chad" in a hoodie and possibly false beard with his mask in darkness) gives the whole thing either a need for secrecy or almost comedy.

Add to that some pretty wild statements. "Chad" claims to have come upon "kilos" of cocaine and a gun, unaware of who had hired him until he saw the various Hernandez jerseys and photos matched the client.

As a side note, we never did hear if "Chad" gave anyone a lap dance, though we do learn that Hernandez allegedly had him followed and paid him off to ensure his silence. 

"Q" the drug dealer claims that he at least once held a drug deal with Hernandez in a cemetery in the dead of night. Somehow, midnight drug deals in cemeteries never struck anyone as a bit bizarre to say the least. It isn't impossible, but it still sounds a bit odd.

In short, "Chad", "Q" and Kennedy are rather unreliable witnesses, so why Killing Fields took them at their word with nary a pushback is puzzling. Kennedy's claims of sex with Hernandez are plausible given the appearance of Daniel San Soucie, who claimed a long-term sexual relationship with Hernandez in high school. 

As another side note, Killing Fields may claim an "exclusive" with San Soucie, but the man seems to be in almost every Aaron Hernandez-related special, so one questions how exclusive it was.

Kennedy's other claims that Hernandez was in love with him and wanted to marry him, however, along with having a series of love letters, was too outlandish even for Hernandez's defense attorney Jose Baez, who asserts that Hernandez was gay or at the most bisexual.

Killing Fields doubles down on the "repressed homosexuality" angle too. Early on, we learn that Aaron apparently wanted to be a cheerleader but his father Dennis simply wouldn't hear of it. As to what the various motives for the various murders, there's all sorts of speculation. His sexuality? A brutally beaten brain? Desire to make his fiancee Shayana Jenkins rich? Or was there something more sinister? 

Aaron Hernandez's Killing Fields is almost comical in how seriously it takes itself. Loaded with lots of speculation but very little evidence, it's close to exploitative. That is bad enough, but it's a terrible disservice to the families of Corey Smith and Jordan Miller. Smith's mother Sandra Hines and Miller's aunt Tara Davis deserve justice for their family. However, unless Aaron Hernandez's Killing Fields gets people to investigate these crimes, it leaves a terrible taste to watch them used in the same special where drug dealers and male strippers regail viewers with tales of midnight cemetery drug deals and unused lap-dances. 


Monday, March 22, 2021

Shoplifters of the World: A Review (Review #1470)


So long as there are disaffected youth who find joy in misery The Smiths will have a ready audience. Shoplifters of the World is a loving homage to this most morose of musical groups, and while there are a few stumbles on the whole this man was most definitely charmed.

Denver, 1987. A group of teens on the brink of adulthood learn the most devastating news in human history: the British music band The Smiths has broken up. This devastates them, but the one most crushed is Cleo (Helena Howard). The Safeway checkout girl knows there's a better life beyond Colorado's capital, but exactly how to get to it is unclear. She and her three friends wander through Denver to mourn The Smiths' end: Billy (Nick Krause), about to join the Army, Sheila (Elena Kampouris), a Madonna-like girl, and Patrick (James Bloor), Sheila's boyfriend who is not so secretly struggling with his sexual identity. 

Cleo's unrequited love, record store employee Dean (Ellar Coltrane) finds a different tactic to mourn. Dean, who is not so secretly in love with Cleo, decides to hold heavy metal disc jockey Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello) hostage and force him to play a Smiths marathon. Mickey is angry about both being held hostage and having to play what he thinks is awful music, calling it among other things "records about dead queens and bicycles". He has little choice however, and as time goes on Mickey finds that The Smiths do have some merits.

As the now-Mad Manchester Mickey endures his Full Morrissey Meltdown, our young people wander through an unofficial Smiths wake and crashing a gay bar. Throughout the night, both Dean/Mickey and Cleo, Sheila, Billy and Patrick discover things about themselves and each other, all connected to those so young who sing words so sad.

At its heart, Shoplifters of the World is a love letter to both The Smiths and their fans. Everything from shout-outs to their videos like Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before to a cameo from Jose Maldonado, lead singer of the Smiths/Morrissey tribute band Sweet and Tender Hooligans punctuate the film. From the names Sheila (allowing a chance to hear Sheila Take a Bow) to Patrick (which is Morrissey's middle name), Smith fans will get many Easter eggs that will delight them. The world of Shoplifters of the World is one where this group can quote Morrissey as regular conversation, a point I'll return to in a bit.

The emotions and devotion "Morrissey and the Mopey Mopes" as Mickey calls them is something few bands evoke, and Shoplifters of the World shows a time when Morrissey and Marr were thought to hold all the answers to life's deep questions. Writer/director Stephen Kijak clearly means for Shoplifters of the World to be a light affair, starting from the opening tagline "Based on true intentions". He is fond of the characters, who find themselves at the crossroads of where to let their lives go. 

Out of the cast, Manganiello is the best, perhaps because he is the only one of the main cast to actually remember The Smiths. He has some of the best quips in the film as the dismissive yet surprisingly open Mickey. He is able to grow as he realizes that like Morrissey Mickey too believes Meat is Murder. That Manganiello and Mickey is old enough to be the other castmembers father allows him to speak an important truth.

"One day your heroes are going to grow old...say stupid things that betray the past," he tells Dean. He sees, unlike our young people, that things have to change, that bands break up, and that nothing can remain eternal. It is also a tacit acknowledgment that the man who still sings Margaret on the Guillotine now is associated with politics further to the Right of Thatcher.

Essentially, Shoplifters of the World is two stories that meld in the end: Dean/Mickey and Cleo, Patrick, Sheila and Billy. As such, Ellar does some of his best work playing against Manganiello, showing Dean's vulnerability. The other castmembers are mostly good, though at times the script forces them to be a bit false. 

Howard is generally weak as Cleo, trying too hard to be this rebellious girl who is desperate to get out of the backwater of Denver. It doesn't help her when she has to speak such lines as "Old enough to join Reagan's Army" when they are asked how old Billy is.

It's a case of both gilding the lily with their "I'm NOT an evil conservative" creds and it sounds forced and false. However, to her credit Howard does have a good moment in a monologue where she condemns the Molly Ringwald character in Pretty in Pink, so there is promise there. Kampouris too struggles at times with Sheila, for one is not sure if she is a genuine fan or just goes along with it to please her celibate boyfriend, who himself is not-so-vaguely gay. Given his general avoidance of sex and manner, is it really so strange to see Patrick finally making out with an older man when they crash a gay bar? 

Krause and Bloor were better as the potentially bisexuals Billy and Patrick. Whether Billy is bisexual given he too appears in love with Cleo is a bit unclear however. Bloor does make Patrick a bit of a sad sack who struggles with life. Good not great work.

Shoplifters of the World at times tries too hard, such as when the characters attempt to use Smiths lyrics as dialogue. That doesn't come across as genuine. It also indulges a bit too much in 1980s nostalgia with appearances by Siouxsie Chu (Celia Au), a Cure frontman Robert Smith lookalike and a drag Grace Jones bouncer. I also am puzzled why the film didn't feature any note of the fierce Mexican-American fanbase, especially for a film that's set in Colorado.  

However, the film is a pleasant romp through the Mad World of Morrissey and Marr. If you love The Smiths, you won't be miserable now with Shoplifters of the World.   


Friday, March 19, 2021

The Trial of the Chicago 7: A Review


In these heady days where every Antifa or Black Lives Matter protester dreams of being the next great revolutionary, perhaps it is no surprise that people look back in nostalgia at the tumult the United States faced in another election year: 1968. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is well-acted, well-written and exceptionally laudatory towards the seven defendants. 

A year after the 1968 Chicago Democratic Party Convention erupted in violent protests, the Nixon Administration decides to charge nine men with conspiracy to incite a riot. The lead prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) insists that the case is unwinnable because there is no case, but the Administration insists the case must go on.

The trial gathers a motley crew that is essentially four groups. There is the Respectable Revolutionary duo of Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), who are committed to progressive politics via elections. There is the Counterculture Clowns of Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) who enjoy the theatrical nature of mocking the Establishment. There's David Dellinger (John Carrol Lynch), the square peacenik who looks like the Establishment but whose antiwar, nonviolent beliefs border on fanatical. There's Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the lone black man who is affiliated with the Black Panthers.

There's also John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), whom judging from the film are like the description Young Mr. Grace from Are You Being Served? gave Mr. Rumbold when the latter protested he hadn't been featured in a This is Your Life-type tribute to his boss. "I expect you were probably too boring".

Under the court of the eccentric Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who at times seems openly hostile to the defendants, at other times genuinely senile if not flat-out bonkers, the trial becomes part-circus, part-protest. Defense attorneys William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Wineglass (Ben Shenkman) keep coming up with roadblocks from both Hoffmans in terms of their distinct behaviors. As the case continues we get the backstory of the demonstrations, ones involving Chicago Police informants masquerading as love interests, grammatical errors that led to wholesale violence, and overall loopyness. At the end, we learn the various fates of the most important characters, which range from elected office to suicides.

The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, is squarely on the defendants side in the same way Judge Hoffman was on the prosecution's side. You have in the film a sharp split between the overtly antagonistic Hoffman/Rubin, who treat this "political trial" as a farce and the equally radical but more square-like Hayden/Davis, who also think the trial is a farce but are more observant of norms. The yin and yang is primarily Hoffman and Hayden, as in the film Davis comes across as essentially a radical nerd and Rubin an early version of Cheech & Chong.

At times Rubin seems so thoroughly whacked-out it's a wonder he can function. When talking to Schultz, Rubin appears convinced the female undercover cop and he were on the cusp of a genuine affair. He seems more distressed that he was dumped than that he was duped, and it's debatable if Rubin is actually aware that he was duped or aware of anything resembling reality.

This is as close to an insight into the men that we get, and it's not much of one. Essentially, their manner is their defining trait: buttoned up (Hayden/Davis), clowns (Hoffman/Rubin), the older man who blends between them (Dellinger), the angry black man (Seale) and "the rest" (Froines/Weiner). Their motivations, their joint radicalism, their fiery antiwar views, exist but The Trial of the Chicago 7 seems more a portrait of conflicting behaviors than a group of men united by their rage at a system they see as awry.

Historical accuracy aside, The Trial of the Chicago 7 also goes a bit overboard at times. There's a very romantic vision of Grant Park protests, with happy hippies singing while some burn their draft cards and others their bras. Having swelling music as Hayden reads off a list of troops killed in Vietnam as their trial dragged to 151 days was a touch too much, drenching the film in faux-inspiration that I think would be criticized in other films regardless of topic.

I can't fault The Trial of the Chicago 7 for being well-acted as it is. Of the ensemble cast, I would put both Hoffmans at the top. Langella's Judge Hoffman was in turns arrogant and oddball, where one didn't know whether he was merely hostile to these crazed individuals or crazy himself. Cohen's Abbie Hoffman is a clown but a thinking one, taking on a generally mocking tone towards everything but unlike the drugged-out Rubin aware of things. 

Other performances, such as Rylance, were equally strong. Rylance's Kunstler not only kept to the defense attorney's voice but also showed him to be the rare adult in the room.

The weaker performances were Redmayne and Gordon-Levitt. With regards to the latter, I never believed he was Schultz, a man who knew he had no case but decided to try and win. Instead, I saw Joseph Gordon-Levitt, not Richard Schultz. I can't say whether Redmayne's nasally voice mirrored Hayden's, but he struck me as more interested in the mechanics of his performance than in the character himself. To be fair, this is common for Redmayne, but there it is.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 also has a surprising bad closing song, Hear My Voice, that I found grating both in terms of lyrics and singing.

I waver a bit on The Trial of the Chicago 7, but that swelling music at the end was what turned me against the film. That and the fact that I found myself mostly siding with the prosecution, which I don't think was the intended result. It's good not great but not something I would rush to see.


Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Father (2020): A Review


The Father is a quiet, moving film about one man's slow decay into dementia. It plays with the audience, perhaps a bit too cleverly, but with two standout performances The Father envelops you in its tale about the burden of mental disintegration for both the afflicted and those around them.

Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is convinced that he does not need a caregiver, while his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) is. Anthony also won't leave his flat (apartment) and give up his independent retired life. It would mean not just losing his freedom but also the painting his other daughter Lucy made for him. He wishes Lucy, whom he openly prefers over the fussy Anne, would visit.

Things, however, soon start taking bizarre turns. Anthony sees strange men in his flat, both claiming to be Anne's husband Paul. He also briefly sees another woman as Anne, and while he likes Laura (Imogene Poots), she reminds me greatly of Lucy. The man who most of the time is Paul (Rufus Sewell) consistently urges Anne to put her father in a home, but Anne keeps resisting. 

Ultimately though, we find that the blending of reality and fiction gives us what perhaps we should already know: that Anthony's dementia is such that things are not as he thinks, and that while he knows the truth about everything things have gotten so muddled the various bits and pieces are melded into a tragic jumble.

The Father never completely loses its theatrical roots, though to his credit Florian Zeller never makes it look like a filmed play. Zeller, who wrote the play The Father is based on and cowrote the screenplay with Christopher Hampton, makes The Father a bit of a mystery by introducing these strange situations. Of particular note is when "The Man" (Mark Gatiss) appears, insisting that the flat is really his and his wife Anne's flat, not Anthony's. 

Other directors and adaptations might have played this for some kind of gimmick, a twist that makes things a bit opaque. Here however, it is the first hint that Anthony's dementia may be more pronounced than he or the audience is aware. It allows us to see things through his mind without having to delve into it or have outside explanations. Zeller manages the balance between the mystery and tragedy of Anthony's situation, making the final moments all the more emotionally impactful.

That impact is carried by the two main performances. For better or worse, once actors get to a certain age they find themselves playing people with diminishing capacities. Sometimes played for laughs, sometimes for tears, it seems almost inevitable for older actors to reflect the circumstances many in their age group face. Sir Anthony Hopkins at 83 has reached such an age, and his Anthony is a tour de force performance.

His Anthony is not dotty or funny, but a man attempting to make sense of a world that is slipping from his grasp. At times almost jolly (his impromptu tap dance almost makes one chuckle) at times terrifying (Paul slapping a terribly distressed Anthony), one just feels for this good, ordinary man who is aware of something amiss but cannot sort it out fully, even when the truth is quietly but firmly presented.

He is equaled by Colman as Anne, who with just a glance communicates the push-and-pull she faces. Whether it's enduring Anthony's casual comparisons to Lucy or Paul's more aggressive push to put her father away, Colman shows Anne's visible anxiety about the tough situation she faces with no real support.

As a side note, I figured what the truth about Lucy was, so it shouldn't be a surprise.

The other supporting cast of Poots, Sewell and Olivia Williams as "The Woman" whom Anthony sees as others also did fine work. If there is a flaw it is Gatiss, who didn't quite blend in as well and whose ultimate reveal didn't really suggest as to why he played that much of a role in Anthony's confused mind. The Father also has a strong, mournful Ludovico Einaudi score that while sparing adds to the tragic nature of the situation.

The Father is a fine film, showing the tragedy of dementia affects more than just the one afflicted with that. Again people might come away thinking the folding of truth and illusion may be playing fast and loose with things, and the film is not completely free of its stage roots. On the whole though, the well-acted and directed The Father moves well towards its inevitable and heartbreaking end. 

"Who exactly am I?", Anthony asks. It's a question that tears at him and the audience. It's easy to like Anthony and sympathize with Anne. It's a hard film to watch but a deeply moving one. 


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Chaos Walking: A Review


Sometimes what works on paper simply does not translate visually. Chaos Walking, the first of a young adult book trilogy, is one such example. Poor visual effects, dull leads and at times a nonsensical story scuttle any hope for adapting the other two novels into what I figure was a hoped-for cinematic project.

In 2057 AD there is a community of only men on an Earth colony called New World. Here, the men's thoughts, memories and fantasies are visible to all. The youngest man in the community of Prentiss Town, Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) finds controlling what is called "The Noise" impossible. "Hide/Control your noise," he keeps telling himself with no success. 

More successful is Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), who is able to shield his thoughts from everyone, even his son Davy, Jr. (Nick Jonas). Todd has resigned himself to outliving the world he knows, until a stranger comes his way. 

It takes nearly 50 minutes to learn her name: Viola (Daisy Ridley), a young woman part of an expedition to bring new settlers to New World. Her ship crashed, and Todd is astonished to find a female. Worse, on New World female thoughts cannot be read.

Insert your own jokes here.

Mayor Prentiss and the crazed Preacher Aaron (David Oyelowo) want "Yellow Hair" or "Space-girl" killed for separate reasons (I did mention it takes almost an hour to learn her name). Todd's two adoptive fathers Cillian (Kurt Sutter) and Ben (Demian Bichir) urge him to take her to another community for safety, but the crazed menfolk are determined to make all-out war to stop them. Todd learns the shocking truth about why there are no women in Prentiss Town, and now he and Viola race to save themselves and the incoming settlers.

One cannot blame the failure of Chaos Walking to its adaptation. One of the credited screenwriters is Patrick Ness, upon whose novel The Knife of Never Letting Go the film was based on (Christopher Ford being the other screenwriter). One therefore can imagine that Ness had at least some say in how his story was shaped, but Chaos Walking does not suggest he is a good writer.

Chaos Walking has, at least to me, elements from Beneath Planet of the Apes, The Maze Runner and even Children of Men. You have the isolated community where people can communicate with just their minds (Beneath Planet of the Apes). There's the isolated men-only community where the appearance of a female brings chaos, exploration of the outside and a hunky male lead (The Maze Runner). Finally, you have a hope of new life via a hereto unknown community on what appears a dead world (Children of Men). 

As a side note, it does not help that Ness also created and wrote the Doctor Who spinoff Class, a disastrous YA effort that went nowhere. I bring this up because Chaos Walking, like Class, can be read as another effort at muddled allegory that ends up looking at best confusing at worst idiotic. 

There's a great deal in Chaos Walking that doesn't make sense. These men can see and hear each others' thoughts but couldn't hear either the sonic boom from Viola's spaceship or the crash? She had time to bury her crewmates, so how long was she actually on New World before she was found out? Other communities know of Prentiss Town so why does Todd appear the only person on New World to not know there is life outside? How is it that Todd continues to keep thinking out loud when he could easily just use actual words? Todd has never seen a female yet quickly fantasizes a kiss and erotic fascination? 

As another side note, while we learn the Prentiss Town men killed the women due to their anger or hatred or resentment that the women could hear their thoughts, what exactly did they do when an erotic desire swept in? I'm no expert in sexual studies, but I figure even the Prentiss Town community had urges that they'd want met. Fortunately or not, we'd never get to see a Nick Jonas/Tom Holland sex scene where they'd unleash their carnal desires with the only outlet available. That does lead to a somewhat confusing element involving Todd's two dads. Were they just friends, or friends with benefits, or lovers, or soulmates? 

All those sorts of questions won't be answered, as Chaos Walking ends up confused about itself, and no that's not some kind of pun.

The small audience who saw the film with me found a lot of it funny, though I don't think it was meant to elicit laughs. Most of the unintended humor came from Holland, or rather Todd's massive idiocy. He's thick as a plank, and it was his thoughts that caused the laughter. Everything from his nicknames of "Yellow Hair" and "Space-Girl" to such thoughts as "I like her hair. She's pretty" made people laugh out loud. While we did have the obligatory shirtless shot for Holland, the oddity of him stripping off in front of her but insisting on bathing fully clothed was another sign of how confused this is.

Was he so naïve that he was unaware of the differences between men and women? If so, why then can he figure out kissing so quickly? Holland is a good actor: his performance in The Impossible testifies to his abilities. However, ever since he became Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Holland has apparently carved a niche in playing idiots, and Chaos Walking continues that tradition.

Him looking like he's wearing a trash bag does not help.

Ridley looks bored through it all, as if desperate to get out of both New World and Chaos Walking. She and Holland have little chemistry to where the idea anyone would want to see three films of Todd and Viola seems almost unhinged. Jonas, desperately working to build up a film career to coincide with a musical one, to his credit wasn't on screen long enough to embarrass himself. To be fair, his character had nothing to do, so much so that after Mayor Prentiss meets his comeuppance Davy, Jr. pretty much disappears. Bichir and Mikkelsen too decide to slum it and take the cash.

Oyelowo went the opposite route, going so bat-crazy with his Preacher it went into an almost spoof of "crazed preacher".  Whether he just went crazy or was already crazy to begin with is another element that will not be answered. The film was also a waste of Cynthia Erivo as the distant community's Mayor. Whether the counterpoint between "crazed white man" and "rational black woman" as competing Mayors was intention or not I can't say, but the opening is there if one wants to see it that way.

Chaos Walking was also brought down by lousy visual effects. Everything from the thoughts that appear to their one encounter with a Spackle, the native inhabitants of New World, looked bad. About the only thing of note is Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts' score, and even that wasn't memorable once you finish the film.

With all that said however, I found Chaos Walking a delightful disaster, almost a "so bad it's good" type. Maybe in the books the whole scenario works better, but in the film it looks like there wasn't much thought into things. 


Monday, March 8, 2021

Minari: A Review (Review #1466)


Minari is a quiet film, sometimes to its detriment. However, in its simple, no-frills story of quiet strength and endurance despite the struggles around the characters, Minari draws you in.

Korean immigrants Jacob and Monica Yi (Steven Yeun and Yeri Han) move from California to Arkansas with their children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim). Despite Monica's fierce misgivings, Jacob sees an opportunity to enter the Korean food market by growing Korean fruits and vegetables to sell in Dallas. He and Monica will pay for their new farm by working at a local chicken harvesting plant to sort out baby chicks.

Monica is especially concerned for David, who has a heart condition. As the Yis attempt to acclimate to Arkansas, they find they need help with the children. Enter from Korea Monica's mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), whom David takes an instant dislike to, insisting she does not look or behave like a real (read: American) grandmother.

Soon, however, Grandma wins David over, and unlike the others believes he is not the weakling he's encouraged to be. He helps her plant minari, but this is the rare bright spot in the Yi household. Jacob's stubbornness about water brings a great crisis to the family, as does Grandma's sudden stroke. Things ebb and flow between triumph and tragedy, where the Yi's marriage is sorely tested. Ultimately though, the Yis are now going to integrate into this new world, even if it means bringing a water diviner to locate new sources to grow Jacob's crops.

Minari is a very quiet film, from its performances to Emile Mosseri's score. Even at what could be considered its somewhat shocking climax there isn't a big push for drama. There are no thunderous performances or bombastic music to pound the distressing situation the Yis now face. The loudest performance, for lack of a better word, is Will Patton as Paul, an eccentric figure who helps Jacob and carries a cross on Sundays to deepen his faith. Even he though is not loud, merely a bit off-kilter.

Writer/director Lee Isaac Chung creates an almost documentary-like manner with Minari, foregoing big dramatic moments for quiet, simple scenes of family life. The Yis are a pretty insular family. We do meet another Korean woman at the chick sorting facility who is friendly with Monica, but the few scenes of the Yis interacting with people are with their Southern neighbors. 

Chung also resists the temptation to make whatever culture clashes the Yis encounter either the center of the story or one filled with hostility. On the contrary, the Yis get genuine Southern hospitality. Only David's eventual friend Johnny (Jacob Wade) says anything close to racist, asking David why his face is so flat. This, however, is not done out of malevolent intent but more out of plain curiosity. It should be noted that as American children of immigrants Anne and David speak English and Korean fluently. Even Grandma picks up a few English words.

The performances in Minari are all universally excellent. Yeun's Jacob is a driven but not hostile man, one who wants to be successful both for his children and himself. This drive to succeed does blind him to his family's need for a father and husband, but we know his heart is in the right place. Han's Monica is not silent but reserved, one who does express her frustrations and fears but who also fears for her family. 

Alan S. Kim is delightful and charming as David, playing him as direct but generally not malicious. Even when he serves Grandma a surprising drink and not the "mountain water" (their code for Mountain Dew) she thought it was, we see he was more naughty than monstrous. The interplay between him and Youn works so well. Cho sadly was a bit lost in the shuffle and at times comes across as a bit blank but in her defense Anne at times seems an afterthought. 

The clear standout is Youn as Grandma. She is delightful, loving and caring for David, aware that he can do more than even he thinks. She has common sense, such as when chiding Monica when she breaks down over gifts Soon-ja brought her daughter. "You're crying, over anchovies?" she asks. At times she is a bit oblivious, such as when she mishears David's complaint that she isn't like a real Grandma by saying, "You like Grandma? Thank you", but throughout her scenes we see a wise, caring woman. Youn's Grandma is the type we either were blessed with or wish we had.

Again though sometimes the quiet nature of Minari works against it. Sometimes the children seem blank to catatonic, particularly when seeing Grandma in her stroke-stricken condition. They show little panic or worry and not much puzzlement. Even at the climatic scene there is a slight remoteness that I found a bit hard to believe. Granted, this is a minor issue, but it does remove me slightly from the situation. 

Minari is a true immigrant story and an uniquely American one too. With beautiful performances and a simple story it will win over audiences who either can relate to this story or maybe even lived aspects of it.


Saturday, March 6, 2021

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. A Review (Review #1465)


Some things, perhaps, were doomed from the beginning. 

After The Last Jedi, director J.J. Abrams had a nearly insurmountable difficulty with The Rise of Skywalker, the concluding episode to the now-nine episode Star Wars saga. He was essentially asked to recon a reboot that had already established so much in the Star Wars mythos that Star Wars fans hated. Add to that attempting to integrate a major character whose actress had died before she could return and Abrams perhaps found the whole thing simply too much.  The Rise of Skywalker is anything but, a muddled, boring mess that leaps about from one point to another but has nothing to thrill or excite.

The Resistance and the First Order are now on the hunt for each other, with Jedi trainee Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) continuing their efforts to lure the other into the Light or Dark Side. Kylo Ren has a surprising ally: the formerly late Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who has secretly created a massive fleet to wipe out the Resistance once and for all.

The Emperor has a special reason to find Rey, but it is not to kill her. It is to enthrone her as the new Empress, for we learn that Rey is the Emperor's granddaughter! None of this is known to Rey or her Resistance friends: dashing fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) or Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotano). They, along with Rey, are in search of a Sith Wayfinder to find Exogol, the hidden world of the Sith.

The war continues with a secret Resistance spy in the First Order, and General Leia (Carrie Fisher) making the ultimate sacrifice to bring Kylo Ren back to being her son, Ben. Now redeemed to the Light, Ben and Rey form something of an alliance as she confronts her grandfather on Exegol. She manages to send her location to the Resistance, and all have a final battle for the future of the galaxy far, far away.

The Rise of Skywalker answers the question 'Can a company spend an estimated $275 million only to end up saying nothing'?  Four people are credited with the story, including credited screenwriters director Abrams and Chris Terrio, but I think many more hands were involved. Even if one were generous and said only four people created Rise of Skywalker, it would still be a hopeless mess.

The film skips and leaps from one world to another with nary rhyme or reason. So much is left out or unexplained you genuinely wonder if Abrams and Disney literally were making it up as they went along. On the planet Pasaana as it looks like the Resistance fighters were about to die, Finn desperately wants to tell Rey something. Twice he is asked what he wanted to tell her, and twice he demurs. It's lazy to bring up something only to never resolve it.

General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) turns out to be the Resistance spy because...reasons. His only answer to why he is helping them is "I don't care if you win. I need Kylo Ren to lose", but again as to whether this is genuine concern for the future of the galaxy or a petty revenge is something for fanfic. As to how Rey ended up the Emperor's granddaughter when The Last Jedi established there was nothing special about her, well, I guess fans needed some grand explanation as to why she was so important.

How the Emperor managed to survive The Return of the Jedi and build up this massive fleet, well, reasons. Exactly who would want to have sex with the Emperor or who ended up having him as a Baby Daddy is for, I'm not exactly sure.

Again and again, Rise of Skywalker throws things in and asks questions that are never answered, teasing things that might have been more interesting than what we ended up with. There's Zorii (Keri Russell) a criminal with whom Poe has a past. She's a convenient plot device to get them out of jams as well as a way to abolish the queerbaiting between Poe and Finn. She is given such a limited screentime however that her character was also shortchanged.

Same with Jannah (Naomi Ackie), a former Stormtrooper turned Resistance warrior. She was unofficially paired off with Finn, but like Zorii and Poe they had zero chemistry and was there to just help.

The divisive Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) was almost a cameo. Other tiny performances veered on comical. I imagine Greg Grunberg must have gotten a nice paycheck out of essentially doing nothing but standing around arms akimbo, occasionally speaking. Dominic Monaghan added nothing to the proceedings but acted as if all of this were so serious and important it slipped into spoof. Both Gleeson and Richard E. Grant as Allegiant General Pryde were hopelessly hammy, signaling they were fully aware of how awful all this was and not bothering to act. Grant in particular was hilariously awful, so much so that I actually started laughing every time he attempted to appear evil and menacing.

Fortunately for all of them, they weren't on screen long enough to completely humiliate themselves. 

As for the main cast, I think Driver is the only one who not only made a genuine effort to take all this seriously but made it work. It is by now impossible for me to think of Kylo Ren as anything other than "Emo Vader", but Driver does work hard at trying to make the conflict between Ben Solo and Kylo Ren plausible. 

Everyone else flounders.  Ridley looks unenthusiastic about things, Isaac plays him like a watered-down Harrison Ford as Han Solo (which to be fair, Poe Dameron essentially is) and Boyega can't seem to decide if he's heroic or bumbling. Again, to be fair to Boyega at least I put that more on Abrams as director than Boyega as actor, but it doesn't help any. 

One feels for the late Fisher, who died before production could begin. They did as good a job as they could inserting unused footage to include her in the film and that aspect flowed generally well. One should cut them some slack for doing the best they could with regards to Fisher under very difficult circumstances.

The Rise of Skywalker rushes from one thing to another, throwing a lot at the audience but saying nothing. It simultaneously wanted to be fan service (such as the inclusion of Billy Dee Williams' reprising his role of Lando Calrissian) and move the overall story forward. However, it simply was trying too much for it to hold. 

The Rise of Skywalker is a poor way to end this massive saga, but one hopes it is the end. No rise has ever fallen so hard.