Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Murder Made Me Famous: Aaron Hernandez. The Reelz Television Program



Perhaps because the series is titled Murder Made Me Famous, one should not quibble about how, technically, Aaron Hernandez was already famous before his arrest for the murder of Odin Lloyd. The last foray into Reelz's obsession with the late New England Patriot tight end, Murder Made Me Famous: Aaron Hernandez gives us a few more details on this most tragic of cases. 

Murder Made Me Famous follows the series' format of reenactments with interviews. With soft yet effective if at times overdramatic narration by Brad Osborne, we go through the sordid details. We start with Hernandez's arrest at age 23, then go down through his early years. We see Aaron's violent and volcanic rage would burst out without warning or explanation. 

As we continue down the dark paths Hernandez took, we get some surprising details and actual and shocking crime photos. For example, we learn of Hernandez's psychological profile, which is damning in its evaluation of his poor self-esteem and violent tendencies. We also learn how an anonymous tip led police to find the car tying him to Lloyd's murder. A more surprising revelation is of the three suicide notes Hernandez left. One was to his longtime girlfriend Shayana Jenkins, one to his daughter and one to someone who has yet to be identified.

It is highly unlikely that the third note was to Kyle Kennedy, Hernandez's purported jailhouse lover. Hernandez's suicide closed the case, but not the collateral damage. 

Murder Made Me Famous has reenactments as part of its storytelling, and David Garcia did a good job as the disgraced former football star. Garcia brought Hernandez's anger and drug use effectively, though I do not remember if we ever saw him in any other light (say, a tender moment with either Jenkins or his daughter). 

One curious element was in how when discussing his fascination with thug life while at the University of Florida, we see Garcia as Hernandez posing with his weapon, but do not see the actual picture. Was there a picture? Given how we were shown the crime photos of Lloyd, it seems curious to not see this particular photo.

The interviews give interesting insight into both Hernandez and the myriad of murders he was tied to. His childhood friend Jerome Hardy continues to stay loyal to Hernandez. If memory serves correct, he is troubled by the crimes but also remembered Hernandez in a more positive light. Ben Volin, the senior NFL reporter for the Boston Globe, expressed that after this case, he was cynical about redemption stories. 

Perhaps the best comment is made by lawyer Douglas Sheff, who again if memory serves represented the Lloyd family. "It'll be a good day when the media remembers the name Odin Lloyd and can forget the name Aaron Hernandez", he comments in the opening to Murder Made Me Famous. Here, he captures the lost truth in the many Reelz and non-Reelz stories that recount this most shocking tale.

For all the ideas of "wasted opportunities" that Hernandez failed to live up to because of his own demons and bankrupt morality, there are many people whose lives are permanently ruined thanks to him. Alexander Bradley, his frenemy who testified against him after Hernandez shot him in the eye and left him for dead. Shayana Jenkins and their daughter, now without a father with a tainted past. Finally, Odin Lloyd and his family. 

We can now close out the seeming glut of Aaron Hernandez-related television documentaries and true crime shows. Murder Made Me Famous: Aaron Hernadez tells its story well, if perhaps a bit too dramatically. Still, it is worth watching for those interested in this sad, so very sad, tale. 


Monday, May 29, 2023

The Little Mermaid (2023): A Review (Review #1717)



If one believes some of the talk surrounding the live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid, one might see it either as a step forward in representation or a shameless pandering to modern audiences. As is the case in real life, the truth falls somewhere in the middle. Neither an improvement nor a disaster, The Little Mermaid is just there.

Ariel (Halle Bailey), rebellious teen daughter of Sea King Triton (Javier Bardem) dreams of what life is like on the surface. She in particular dreams of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), heir to an unnamed Caribbean island kingdom whom she saved from drowning. Triton is displeased by Ariel's fascination with humans and attempts to prevent more surface visits by assigning his loyal crab, Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to watch her.

Sebastian, though, is powerless to stop her from going to her exiled aunt, the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), for help. Ursula creates a spell to make Ariel human for three days, where she can go to the surface freely. If she and Eric kiss with the kiss of true love before the sun sets on the third day, Ariel will remain human forever. If they do not, Ariel returns to being a mermaid and belongs to Ursula.

Ariel cannot rely on her voice, the price for the spell. As such, she cannot speak or sing to Eric, but he's enchanted with this girl nonetheless. The sea witch, however, has a few tricks up her own sleeve in this master plan to take over the oceans, with Ariel as her pawn. Will Eric Kiss the Girl in time? Will Ariel truly become Part of Your World

In another post, I shall compare the 1989 animated version with its 2023 live action adaptation. It is, however, difficult not to because the 2023 adaptation adheres so closely to the 1989 version that it all but prods us to. One major difference is length. While the animated version, minus the closing credits, runs a mere 78 minutes, this adaptation runs 125 minutes.

That is 47 additional minutes to the film, mostly due to three original songs cowritten by the animated version's original composer Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda taking the place of the late Howard Ashman. We get one song for Eric (Wild Uncharted Waters), one new song for Ariel (For the First Time), and perhaps most infamously, a rap number for Diggs and Awkwafina as the norther gannet Scuttle.

The Scuttlebutt is a painful, almost unintelligible number that, while only two minutes long, is something that should have been cut out altogether. This seems more the handiwork of Miranda, who has constantly worked to merge Broadway to hip-hop with varying degrees of success. It really has no purpose in The Little Mermaid. It doesn't advance the plot or express emotion. Moreover, even if it did, it is difficult to make out what is actually being rapped. Add to that Awkwafina's scratchy vocals and you get the most useless number in the film. 

As a side note, those awful quacking sounds Awkwafina throws at us are a result of Skuttle apparently trying to "set the mood" for Ariel and Eric by simulating what appears to be porn music. 

Bow-chicka-waw-waw. Certainly a far cry from when the animated version's Scuttle tried to "set the mood" by sampling a little Tchaikovsky (specifically the Love Theme to Romeo & Juliet). I do not know if parents, if they recognize Scuttle 2023's version of "mood music" will find it funny or horrifying, but there it is.

Prince Eric gets more screentime here, and as mentioned his own solo number, Wild Uncharted Waters. The backstory of his relationship with his adopted mother the Queen (Noma Dumezweni) gets a curious amount of attention in The Little Mermaid, which again lengthens the film. Wild Uncharted Waters is the most "Broadway" of the new songs: big, bombastic and grandiose. While delivered well by Hauer-King, Wild Uncharted Waters is of no importance to the plot (there is a reason why Eric got no solo number to begin with). 

As a side note, I do not know why we needed the strong suggestion that Eric was not the Queen and late King's biological son. Mention is made of when he was "taken in" and "raised as one of their own". I do not know the motivation behind this unexplored plot point.

The third new song, For the First Time, is not a bad song but not a great song either. I would argue that it is technically cheating, as it is sung in Ariel's mind and at one point, sung out loud albeit in a dream-like manner. 

In a curious turn, we get a dance number in this island kingdom with the citizens, Ariel and Eric before they take to Kiss the Girl (which did have the lyrics changed from the original Oscar-nominated song). It seems curious to include just dancing but no singing here. 

The recreation of the 1989 songbook do not fare better. To be fair, Bailey delivers Part of Your World beautifully. I cannot say the same for Under the Sea or Poor Unfortunate Souls. In the former, it was OK but not magical, not full of life. Again, at least it is the brightest number, bright in the "you can see" way. Poor Unfortunate Souls keeps to the dark visuals in The Little Mermaid, but despite McCarthy's best efforts there is not a mix of menace and mirth in it.

When I think of the overall performances, the best one goes to the new Ariel. Halle Bailey is charming and pleasant as our lovelorn sea-creature. She has a lovely voice that gives beautiful interpretations of the songs she sings, old and new.

She also handles the non-singing elements well, if not as well as a more seasoned actress would. One should not be too harsh on Bailey given this is, if not strictly her film debut, her first major leading role.

McCarthy is someone who in my view attempted too hard to do an impersonation of the original's Pat Carroll. She was more comedic than gleefully wicked. This was not a dealbreaker but not something that made me believe she was a genuine threat.

Bardem was curiously disengaged from things, as if wondering how he ended up on the ocean floor after enduring the deserts of Dune. Hauer-King was neither good or bad, a bit of a milquetoast. Again, to be fair to him, Prince Eric was relegated to being almost the damsel in distress while Ariel saves the day, but that is more on David Magee's screenplay than on him.

Diggs' Sebastian was the same as Hauer-King: nothing original or unique. Awkwafina simply should not have been hired: a grating voice and poor line delivery makes for a struggle to hear and see. Jacob Tremblay's Flounder appropriately floundered, as he was barely in the film. It is strange that as long as The Little Mermaid is, Ariel's three animal companions were almost superfluous to the film. 

One more side note: I still think Flounder looks like a recovering meth addict. 

The Little Mermaid has Halle Bailey as perhaps the one major element that raises it from mediocrity. It's a heavy burden to place on her young shoulders but bless her for doing so. Less remake and more recreation, The Little Mermaid is just there. 


Thursday, May 25, 2023

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022): A Review



We are now well over a century away from the horrors of the trench wars. As such, we are divorced from the true carnage of the scarred battlefields of Europe as empires battled to the death to create a desert and call it peace. The latest adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front is, to my knowledge, the first time that Germans have made a film version of their inglorious defeat. Pity that they opted to shred the novel it is based on with a useless subplot.

As the Great War is coming to its third year, eager German student Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) enlists with his fellow classmates. Pumped up by rhetoric of victory, the students soon learn that war is hell. Moving eighteen months later, these youthful warriors now collect the dog tags of the dead. 

As they fight for the Fatherland, the German High Command begins negotiations for surrender. Leading these negotiations is Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl). The conditions are unconditional surrender from the French, something that the Germans are highly reluctant to accept. While they do, the mad German General Friedrichs (David Striesow) wants his nation's defeat to end on a high note: an attack just before the armistice takes place to claim a German victory. This means one last battle before the bitter end, one that will see one young German youth die right before the beginning of peace.

It is hard to give a review for All Quiet on the Western Front given that I have seen and highly admire the 1930 adaptation. Add to that how I have not read the Erich Maria Remarque novel. As such, I might be at a disadvantage in looking over this adaptation. However, if I looked at All Quiet on the Western Front just on what I saw, I would say that it is a bad film.

First, we have the issue of how director Edward Burger (adapting the novel with Lesley Patterson and Ian Skokell) jumped from Paul's brutal and harrowing war experiences to Erzberger's negotiations. Every time we came close to seeing the dehumanizing effects of war on youth, we have to go back to the dull Erzberger attempting to save face.

That Bruhl played Erzberger as this generally quiet, almost somnambulist figure does not make it better. 

The politics subplot robs All Quiet on the Western Front of any genuine impact. The story, oddly nominated for Adapted Screenplay in my opinion, should focus on these sad young men, robbed of their youth and lives for a useless cause. Instead, we get repeatedly interrupted with haughty Frenchmen telling pathetic Germans off. 

Another poor decision was to throw our doomed heroes in so late in the war. I wondered why these young men, so close to the end of the war, would join now. Yes, it could be part of a large and misguided sense of patriotism. However, part of me also thought that by now, stories of the horrors of the front would have filtered in, making the boys reluctant to go.

Since we do not really interact with or know the young men, the impact their deaths would have had is lost. Seeing them die brutal deaths is still sad, but I think we would have felt the losses more if we had gotten to know them.

Even in moments of genuine shock and horror, we are still kept at a distance. Paul and his mentor Kat (Albrecht Schuch) come upon a group of soldiers who died en masse due to removing their gas masks too soon. It is still horrifying to see that, but as filmed and directed by Berger, it is more clinical than impactful.

Curiously, sometimes the film was almost boring. Fellow trooper Kropp (Aaron Hilmer) speaks French and is able to squire pretty girls, but one wonders what about that is interesting. 

Volker Bertelmann's Oscar-winning score has been highly praised, but it consists mostly of humping three notes repeatedly. I do not know if Bertelmann's insistence of blaring the same three notes to full force is what convinced people that this was great music. It became incessant, grew to pompous and ended as irritating. It, to my mind, will rank among the worst pieces of music to win Best Original Score.

This is not to say that there All Quiet on the Western Front does not have some positives. James Friend's cinematography is visually arresting. There are some appropriately horrifying moments, such as at the final battle where rats and men on fire overwhelm the viewer. The sparseness of No Man's Land, the final night of war, the growing chaos are captured effectively and memorably. 

Still, I think on how All Quiet on the Western Front failed to be about the true horror of war. Instead, it was just there. Nature cares not for battles and dead men, and I ended up not caring about All Quiet on the Western Front


Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The Final Year: A Review (Review #1715)



There is something to be said about looking back. You can see how far you have come and how far you have yet to go. The Final Year covers the last full year of former President Barack Obama's term, specifically his foreign policy team. Less informative and more infomercial, The Final Year almost makes one delight in how the figures failed in their public roles.

The Final Year focuses on Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Ambassador Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes with occasional visits from National Security Advisor Susan Rice and former President Obama. With the Obama Administration clocking down, there is still so much to do. The team needs to bring peace to the Middle East, end climate change, visit foreign countries and continue to look on worshipfully upon President Obama. 

The Final Year became best known for inspiring a meme. Ben Rhodes, looking genuinely shell-shocked, can only look on in befuddlement and almost despair when the 2016 election results deliver a Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, victory. The Final Year, however, I think offers not so much an insider's view of the workings of the Obama White House so much as a reason why Mrs. Clinton lost.

So much of The Final Year comes across as controlled and manipulated. I am sure that director Greg Barker would insist that everything was spontaneous. From what I saw and remember, however, almost all the conversations and meetings sound like calculated speech versus actual conversations. It sounds almost scripted, as if the participants knew they were "being recorded for posterity". As such, a certain artifice soon comes into play. 

Some moments are cringe-inducing. To be fair, some of them are not the subjects' fault. In a May 2016 conference, Secretary Kerry meets what appears to be a Mozart cosplayer with whom he takes a selfie with. Other times, though, the actions and behavior of the foreign policy team comes across as curious. 

At one point, Rhodes is seen struggling to get into a vehicle with his backpack giving him difficulty in entering. Apparently, this high-ranking official with a major role in foreign affairs finds it difficult to manage his own bag, let alone think of taking it off before getting into his vehicle. He is clearly embarrassing himself in his klutziness. 

Rhodes has another oddball moment when he appears overcome with emotion when in Cuba. One is left puzzled why the faltering efforts at dethawing the last outpost of the Cold War would make him almost weepy. He seems disinterested in the long Castro record of human rights abuses, but being their man in Havana is something to make the viewer marvel at their realpolitik acumen.

Curiously, Rhodes is at the heart of a lot of curious The Final Year moments. He reports how his Muslim hijab-wearing assistant has been crying for days after the election. However, I do not remember hearing from her directly in an interview. A good opportunity was lost but given that The Final Year was about their laundry list of accomplishments, one couldn't stop to hear why she was more fearful of Donald Trump than of Boko Haram.

Seeing Ambassador Powers talk to victims of Boko Haram is one of the few human moments in The Final Year. It is a tough watch to see and hear their harrowing stories is a reminder of the tragedy others endure. Coming shortly after Secretary of State Kerry declared that climate change is a bigger threat than ISIS (also known as ISIL) is a bit strange. 

It is not as strange as suggesting that a New York Times Magazine profile of Rhodes is some sort of scandal because he said that the press literally knew nothing. 

As a side note, inadvertently or not, Ben Rhodes comes across as a bumbling idiot. 

A lot of The Final Year seems more like a promotional video for the Obama Administration than a chronicle of current crises. It does end on a good note, with the President touring the Acropolis and musing that visiting ancient sites gives him perspective about the present-day conditions. 

For anyone interested in the inner workings of the White House, I think they might get a better idea of what goes on by watching The West Wing than in The Final Year


Sunday, May 21, 2023

Fast X: A Review



How long has Vin Diesel been growling, "FAMILY!" in a franchise that rivals the Marvel Cinematic Universe for both length and self-importance? It has been twelve years since the original The Fast & The Furious spun its way into the hearts of many. I confess that I too have enjoyed the overt silliness of the Fast & Furious films, a franchise that long ago abandoned all logic or continuity. With Fast X (or Fast Ten if you like), we don't exactly go back-to-basics, but we do get something one can enjoy even if it still struggles to be good.

Our illegal street racers turned international superspies are given a surprise new assignment involving arms smuggling in Rome. This is the first assignment headed up by Roman (Tyrese Gibson), much to the chagrin of Tej (Christopher "Ludacris" Bridges), forever quipping about Roman's overall stupidity. Going along with them is tech guru Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Han (Sung Kang).

Not everything is as it seems though, for this whole "mission" was really a master rouse concocted by Dante Reyes (Jason Momoa), the hereto unknown son of Brazilian drug kingpin Hernan Reyes from Fast Five. Dante, as wild and flamboyant a villain outside of anyone residing at Arkham Asylum, has decided he will first torture Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his "FAMIILY!" before killing them as revenge. 

With Roman's crew and Dom now framed as international terrorists who attempted to blow up the Vatican, the various members of Dom's "FAMILY!" now have to work separately before working together. Uncle Jakob Toretto (John Cena) from F9 has to keep Dom's son Brian "Little B" Marcos (Leo Abelo Perry) safe from Dante and his goons. Roman and his crew have to join Jakob at the "rendezvous point", which requires the help of Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the ultimate frenemy. It also requires trips to Rio, where Dom meets Isabel (Daniela Melchior), sister of Dom's baby mama who has info on Dante. 

The Nobodies in the form of Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) and his sister Tess aka Little Miss Nobody (Brie Larson) help our racing superspies, while criminal mastermind Cypher (Charlize Theron) is also involved. Both the Nobodies and Cypher have to work with and against Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), desperate to get back to Dom and "FAMILY!". Despite the difficulties, things appear to be going well, but there is a mole in The Agency, one who throws things into chaos. Will Dom and Little B survive? Has Jakob really met a noble end? Will "FAMILY!" survive this newest super-villain? 

Tune in next year for the first of a two-part series finale.

What I found while watching Fast X is that essentially this is the Blue-Collar MCU. It is the working-class version of the world's longest and most expensive soap opera. It is a soap opera, a soap opera for gearheads and those who find superhero films too silly. If you cannot identify with visitors from other worlds or billionaire vigilantes, you can identify with auto mechanics and Cockney brawlers. 

This is better than F9, but that is like saying a roof falling on you is better than the floor falling underneath you (and for the record, we do get to see the latter here). At this point, there is nothing that the Fast & Furious franchise cares about, except perhaps for the "FAMILY!" talk (also for the record, I counted the word "FAMILY!" used 26 times, even in Spanish). 

Can Dom lift an entire car with just his arm strength? Sure. Can his son fly out of a car and straight onto Dom's? Why not? Can people hereto dead come back for more rounds? Absolutely. 

Fast X, at a nearly two-and-a-half hour running time, is bloated beyond anything it should be. To be fair, at least we get something of an introduction when we recap scenes from Fast Five where we can retroactively include Momoa's character. We also get tacit acknowledgment of the outrageousness of things. When Little Miss Nobody interacts with de facto Agency head Aimes (Alan Ritchson), he tells her, "If it violates the laws of God and gravity, they've violated it twice". He also refers to them as a "cult with cars", as pretty apt a description of the entire franchise as I can think of.

However, there are entire scenes and characters that can be cut out and should have been. Of particular note is Pete Davison's character when Roman and his team are in London. It serves no purpose storywise, continues in making Roman and Tej look stupid, and even a strange bit where Han gets high. It is just there, and it stops things cold. As nice as it was seeing Rita Moreno as "Abuelita" Torreto and Helen Mirren as Queenie, there was no point to them either. 

Fast X is filled with pointless and bizarre moments that almost taunt the audience in showing off how little writers Dan Mazeau and Justin Lin care about them. For reasons known only to them and director Louis Leterrier, when a SWAT-type team storms Deckard's hideout, they have a body bag with a person still alive. For reasons even more obscure, that person jumps out of the bag wearing nothing but his underwear and runs out. I figure this person has to be known to someone, but it just is strange even for this franchise. 

Less of a point was the odd transformation of Cena's Jakob. From what I remember from F9, Cena's Jakob Toretto was meant to be a menacing, dangerous figure. Now in Fast X, he's a goofball protecting his nephew and apparently meeting a noble end. It is impossible to reconcile how Jakob went from "evil villain" to Marky Mark rapping comic relief. Not that the idea that Jakob and Little B would fly out of a commercial flight on some kind of air pod made things any more rational.

There is only one performance in the entirety of Fast X, and it is Jason Momoa as Dante. The thing about his performance is that he is all camp, not bothering to try and ground this in any kind of reality. Perhaps he figured that because the Fast & Furious franchise is essentially a cartoon by now, he played Dante as the illegitimate child of Batman Forever's Two-Face. Gleefully, even manically over-the-top, Momoa clearly had a good time camping it up way past the Nth degree. He made Dante into an overt villain, one who just enjoys being evil and ratting off villain quips whenever he could.

As he plans to have his giant bomb roll down to the Vatican, he tells his henchmen, "You're going to bomb the Vatican, but you're all going to Hell". When he sees Jakob meet his apparent end, he tells Little B, "I guess Uncle Muscle won't be back for the next bar-b-que", though he quickly adds, "OK, it was honorable". 

Two side notes. First, given how Fast & Furious never keeps anyone really dead unless they are really dead, Uncle Jakob may end up at the next "FAMILY!" BBQ. Second, I was really hoping that the bomb rolling down the Spanish Steps would take out the four old ladies from Book Club: The Next Chapter

Momoa was clearly in on the joke (that the entire franchise is a joke). Everyone else either did not realize it is a joke and tried to be serious or realized it is a joke but couldn't be bothered to play it straight or silly. No one has ever accused Vin Diesel of being an actor (though I understand he tried to move past action star roles in Find Me Guilty). Here though, Diesel gave an abysmal stab at acting. Looking blank and sometimes confused, Diesel elicited almost sympathy. He also should have subtitles whenever he speaks. It does get hard trying to understand what he is saying.

Leo Abelo Perry as Brian "Little B" Toretto took acting lessons from Diesel, as he was equally blank and confused as the man playing his father. That is the only thing they have in common, for Perry looks nothing like either Dominic Toretto or Elsa Nieves (Elsa Pataky from Fast Five, killed in Fate of the Furious). Perry therefore was cast due to his total lack of acting ability, at least in this film. I do not like beating up on child actors, but Perry was horrendous.

He also bore no resemblance to his alleged parents, making things more bizarre. 

Gibson and Bridges continue to think they are their generation's Laurel and Hardy with the forced interplay between them. After so many movies, why can't either of them make the Roman/Tej relationship believable? Emmanuel is the only one who appears to play a rational, plausible person. Everyone else is there to cash a check and be part of an increasingly nonsensical franchise. Ritchson went overboard in being the extremely serious Aimes to where it was parody.

It is not worth going over the action scenes. They all defy believability. It is a contest to see which moments were the most ridiculous. Is it how Dom saved the Vatican thanks to a convenient crane? How about Dom and Little B riding down a dam with a major explosion behind them? The fight between Cypher and Letty, where the latter gets swung headfirst onto elevator doors and is no worse for wear? It couldn't be when Dom is able to drive so fast and so furious, he is able to hold not one but two helicopters from lifting his car. Not any more ridiculous than him taking his car floating from a flying plane onto two other cars on a major highway and landing them perfectly.

I suppose once you literally went into outer space in F9, there was no way to top that.

I cannot say that I hated Fast X. I cannot say either that I liked Fast X. It is stupid, but it is not stupid fun in the way something like Fast Five is (which in my view is the best in the series). In this working-class MCU, Fast X is just a long trailer for the series finale. 


Thursday, May 18, 2023

Book Club: The Next Chapter. A Review



As of this writing, the Writers Guild of America is on strike for among other things concerns about Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) writing scripts. I do not know why the WGA is so up in arms about this given that Book Club: The Next Chapter comes across as something written by A.I. Lazy, dumb, unfunny and cringe-inducing, The Next Chapter is one of if not the worst movie I have seen this year.

After their book club was forced online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our four friends finally get to see each other in person. Perfect timing, for slutty Vivian (Jane Fonda) has finally gotten engaged to her long-term boyfriend Arthur (Don Johnson). Sensing that fate is calling them, former restauranteur Carol (Mary Steenburgen) says that they are all meant to go to Italy for a bachelorette journey. The Alchemist suggests this trip, even if it means leaving Carol's husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) on his own, where he may not resist the temptations of bacon. Straightlaced Diane (Diane Keaton) who also has to leave her long-term boyfriend Mitchell (Andy Garcia) and now retired judge Sharon (Candice Bergen) reluctantly agree to go.  

Once in Italy, our gal-pals get into all sorts of hijinks. Random hookups! Puns! Wedding dresses montage! Pesky Italian policemen! Hot Italian policemen! Reencounters with old boyfriends! As the journey closes, we find that not everything goes according to plan, but with BFFs all around, Italy can be fun.

It is not unfair to compare Book Club: The Next Chapter with another "four old ladies go on a trip and go wild" film released a mere three months ago. Both this film and 80 for Brady have jokes about fanny packs. Both films have three Oscar winners and an Emmy winner in the cast. Both films have a dance sequence. Both films even have Jane Fonda playing a near nymphomaniac. 

There are some differences. One is set in Houston, the other in Italy. Calling the fanny pack a "waist wallet" and not a "strap-on" is the one element on which The Next Chapter is perhaps superior to 80 for Brady

80 for Brady, however, did not have a Mother Teresa sex joke. 

Director and cowriter Bill Holderman (writing with Erin Simms) should know these characters as they cowrote and directed the original Book Club. However, what ends up on the screen does not expand, I presume, any of these characters lives (to be fair, I never saw Book Club). In many ways, the characters come across as insane and inane. When, for example, one of the asks Vivian after she announces her engagement, "Do you have a date?", Vivian replies, "I think I'll go with Arthur". 

At that point, I did ask myself, "Senile or crazy?". The line could have come off as a joke playing on a pun, but the way Holderman directed Fonda (and how Fonda acted it out), one was not sure if Vivian understood what she was being asked. So much in The Next Chapter makes our Fab Four look incredibly stupid that it is a wonder their family members have not institutionalized them.

So much in The Next Chapter is downright idiotic and illogical. When in Rome, they are having dinner with Vincenzo (Francesco Serpico). Who is Vincenzo? Judging from The Next Chapter, he's some random cartoonist who just happens to be there. Why he is there, or what his purpose is in the scene, or how he ended up not just sitting there but interacting with these Americans the film does not bother explaining.

The Next Chapter does not bother explaining a lot of things. Near the end, the four women are stranded in Tuscany on their way to Florence. It is urgent that they get back because the other three women have smuggled Arthur in so that he and Vivian can have a surprise Italian wedding. 

Let us put aside for the moment that Vivian bizarrely thinks that the Italian policeman that comes upon them is really an Italian stripper. If Arthur is in Italy along with the other husbands, would they not have been alarmed that the women had failed to arrive in Florence when they were supposed to?

Exactly how much territory does the Police Chief (Giancarlo Giannini) cover? It is one thing to meet him twice in Venice (once when their luggage was stolen in Rome, once when he stops a boat where Sharon is hooking up with someone she just met). However, why is he arresting them when they are in Tuscany? 

As a side note, when Giannini first appears, I did something I have never done before: I literally said, "He's STILL alive?". 

I think that everyone involved in The Next Chapter knew it was garbage. All the actors could barely get the lines out, expressing no enthusiasm for the script they were given. There was a roteness in every performance, a sense that the dialogue was so bad it was not worth the effort. Even when clearly making jokes, the delivery bordered on bored. We are told they are going to see a bunch of naked men. Cut to ancient nude statues. As they stare, Sharon quips, "I think some of these guys were there at my last bachelorette party". The line itself could be funny IF it has any kind of edge. Instead, it is said in such a bored manner that it only emphasizes that it is a quip.

There are no performances in The Next Chapter. What there is instead is a chance for cast and crew to enjoy the beauty of Italy (the film ends with a montage of production stills that show how much fun everyone is having, even with masks). 

I am convinced that there must be a literal template for films like Book Club: The Next Chapter and 80 for Brady. It is simply impossible to believe that people got paid to make this movie, let alone be proud of it.


Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Hypnotic (2023): A Review


Some movies look good on paper but end up being disasters. Hypnotic is such a movie, where an intriguing idea ends up muddled to nonsensical because the people behind it were trying to be too clever.

Austin Detective Danny Rourke (Ben Affleck) is still haunted by the disappearance of his daughter Minnie. He still needs to work though, and his new case involves a series of bank robberies that now target the city of Austin. Rourke notices something strange about the potential mastermind: he appears to hypnotize everyone he comes across.

Rourke goes ahead with trying to stop the robbery, but when he goes to the targeted safety deposit box, he is stunned to find a picture of Minnie and a cryptic message: "Find Lev Dellrayne". He soon turns to psychic Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), who tells him that the mysterious Dellrayne (William Fitchner) is a powerful hypnotic, someone able to make people do anything he wants. Rourke, however, has a powerful block that prevents Dellrayne from taking his mind. 

Rourke and Cruz join forces to solve the myriad of mysteries, with Dellrayne in pursuit. From here, Hypnotic takes more twists and turns. I'll give the spoilers I remember; everything we have seen is in truth a simulation. Rourke himself is a hypnotic, who hid his own daughter from "The Division", a powerful shadowy organization bent on using the super-child Minnie for their own nefarious purposes. As things become more convoluted, we find that not even what we do see is what is.

Robert Rodriguez has had a checkered career. He's gone from the heights of El Mariachi to the depths of The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl. To be fair, I have faint memories of the former and never saw the latter. I think that Hypnotic has a good skeleton of a story (a crime drama with supernatural overtones) but it collapses onto itself when it tried to give us a "big twist". For the first third of the film, Hypnotic builds up an interesting premise. 

However, once we find out that Rourke is not only a hypnotic himself but that what we have seen up to that point is essentially a lie, you start stretching plausibility. Hypnotic seems almost obsessed with trying to be so clever and intricate that it ends up laughable. Drawing from other films such as Inception and The Matrix, Hypnotic makes no sense. 

If the Division knew Rourke was raised by foster parents, why did they not monitor their movements to see if Rourke would contact them? Given that Rourke and Vivian (Kelly Frye), his current wife? Ex-wife? Diana Cruz avatar? had conceived this super-child, why or how did they end up being the first super-hypnotic couple to procreate? It might have been one thing if neither knew that the other was hypnotic, but Hypnotic suggests that they did.

Some of the visual effects are cheap looking (the trains going over Rourke's head look like a theme park projection). A lot of Hypnotic could be forgiven, but Rodriguez and his cowriter Max Borenstein seemed more focused on showing how clever they are versus what is on the screen.

Hypnotic is almost universally badly acted. Though a fine director, Ben Affleck is not a good actor. Here, he is worse than usual. Looking bored (or confused), with a surprisingly odd growly voice, Affleck sleepwalks throughout the film. To be fair, the same cannot be said for Braga as Cruz, but that is not a compliment. She seems to overcompensate for Affleck's lack of interest by being too big. J.D. Pardo as Rourke's partner Nicks reminded me of Mark Ruffalo's character in Shutter Island (which Hypnotic seems to steal from too). 

Fitchner is the only one who seems to have saved himself from this debacle. He has a menace throughout the film, even if at times it does slip into camp. 

Hypnotic is enjoyable in a comically bad way. It is the type of film one can laugh at in the desperate efforts to be twisty and intricate. While I doubt Hypnotic will be the worst film of the year, it is highly likely to end up somewhere on many lists of the same. 


Thursday, May 4, 2023

Chevalier: A Review



In the rush to feature more "hidden figures" from world history, sometimes the subject him/herself can be interesting but his/her story ends up so dull as to wonder why anyone bothered to tell it. Such is the case with Chevalier, a biopic that takes what should be a tale brimming with fire and music and ends up discordant.

Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is the biracial child (mulatto, in the terms of the day) of a French plantation owner and one of his slaves. Whether it was a genuine love match or something else Chevalier does not answer.

Truth be told, Chevalier does not answer more than a few questions, but I digress. 

Bologne, despite the overt racism he faces in Ancien Regime France, becomes besties with Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton). He also rises to not just being a master swordsman, composer and violinist (Chevalier begins with him besting none other than Mozart in a fiddle duel). His skills have earned him the rank of Chevalier.

As the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Joseph continues to fight racism while having an affair with Marie-Josephine, Marquess de Montalembert (Samara Weaving). Her husband the Marquis (Marton Csokas) is displeased enough that his wife has taken to the stage. Her infidelity with a mulatto compounds the scandal. As the French Revolution gears up, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges composes stirring music for the revolution as he faces down both the Queen and the Marquis.

I am predisposed towards costume pictures and historical dramas, so Chevalier would normally have been something right up my street. Why then did the film leave me cold? I think it started at the very beginning, when Joseph, cocky and self-assured, insists on a musical duel with Mozart. Screenwriter Stefani Robinson and director Stephen Williams were clearly aiming to say that this figure was more than Mozart's equal, but his superior.

That is a pretty bold opening declaration, one that not backed up by anything in Chevalier. If, say, the film had ended or even had as its midpoint this version of The Devil Went Down to Paris, we could have had a climatic, triumphant film. We would have seen Saint-Georges compose, create, shape his music to rival that of Mozart or another musical rival, Christoph Gluck (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). Instead, Chevalier tells us right from the get-go, "THIS man is a musical GENIUS!" without giving us evidence of such.

As a side note, if Wikipedia is to be believed, Saint-Georges and Gluck were on friendly terms. I can cut Chevalier some slack in that we needed drama, but it was a lost opportunity to not have their rival music play against each other. 

I presume Chevalier does give us selections from the surviving works of Saint-Georges (the film tells us that Napoleon's restoring slavery and suppressing Saint-Georges' works caused many of his pieces to be lost). The unfortunate thing is that what pieces of Saint-Georges' works were used were essentially drowned by Kris Bowers' own score. Bowers' score, in and of itself, is fine. However, since people are not familiar with Saint-Georges' music, one would not know which pieces are his and which pieces are Bowers.

Compounding this issue is what is meant as the climax of Chevalier: the concert to fund the French Revolution that so outraged Her Majesty and the Marquis. I freely admit that I am not an expert on classical music, but as I heard the music being performed, I said to myself, "this is too contemporary". The music being played simply did not sound like it came from the era. It sounded as if it was something written today. 

While not an exact parallel, it would be similar to trying to pass off Stravinsky as Tchaikovsky. Just as it would be laughable to have Philip Glass-like music and try to make it the score for a Bach biopic, so Bowers' Chevalier score sounds too at odds with the Saint-Georges era to be close to the original.

We rarely see Joseph create music. Instead, we see him get hit on by opera diva La Guimard (Minnie Driver), delve into his liaisons with the marquess and forever face opposition due to his race. It is hard to make the case that the Chevalier de Saint-Georges was in Mozart's league when we don't hear the music, let alone see him write it.

Other elements just jump without much if any rhyme or reason. We go from him besting the King's swordsman (and as side note, we never see him take up his sword again) to being the most intimate of Marie Antoinette's courtiers. How this happened is anyone's guess.

The best performance was Harrison, Jr.'s as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, but even his felt tapered down a bit. He has a few moments where he shows vulnerability, even regret. It's unfortunate however that more focus was put on his dalliances with the salon socialites than on Saint-Georges creativity. Other performances were flat. Weaving and Boynton were pretty much floundering, and Csokas was a mustache short of twirling. Driver did her best, but her playing an opera diva brought up memories of The Phantom of the Opera. I liked that performance, but I saw that as deliberately over-the-top. Here, it's just over-the-top.

Chevalier, to be fair, has pretty costumes.

If more people seek out the surviving works of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges thanks to Chevalier, it has done a good. I've heard it, and it sounds delightful. His life story is a fascinating one. Hopefully we'll get a good film version of it.



Monday, May 1, 2023

Nefarious: A Review (Review #1710)



It is not often that one connects "horror" with "Christian film", at least intentionally. Nefarious attempts to bring the horror genre to believers, and while not without its slips, on the whole it works well.

Dr. James Martin (Jordan Belfi) has been brought in to evaluate Edward Wayne Brady (Sean Patrick Flanery). Brady is on death row and is set to be executed via the electric chair, but there are doubts as to whether he is sane enough to be executed. Edward claims to be a demon, but is he faking this to avoid death?

No, for Edward is surprisingly eager for the execution to take place. It is because, according to him, he is not Edward, but a demon whose name translates to "Nefarious". The atheist Martin is at first unimpressed, but slowly during the course of the day, Nefarious predicts that Martin will be responsible for three deaths before the day is done. He also knows much more about Martin than appears possible.

Could there be true demonic evil at work? As the day goes by, the truth will not set everyone free.

Nefarious is almost a two-man play with Belfi and Flanery battling it out in this unholy war. More often than not, they are the only ones on screen, allowing the viewer to concentrate on their individual performances and co-writers/directors Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon's work. Out of the two, Flanery is clearly the dominant figure. He has to play two characters: "Nefarious", the dominant, evil demon as well as "Edward", the being he possesses. This requires a shift in Flanery's mannerisms and voice, and he handles those well.

While it is justified to criticize Flanery's performance as the character Nefarious, (Flanery may be over-the-top at times), one should remember he is playing a demon. As such, a demon can be a bit over-the-top. In the few moments Flanery is Edward, we see a different side to this figure: frightened, regretful to have let the demon in, desperate for redemption. 

Konzelman and Solomon mark the change in personality both through their directing of Flanery and by moving the camera from one side to the other, reflecting a shift from Nefarious to Edward.

Belfi, for his part, pales in comparison. There was not as much engagement with Martin as there was with the more scene-stealing Flanery. To be fair though, Martin was meant to be more dry and dispassionate, so it might not be fair to be too harsh given the part. 

The film also has some sharp dialogue. At one point, the demon taunts Martin by saying, "He (God) made you in His image, but we remade you in ours". To be fair though, at times the dialogue can also be gilding the lily a bit. Nefarious also mocks black basketball players who make $30 million dollars while crying racism as they wear sneakers made by slave labor. It may not be subtle, but it is effective.

Nefarious does not rely on jump scares or graphic violence (except perhaps for Edward's end). Instead, it relies of mood, which the film does well. In keeping things within the small area of the prison, we get a more claustrophobic atmosphere. This is especially true when we get to the "second murder", which Martin is powerless to stop.

I imagine that there will be viewers who would object to the circumstances involving "the second murder". I cannot reveal more without revealing major plot points in the film. I will say that Nefarious, as a more faith-centered film, will have a particular point of view. As such, it comes from that perspective. One should judge things by what is intended, not strictly on how one feels about them. 

What really sinks Nefarious is the extended cameo by Glenn Beck as himself. Ostensibly there as the interviewer discussing Dr. Martin's book about his experience, it just looks bizarre. For those who know who Beck is, one is genuinely puzzled as to what he in particular is doing in the middle of all this. For those who do not know, it may just be some random person playing a role.

Even that could perhaps be overlooked if not for the length of this scene. At times one wonders if Beck is fully aware of both the film and his role in it, such as it is. It seems so random, so odd, to see Glenn Beck pop out in this and becomes distracting. It ultimately would have been better if an actual actor had been cast.

The film also suggests something of a sequel. It is not a direct notice of one, but it leaves the door open. I do not know if that was a good idea.

On the whole, I think Nefarious works well. It runs a brisk 97 minutes, enough time to tell its story. Nefarious has a good, strong performance by Sean Patrick Flanery (though the name "Wayne Brady" may have been a mistake as I kept thinking about the cheerful comedian); it also has an effective score that is not overused and a sparse manner that helps it.