Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Golda: A Review (Review #1787)



No one can foresee the future. Golda, the film covering Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir's tenure during the Yom Kippur War, was I figure meant to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of that war. Instead, it comes on the heels of Israel's newest war of survival against Hamas. As a film, Golda moves well keeps things going, even if at times it becomes a bit heavy-handed with its symbolisms. 

Using the narrative frame of an inquiry into the causes of the Yom Kippur War, we see a commission call an old woman into its chambers. That old woman is former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Helen Mirren). Various flashbacks take her to October 5, 1973.

While there are rumblings that Egypt will attack the Jewish state, Prime Minister Meir is dubious, as is her Defense Minister, the formidable eyepatch-wearing Moshe Dayan (Rami Heurberger). Almost too late, Meir sees that Israel will be attack and she orders a partial mobilization but no preemptive attack.

That may have been a poor decision, as Egypt and Syria launch a full-scale assault on Israel. Even Dayan is left horrified when he observes the Syrian troops from the air. He is close to losing his mind, but still Meir will not let him go. She also faces the grandiose military plans of Ariel "Arik" Sharon (Ohan Knoller) and the machinations of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Schriber). Kissinger would rather want a negotiated settlement to not incur Arab wrath and keep the oil flowing. No dice for Meir: it is total victory and recognition of Israel by Egyptian President Sadat or nothing.

Unlike Kissinger and Sadat, however, Meir knows that she has a few cards up her sleeve, mostly the knowledge that in his eagerness to be the Arab leader to wipe the Jews off the planet, he is leaving Cairo undefended. The war ends with an Israeli victory but at a high cost for the secretly ill Meir.

In many ways, Golda is safe. Director Guy Nattiv and screenwriter Nicholas Martin do not delve deep if at all into Meir's troubled mind and/or soul on the war. It is kept mostly behind the scenes, particularly when Meir and/or her staff listen in on the various battles. Granted, Golda is not going to have scenes of her leading troops into battle across the Sinai. However, it also does not explore much if anything about Meir or those around her.

We know, for example, that Meir has an aide whose son is sent to the front. We pretty much know what that young man's fate will be. However, it felt almost as if both her aide and the son (one barely seen, one never seen) were there to "humanize" the war. Given the past horrors of the Shoah which she was fully aware if (even if she did not live through them herself), I do not think Meir went into this situation unaware of the human cost.

Golda also at times leaves things unanswered. The main unanswered sections involve Dayan. At one point, he was shaking so much that I wondered if he had Parkinson's Disease. He also appeared to be at times almost going mad. To be fair, the situation would be almost unbearable to those going through it. However, we still get something of a distance with everyone in Golda.

At times, there are stabs at drawing us into just how close Israel came to falling. Golda Meir at one point tells her secretary that if the Arabs manage to take Tel Aviv, she would not be taken alive. It was a good effort, but not a completely successful one. Golda also indulges in symbolism that is at times opaque and at times far too overt. One scene has her literally with blood-stained hands as a major operation is going on. The closing scene, for reasons I cannot fathom, has dead birds all around her hospital room. 

Some of the acting is curious. Helen Mirren did not sound like Golda Meir. She sounded like Helen Mirren. Apart from that though, I think Mirren did well, though not great as Golda (I think Ingrid Bergman's performance in the television miniseries A Woman Called Golda was closer to the real Meir). Part of it is the script and directing, but part of it is with Mirren. Schrieber faces an uphill battle with Kissinger, as most actors focus on the late Secretary of State's distinctively accented bass voice. He did well, though again not great.

The film does have some positives. Dasha Dauenhauer's score worked well, particularly when Kissinger and Meir face off in Meir's kitchen. 

On the whole, Golda is an acceptable film, not great, but could be a good primer into this tumultuous time in Israel's troubled history and the woman behind it. 



Saturday, January 20, 2024

Echo Episode Five: Maya


Maya, our fifth and final episode of Echo does something that I did not think possible: make the case that somehow, five episodes of this series was five episodes too long. It should be remembered that Echo was planned as an eight-episode first series now reduced to a five-episode miniseries. Maya is a disaster, a total snoozefest that does not justify its existence.

With Maya (Alaqua Cox) having turned down Wilson Fisk's (Vincent D'Onofrio) offer to go with him to New York, he has decided she must be eliminated. He has a few aces up his sleeve. Once again, Fisk is holding Bonnie (Devery Jacobs) hostage, along with her grandmother Chula (Tantoo Cardinal). They will be missed at the Choctaw powwow, as it is getting ready to take place. Zane (Andrew Howard) is also there, able to bully Biscuits (Cody Lightning) into parking wherever he wants to launch an RPG into the powwow to kill Maya should she pop up.

While Maya wrestles with what to do, she has a visit from her dead mother Taloa (Katarina Ziervogel), who advises her that she is the living embodiment of all the qualities of her various strong female Choctaw ancestors. From Lowak, strategy. From Tuklo, cunning. From Chafa, ferocity. From Taloa, love. Each "echo" within her. With that, she goes to a final confrontation with Fisk and his men. 

To confront and defeat Fisk, she is able to summon the power of the ancestors (if not the ancestors themselves), even transferring their powers to Bonnie and Chula. For their part, both Biscuits and Uncle Henry (Chaske Spencer) are able to destroy Kingpin's minions. As for Maya? She uses her powers to send Kingpin back to his troubled past so that he can heal and cry. Crying and asking what she did to him, Fisk leaves. Maya is also ready to go, but not before going to a backyard barbeque with her FAMILY. 

It is a bit hard to decide which element in Maya is the worst and which is the most unintentionally funny. Is it the idea that the various ancestors would return to rally around their descendant, a one-legged deaf, mute, potentially lesbian Native American? Is it that said ancestors managed to give power to Bonnie and Chula so they can take down men stronger, taller and younger than they are? Is it how easily it is for Maya to slip into the powwow without Fisk's goons noticing?

What about Henry managing to fire his gun at Zane, causing the RPG to launch into fireworks? Maybe Biscuits managing to run over more of Fisk's goons with his truck demolition derby style?

I think it might be how Maya manages to go into Fisk's mind and bring about healing to him. It was true then, it is true now: all major criminal masterminds really want is a hug.

I freely admit that I know nothing of the comic book character; however, I think that the name "Echo" comes from her ability to mimic or "echo" her opponents' powers. Now, it is that she is an "echo" of her strong female ancestors.

It took four people to come up with that?

A system glitch caused me to watch Maya with subtitles turned off, and I was surprised that I followed the story surprisingly well without the subtitles. That is no thanks to Cox, who still cannot express any emotion to save her life. Sydney Freeland poorly directed her to be as blank as possible. Not that Freeland's direction of D'Onofrio or anyone else was any better.  

Maya has nothing of interest. I am puzzled how anyone would think Echo would be a long-running series to add into the mythos of the world's longest and most expensive soap opera.


Next: Echo: The Complete Series

Friday, January 19, 2024

Echo Episode Four: Taloa



It is amazing what a little Alison Krauss can do for me. Taloa, the fourth of five Echo episodes, was in a lot of ways still as bad as anything Echo has managed to pop out. However, anytime one can appreciate a good song, it can lift it up just enough for me to think well of it.

Now we feature not a strong female Choctaw woman, but young Maya (Darnell Besaw), denied ice cream because the seller does not understand her American Sign Language. Observing this is Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio), who is enraged by said ice cream seller's behavior. He grabs him off the street and proceeds to punch the literal life out of him (it is unclear if the ice cream seller died as a result of the attack). Maya sees the aftermath, and proceeds to kick the visibly injured, potentially dying man before Fisk whisks her away.

As a side note, I think Kingpin's reaction was wildly over-the-top and excessive given the situation. Yes, the ice cream seller was a bit obnoxious to a deaf girl, but I don't think beating him up to where you almost if not actually kill him is the right response.

Back to present-day Oklahoma, where Kingpin is not upset or angry about seeing the person who shot him in the eye and left him for dead. Far from it: he wants to have their old traditional Thursday dinners again, just like before when he had his ASL interpreter killed for knowing too much.

As a side note, why not just get another henchman to learn sign language rather than go to the trouble of hiring one just to bump them off? Details, I guess.

Fisk wants Maya to be his successor as Ruler of the Criminal Underworld, urging her to return with him to New York. Maya is in need of wisdom, and who better than her estranged grandmother Chula (Tantoo Cardinal)? Chula tells her of how Maya's mother Taloa (Katerina Ziervogel) came to be born, not in a white hospital, but in the woods. Taloa had the gift of healing, which Maya could use now. Will Maya choose to join Fisk or return to the upcoming Choctaw powwow?

As part of the montage for the various characters while Maya sorts out her decision, we hear Alison Krauss' cover of Down to the River to Pray. It is a beautiful cover, and it does its best to make the situation into a very sad one as the various characters wrestle with their decisions. However, what I have found is that the music carries a lot of the emotional weight in Echo. It is not the performances, or the scripts, or the situations that do so. Down to the River to Pray, while a lovely song well-rendered by Krauss, simply should not be what sells the situation.

Taloa in some ways is almost comical. Kingpin is such a wimp, at one point screaming that Maya kill him with the same hammer he used to kill his abusive father. "FREE ME!" he screams, and one wonders why on Earth he would insist that only this one-legged, deaf, mute, potentially lesbian Native American should take his empire. D'Onofrio does try to sell the drama, but how can he when there is no drama?

At one point, Fisk is impressed with just about everything Maya does, down to shooting him in the head. 

Cox is wrong for the part because she is simply incapable of showing any emotion. Her facial expression never changes, and that is simply deadly for a show with her as the lead. 

One of the most curious elements is how Kingpin has some kind of technology to make Maya understand what he says without an ASL interpreter. A contact allows her to "see" Fisk's words turned into Sign Language. My thinking is that he could use that technology to go legit and make millions. Why waste it on just one person?

Taloa makes suggestions that there is some spiritual connection between Taloa and Maya which does not land. To be fair, the scene between Cardinal and Cox works well. That is due mostly to Cardinal and due to how the conversation is done mostly silently. I think that is more realistic than most of Echo has been.

Taloa is built up by Krauss and Cardinal. Everything else is not worth the limited time we have. With one episode left, Echo is leaving no mark.


Next Episode: Maya

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Echo Episode Three: Tuklo



My understanding is that the Choctaw nation is a matriarchal society. As such, it should not be a surprise that the miniseries Echo builds its whole mythos around strong female Choctaws. Tuklo, the third episode, keeps to its thread of starting with a strong female ancestor to our one-legged, deaf, mute, potentially lesbian Native American antiheroine. Surprisingly devoid of plot, Tuklo is almost filler for something that is not there.

Oklahoma Territory, 1800's. Young Tuklo (Dannie McCallum) wants to join the Lighthorsemen, a group of Native American guards protecting their people against all enemies foreign and domestic. She is told that she cannot due to her gender. "Women are life-givers. Men are life-takers," she is reminded. Nevertheless, she persisted. Tuklo eventually goes all Mulan and saves the Lighthorsemen from attack by the white man.

Moving on to present-day, Maya (Alaqua Cox) has visions of her strong female ancestors but is abducted by Vickie (Thomas E. Sullivan), an employee at the skating rink owned by Maya's Uncle Henry (Chaske Spencer). Vickie knows of the bounty on Maya and wants it. He holds Maya and Henry hostage, later taking Maya's cousin Bonnie (Devery Jacobs) when she comes snooping around. In comes Zane (Andrew Howard), one of Wilson Fisk's main henchmen, to collect Maya. Unsurprisingly, Zane kills Vickie, though what exactly happened to the two white trash women that make up Vickie's Bloodhound Gang is left unexplained.

Zane is about to fulfill his mission to kill Maya, throwing in Henry for good measure, when his New York Minute ringtone goes off. Maya and Henry, apparently, are saved at the literal last minute by Don Henley. Maya's temporary escape is for naught, for who happens to come to her hideout but none other than Wilson Fisk aka Kingpin (Vincent D'Onofrio)? 

Tuklo is the only episode not directed by Sydney Freeland. Catriona McKenzie does the honors, and perhaps that is why Tuklo is slightly better visually than past Echo episodes. The episode begins in the style of an old silent Western film, complete with title cards. The action scene at the laser tag area of the bowling alley is perhaps an homage to The Lady from Shanghai (though perhaps that is giving them far too much credit). You also have a nice visual of Maya hung upside down with a disco ball above her.

Granted, this makes no sense to the actual story since it would have been easier to simply remove Maya's prosthetic leg and tie her up than literally hang her upside down in the middle of the rink. Details are not important when you can make it look nice. 

The visual moments in Tuklo are what elevate it. Those are the only things that elevate it, for in reality, Tuklo does not move the narrative forward. What you have are the two stories: Tuklo and Maya, neatly split in half, with the second half being almost unnecessary. A lot of Tuklo's second half revolves around everyone waiting for Zane to show up, but there is nothing there.

There is a whole lot that either does not make sense or is unimportant. When facing almost certain death, why does Bonnie decide this is the best time to reprimand Maya for her failure to make contact? Why do the villains throw Maya's prosthetic foot at her rather than hold onto it, so she won't be able to escape? What did happen to Vickie's two girl conspirators? Who are they? Why are they there at all? There is mention by another of Zane's men that one of them drove off, but I do not remember if they were ordered to hunt her down. Our white trash trio kind of just came and went. Vickie's death is not unexpected, though again, looked nice. 

Moreover, it is a cliche to have a cutesy ringtone for our henchman. That on top of having our leads saved at the literal last minute by said ringtone. Maya nor Henry do not appear all that surprised that things turned out the way they did, a very strange attitude to take. Fisk coming in is not that shocking. 

That three people have a "story by" credit and a mere two people wrote Tuklo suggests that there really is no one overseeing things. 

There are no performances here. Perhaps Howard's Zane can be given grudging credit for being a camp Russian henchman (at least he sounded Russian to me). Everyone else was just there, saying things and being thoroughly unconvincing about it all. 

Tuklo showed that even with a director with a better visual style, no amount of nice or clever imagery makes up for lousy scripts. 


Next Episode: Taloa

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Echo Episode Two: Lowak



It is only two episodes into the five-episode run of Echo and already a theme is fast emerging. Each episode will be named after a strong Native American female, though I imagine that none will be as strong as our one-legged, deaf, mute, potentially lesbian Native American. Lowak has an astonishing six "story by" writers and four credited screenwriters. How four to six people could come up with something like Lowak almost makes the case that the studios were right to not want to have large writers' rooms if it was going to be so muddled and poor.

We go to 1200 A.D., where Choctaw warrior princess Lowak (Morningstar Angeline) plays for keeps in the Native American lacrosse. With her people's survival on the line, Lowak must win, which she does. Moving to present day, we see that former hitwoman Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox) is still taking refuge in her hometown of Tamaha, Oklahoma to regroup after killing Wilson Fisk aka Kingpin, her former mentor and boss. She plans to take over Kingpin's empire, telling her Uncle Henry (Chaske Spencer) that it is time for a "Queen-Pin". As part of her plan, she opts to place a bomb on a shipping container on its way to New York, getting unwitting help from her idiot cousin Biscuits (Cody Lightning).

It is only through the power of the ancestors that Maya manages to free her prosthetic leg when it gets caught in the train link. Due to the damage to her prosthetic leg, Maya has to go to her grandfather Skully (Graham Greene), who tells her of her distant ancestor Chafa, the first Choctaw and savior of her people. Her grandmother Chula (Tantoo Cardinal) eventually learns that Maya is back, as does Maya's cousin Bonnie (Devery Jacobs), both due to Biscuit's general idiocy. Henry, who works for Fisk, warns Maya that she is playing with fire, but she will not listen. 

I figure that each succeeding Echo episode will connect Maya with another one of her strong, female ancestors. We got that in Chafa, and we get that in Lowak. How exactly this multigeneration contact can take place to where Maya can summon the power of Lowak to free her from the train Echo does not explain. I guess I am just supposed to take it on faith that Native Americans can get superpowers through their heritage, even if they do not know exactly from where these powers come from.

Lowak does feature some curious tropes that are now both cliche and slightly laughable. The ancestor Lowak somehow can take down a group of Native American men physically stronger and bigger than her also apparently due to her connection with her mythical, mystical ancestor. Maya similarly has almost superhuman strength and agility to silently take to a moving train, with poor Biscuits trying hard to keep up in Chula's truck.

Chula just so happened to see Biscuits drive by her in her thoroughly damaged truck. That is so unoriginal that it makes one want to scream. Why not, for example, have Bonnie pop in on Biscuits, see the extensive damage, and text their grandmother photos of what Biscuits did. It might have provided for more interaction between characters and even brought a bit of lightness to Echo, a show that seems to think it must be thoroughly serious to be good.

Lowak also indulges in a bit of comic racism when Skully is attempting to sell Indian tchotchkes to a couple of idiot na hullos (Biscuits' term for Anglos). As Skully works to sell them on  on the importance of the objects by making vague claims of their powers and autheticity, they hear from him what appears to be a Native American chant. It is clear that he is saying "Buy this damn thing" but says it in a cliched Native American sing-song manner that Lowak suggests that anyone with good hearing would be so easily fooled. 

Oddly, it reminds me of a similar scene from of all things, the Whoopi Goldberg/Ted Danson comedy Made in America. A pair of old white women go into Goldberg's Afrocentric gift shop, delighted in the many voodoo dolls and black paraphernalia that they purchase. Made in America was meant as a silly comedy. Echo is meant as a respectful homage to Native American women by making them superheroines. Yes, I know that that scene was meant to be a bit of lightness, but it does not work.

Again, we have a lack of good performances save for Greene and to a lesser extend Cardinal (the face she makes when she sees Biscuits drive away in her all-but-demolished truck is weird). Cox has such a hard face, one that shows no emotion. Lightning, to be fair, was tasked to play an idiot and wimp, so I guess he did well in that role. Jacob's Bonnie gets little to do, and it is a shame. 

What I figure was meant as the exciting section on the train looked second-rate, unexciting and a bit boring. Lowak continues to have the issue of simultaneously speaking and signing. I wish it would commit to one or the other. Oddly, the best scenes in Lowak are the ones not involving Maya. Both when Skully & Biscuits or Chula & Henry are involved, we see glimpses of a better story. The interplay between Biscuits and Bonnie on the other hand, did not work, though to be fair they were over walkie-talkies. 

Lowak again has four screenwriters and six story creators. The question then is, "it took six people to come up with this?". 


Next Episode: Tuklo

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Echo Episode One: Chafa



I was asked to watch Echo, the new Marvel Cinematic Universe Disney+ series build around a deaf, mute, one-legged potentially lesbian Native American. I know nothing of past MCU Disney+ shows and genuinely do not care to. Nevertheless, I am honoring the poll results asking me to review each Echo episode, all five of them. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky, as I understand that Echo was meant to be eight episodes long in a first season, then cut down to six episodes until it went to five for a one-season run. A miniseries, I understand, versus a long-spanning section to the world's longest and most expensive soap opera. Chafa, the first episode, feels more like a "Previously On" episode meant to catch up viewers like me who know nothing of our heroine. As such, it is a poor introduction and harbinger of more bad things.

Young deaf, mute Native American girl Maya Lopez survives a car accident that killed her mother Taloa (Katarina Ziervogel) and which leaves her with one leg. Her father William (Zahn McClarnon) takes her to New York City, which somewhat pleases Taloa's mother Chula (Tantoo Cardinal). William is part of the nefarious criminal work of Wilson Fisk also known as Kingpin (Vincent D'Onfrio). Maya (Alaqua Cox) has become a fierce hitwoman for Fisk as well as his informal niece. She faces off against a mysterious figure known as Daredevil (Charlie Cox, no relation to Alaqua), able to stand on equal footing with the Man Without Fear.

A chance encounter with Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) quickly convinces her that Fisk ordered her father's killing and in turn shoots Fisk in the head. Now running to her hometown of Tamaha, Oklahoma five months later, she does make contact with her Uncle Henry (Chaske Spencer) and her cousin Biscuits (Cody Lightning). Hiding out in her grandmother Chula's neglected home, she does not plan to stay long or make contact with her former BFF, cousin Bonnie (Devery Jacobs). Maya does contact her grandfather Skully (Graham Greene) and plans now to become the Queenpin of the New York underworld. Unfortunately, the Kingpin is not dead, and we see that he awakes from what I figure is a coma.

I have heard about the importance of representation, but Echo veers dangerously close to parody of those efforts. Our character centers around a deaf, mute, one-legged Native American. If she ends up being a lesbian, we would have run through an entire gamut of minorities. Chafa is a shockingly weak debut episode far beyond the idea of centering a show around a deaf, mute, one-legged potentially lesbian Native American.

As our lead cannot communicate vocally, we need American Sign Language to not just see what Maya thinks but what others are saying to her. In my admittedly limited knowledge of ASL and the ASL community, my observations are that all communication is through signing. The non-deaf person does not speak with his/her vocal cords to speak to the deaf person. Chafa instead has almost everyone simultaneously speak and sign. That has the curious effect of slowing things down. The hearing actors appear to be reciting the dialogue for the television audience. If everyone signs or in Kingpin's case has an ASL interpreter at the ready, why do they have to speak at all?

Only once late in Chafa did we see what I think would be a more realistic conversation where all sides sign at each other. Why, however, Biscuits has to sign to his dog, Billy Jack, I cannot fathom a guess.

Chafa has other issues apart from the curious decision to speak and sign simultaneously. Alaqua Cox has exactly one expression throughout: a permanent scowl no matter what the situation. It is impossible to decipher what Maya is thinking and going through when her expression never changes. Perhaps to compensate, Lighting appears to go overboard as the goofy, near-idiot Biscuits. Spencer's Uncle Henry matches Cox in looking permanently angry. Almost everyone appeared to be in a foul mood.

That is except for three. There is the aforementioned Lightning. There is Greene, who brings a bit of a spark as Skully. Finally, there is D'Onofrio, but unlike the others, his Wilson Fisk is a generally weak, pathetic wimp of a man. Why this criminal mastermind seems to hold this deaf, mute, one-legged Native American so close to his heart never comes across in Chafa. For that matter, Renner's cameo (which I understand was pulled from Hawkeye) does not make sense. Why would she so quickly take his word that Fisk was behind William Lopez's killing? 

None of these questions are answered in Chafa despite the episode having four credited screenwriters. Moreover, director Sydney Freeland made some curious decisions. When Maya and Fisk are in his limo accompanied by Fisk's ASL interpreter (he's the only character who does not sign despite being her unofficial uncle and mentor), the interpreter is hidden in shadow. Like most of Chafa, we simultaneously heard and saw the signing. Here was no exception, but the way the scene was shot I would have found seeing the interpreter next to impossible. Had I been Maya, I would not have understood what Fisk was saying simply because I would not have been able to see the interpreter. It was a curious cinematic decision.

As a side note, Charlie Cox's Daredevil appears exactly once and is so unimportant to Chafa that is a puzzle as to why he is there apart from name recognition. There was nothing in their encounter that shows she is close to Daredevil's equal, let alone strong enough to get Fisk's admiration for passing this test. 

Chafa does nothing to build interest in it. The lead is blank, the story rushed and a bit disjointed and is almost hilarious in its conclusion. Seriously, despite shooting Fisk at point-blank range, Maya is unaware that Kingpin survived? How could he have possibly survived this? To be fair, why would he be all but begging for his life or not have any idea that she would discover his involvement in her father's death? Even at a mere five episodes, this will be a long Echo to sit through.


Next Episode: Lowak

Monday, January 15, 2024

The Beekeeper (2024): A Review



I admire, even respect, films that know what they are. Such is the case with The Beekeeper. An action movie that tells its story quickly, hits its familiar beats and has a cast fully aware of itself, The Beekeeper is good entertainment.

Adam Clay (Jason Statham) is living a quiet life far off the grid raising bees. His only human contact is his landlord, Eloise Parker (Phylicia Rashad), a retiree with a respectable bank account who manages a charity. Unfortunately, scammers get Eloise to fall for a phishing scam, bilking her and her charity of millions. Despondent, she kills herself.

Initially thought of as a suspect by FBI Agent and Eloise's daughter Verona Parker (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Clay is quickly cleared. He, however, is now determined to find the scammers and bring justice to them. He reaches out to his former paramilitary group, known as The Beekeepers, for help. They get him the address and name of United Data Group.

Clay soon makes quick destruction of UDG, sending its head Mickey Garnett (David Witts) fleeing from the inferno. As Parker investigates the phishing crime, neither she nor Clay initially realize that this is part of a major crime headed up by Derek Danforth (Josh Hutcherson). Derek is a rich, vulgar ne'er do well who does not shrink from sending thugs to keep his empire growing. Despite the efforts to protect Derek by former CIA head Wallace Westwyld (Jeremy Irons), Clay is coming.

How high does Derek go to? What is his connection to a mysterious but powerful figure, his mother Jessica (Jemma Redgrave)? As the unrelenting Clay marches onwards, destroying anyone who gets in his way, Eloise and her partner Wiley (Bobby Naderi) follow behind, discovering the Beekeepers and Derek's connection to the highest power. 

Again, in its hour-forty-odd minute running time, The Beekeeper gives the audience what it wants: violent action, a stoic character, and an almost outlandish villain. The strong thing about The Beekeeper is that no one in front of or behind the camera ever tries to be smarter than Kurt Wimmer's screenplay. It is a simple, straightforward story and never suggests that there has to be more. This mysterious figure, with a shadowy past, is taking down a criminal enterprise.

I think one major plus in The Beekeeper's favor is the relatability of the crime. Clay is not taking down spies or a massive government conspiracy. Instead, it is internet scammers who take advantage of vulnerable people. People either know people who have been scammed or have been scammed themselves. As such, there is a vicarious thrill in seeing these people taken down in sometimes particularly vicious ways. 

The Beekeeper is also blessed with actors and performers who know what this film is and play it as such. No one will ever say that Jason Statham is an actor in the "Statham IS King Lear" mold. He is an action star, asked to do nothing more but take down criminals and show little emotion. As he approaches 60, Statham shows no signs of slowing down. Stoic in his delivery, his understated manner works well with some of his costars. Hutchinson as the vaguely Hunter Biden-like Derek is loving every minute, going all-in on the crazy and entitled nepo baby. 

The big surprise is Irons as Derek's minder. This is clearly a paycheck role, where he knows that he is almost unnecessary to the film and does not try to give his all. It is not a bad performance, and in fact he seems to be joining in the fun of things. 

Others, though, do not fare as well. Jemma Redgrave did her best to mask her British accent, but it still slipped through. Raver-Lampman was not the most convincing as either a grieving daughter or committed FBI agent, but it was serviceable. Naderi as her somewhat comic relief partner was better. 

The action scenes were at times a bit too violent for my tastes, but I think they worked well and will please action fans. Efforts to try to make the Beekeepers some kind of mythic figures, down to sending a Beekeeper who gets dispatched quickly (and violently) do not work as well as director David Ayers intended. Moreover, another assassin hired by Westwyld came across as almost parody.

On the whole, though, The Beekeeper knows what it is and lives up to its goals. Enjoyable and entertaining, I hope The Beekeeper does not inspire a franchise but stays a single event. 


Sunday, January 14, 2024

Mean Girls (2024): A Review (Review #1785)



Despite being a cultural touchstone beloved and quoted by millions, I have yet to see the original Mean Girls. As such, the 2024 film version of the Broadway musical based on the 2004 film is my first foray into the world of The Plastics. After experiencing this Mean Girls, it will almost certainly be my last foray. Hateful, insipid and pointless, Mean Girls is garbage.

Having spent her life in Kenya, homeschooled Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) now goes to a different and more dangerous jungle: the American high school. Here, she finds herself pretty much ostracized save for two outcasts. There is artistic Janice (Auli'i Cravahlo) and her FLAMBOYANTLY GAY friend Damian (Jaquel Spivey). Despite their warnings, Cady soon falls in with the ultimate rich bitch clique The Plastics, ruled by queen bee Regina George (Reneé Rapp). Regina rules over North Shore High with a firm grip, aided by her courtiers, the weak-willed Gretchen (Bebe Woods) and airhead Karen (Avantika).

As a side note, I'm sure that the queen bee being named "Regina", which is also Latin for "Queen", is a mere coincidence, but I digress.

The Plastics soon take Cady from Kenya under their vicious wing, though Janice and Damian ask Cady to report to them what is being said. Naïve and guileless, Cady does as she is told. There is trouble, however, when Cady falls for Aaron (Christopher Briney). He happens to be Regina's ex, which makes him off-limits to the other Heathers, I mean, Plastics. Cady, however, is too drawn to Aaron's beauty, down to faking being weak in math (her favorite subject) to gain his attention.

It's not long before trouble starts brewing. Regina, aware of Cady's desires and Aaron's interests, goes back for her ex, breaking Cady's heart. Janice reveals her and Regina's past connection, and a Revenge Party is planned. Things, however, don't go exactly as planned, leading to more chaos until ultimately things settle down and peace returns to North Shore High.

As it has been twenty years (!) since the original Mean Girls, I imagine that this version needed updating to make it make sense to the next generation of Queen Bees and Wannabes (the nonfiction book Mean Girls served as the basis for). I figure that social media did not play a large or any part of the original version. Perhaps therein lies one of the problems in Mean Girls. It is trying to be trendy and hip when it really is, or should be, a product of its time.

Try as I might, I could not fathom why people would be so invested in the goings-on at North Shore High. Possibly Regina's literal and metaphorical fall at the Talent Show would go viral through it being outrageously hilarious (which it wasn't here). However, in one of the film's montages, we had people do some kind of "Regina Challenge" where they try to recreate said fall, which was apparently due to her weight gain. I cannot accept that this insignificant moment at a high school talent show would inspire such a reaction, even in our TikTok Era. 

A major issue for me with Mean Girls is that the film more than lives up to its title. I found every single character so unlikeable that I genuinely could not root for anyone to succeed, not even Aaron. I figure Cady is meant to be our protagonist and the one with whom we are supposed to care about. Instead, I found her in turns blank and vicious. Her wrath against Regina may have been understandable. However, her quick rise from allegedly sweet naïf to vengeful bitch never felt real. Moreover, at times it came across as Janice manipulating Cady the same way Janice insisted that Regina was manipulating Cady.

Regina was created to be the ruling monster, but oddly, she came across as almost tame in her maliciousness. She was intolerant and obnoxious, but I do not think she was as bad a monster as Janice. Yes, I thought Janice was the meanest of mean girls. For as much as Mean Girls wanted us to think of her as justified in going after Regina and being angry at Cady's transformation, Janice is the one that I felt was downright evil. The delight people took in bullying bullies just did not sit right with me.

Her musical number, I'd Rather Be Me, was not a declaration of empowerment or being true to herself. It was an entitled, obnoxious, arrogant number, one where I literally wrote "Raise Your Right Finger --Janice is bitch" (I thought the song's title was Raise Your Right Finger) as that seemed to be the takeaway from what I figure is meant as a showstopping number. I'd Rather Be Me pretty much reinforced my view that every character in Mean Girls is so awful that you want every person to get run over by a bus. 

Everyone, even Kevin G. (Mahi Alam), the Mathlete Captain who apparently is under the delusion that he is the Indian Eminem. One can have some fun with the Mathlete Captain being so desperate to be cool. Here though, it came across as obnoxious instead of endearing. His ripping his shirt open after winning the state championship made him look genuinely insane. Why he went to the Spring Fling dance wearing just a letterman jacket to cover up his bare chest will always be a puzzle to me. I figure it was to signal that they had come straight from the competition to the dance (because audiences apparently are too stupid to not realize both events were on the same day). However, someone would have told him, "Kevin, put on a shirt and dress well for a formal dance". 

I think the closest part where there was an attempt at wit is when, during the apology sessions, one person apologized to another for telling her that they were off during Revenge Party. Referencing a musical number in the film itself at this point is not clever. It is idiotic. 

A good musical will live or die by its songbook. Mean Girls, which is one of many Broadway musical adaptations of popular films currently in vogue*, does not have a musical moment that stands out. I'll walk that back a bit. Out of the songs in Mean Girls, the one that I thought was the best was Stupid with Love. There is something slightly amusing in hearing one is "smart with math, but stupid with love". The rest of the songbook goes from the merely dumb to the downright hideous. Sexy, the song at the Halloween party (and where I was close to walking out of the theater) I think tries yet again to be contemporary by including social media as part of the sequence. Still, I wonder why anyone would care about a high school Halloween party where everyone is dressed as sexy, down to a sexy Eleanor Roosevelt.

Sexy and Someone Gets Hurt, the song Regina sings at the party when she recaptures the weak-willed Aaron, have an issue that plagued the production. Again and again, I thought how the musical numbers would work on a stage, but never translated onto film. Even something like Stupid with Love, with the backup vocalists playing along, would fit perfectly in a stage production than on screen. A stage allows for greater unreality, where people breaking out into song is plausible. A good musical film can do likewise, if the songs are good. I am hard-pressed, however, to think anyone walked out of either stage or screen Mean Girls singing Apex Predator or World Burn.

Even weak songs would not sink something if we got something original with the material. Instead, from what I understand, we got basically a remake with music. I do not understand the interest in telling a story people already know and just inserting songs into it. It is one thing when you do something original to an established play or film (such as when Lerner & Lowe took Pygmalion to craft My Fair Lady). To just make the same thing with a few song-and-dance bits is a puzzle to me. 

Curiously enough, Mean Girls: The Musical lost the Best Musical Tony to The Band's Visit, which is yet another musical adaptation of a (slightly-less popular) film, one of its twelve losses out of twelve nominations. Even more curiously, its fellow Best Musical nominees that year were Frozen (another musical adaptation of a film) and SpongeBob SquarePants (a musical adaptation of a television show that has had feature films). Where are Rodgers & Hammerstein when you need them?

I cannot be too hard on the actors given that they had poor direction from Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez, Jr. (their generation's Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins?). Probably the worst is Spivey, who served no purpose except to be FLAMBOYANTLY GAY and throw sass whenever sass was needed. I would say just about everyone in Mean Girls was blank or boring. Rice had no charisma to make Cady interesting (though to be fair, she does look like she could be Jenna Fischer's daughter). Rapp was surprisingly tame as Regina, whom I figure was meant as an uber-bitch. Cravalho, also to be fair, was probably the best singer out of the cast, but her character was so awful I wanted to avoid her as much as I could. 

Credit, perhaps, can be given in that Mean Girls has an adequately Academy Award-qualifying cast. Gretchen is Latina; we hear her remark before her number What's Wrong with Me? how her "Abuelita" (Spanish for "Grandmother") sang the song from the music box Gretchen had gifted Regina years ago. Karen is Indian, Janice is Polynesian, Damian is black (and FLAMBOYANTLY GAY). The adults, such as Tina Fey and Tim Meadows recreating their roles from the original had very little to do here. Jon Hamm is wasted as the lazy, clueless coach as was Joy Ride's Ashley Park as the French teacher. Both are too talented to be given nothing to do.

Oddly, the Lindsay Lohan cameo felt like it went on too long. I wonder why Lohan was not cast as Ms. Norbury instead. It would have at least given a new twist on the tale versus just retelling the same story. I would not have minded if Cravalho had played Cady or if Briney had been recast to allow an actual singer to play Aaron. I understand that he initially turned the role down due to the script requiring him to sing, accepting once whatever songs he had were cut. My question is, "why not just cast an actor who not only can but wants to sing?". Briney is not a major star or acting talent that he was the only person to play Aaron, who came across as rather milquetoast in the film. Again, if one is making a musical, cast people who can sing as well as act.

Mean Girls is one of a small group of films where I was close to walking out. I stayed only to give a full review. As one who went into Mean Girls with no real point of reference outside whatever has filtered through the culture, this version might make me never watch the original. It is certainly not fetch by any standard.


*There are musical adaptations of among other films Rocky, Beetlejuice, Back to the Future, Mrs. Doubtfire, A Christmas Story, Pretty Woman, Legally Blonde, Big, King Kong (yes, King Kong) and Mean Girls' unofficial inspiration, Heathers. To my mind, the Heathers and the Plastics are cut from the same cloth. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The Holdovers: A Review (Review #1784)



There is an old cliche in film reviewing, "I laughed. I cried". With The Holdovers, I found that cliche fit. I did laugh. I did cry. A well-acted, well-written, well-directed film, The Holdovers delights and moves, even if it goes on longer than it perhaps should. 

Barton Academy, 1970. As staff and students at the prep school prepare to close for the Christmas holiday, there will be a skeleton crew to keep watch over the few students who will have to stay at Barton. These students, colloquially known as "holdovers", are watched over by one teacher and one cook. This year, it is kitchen supervisor Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and Professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), who teaches ancient history to, in his words, "philistines". Hunham is open about his overall contempt for the students: he calls them philistines to their faces. 

Not that his Barton students know what a philistine is or care either about Hunham or ancient history. They just want to move up in life, no knowledge required. All but one of Hunham's students gets a failing grade. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) passes, but he is equally disinterested in things. Much to his horror, Angus is a last-minute holdover, his mother and stepfather cancelling his trip so they could go on a delayed honeymoon.

As Tully, a frenemy, a jock with hair too long for his father's liking and two child students (a Korean and Mormon) are forced to stay, Hunham sees no reason why they can't be learning, working and exercising during this break. Fortune smiles on the group, however, when Jason Smith (Michael Provost), the hippie jock, leaves early when his father finally overlooks Jason's long hair. Mr. Smith has sent his helicopter and agreed to take every student whose parents agree to go with them. Everyone manages to reach their parents for permission, except for Angus.

Now with both Hunham and Tully angrier at the situation, they slowly come to terms with each other and themselves. Mary, for her part, reconciles herself to the death of her son, Curtis, who was killed earlier in the year in Vietnam. As the break goes on through Christmas and New Year's Day, the three of them reveal secrets, accept things as they are, and find resolution to their various issues.

The Holdovers is firmly set in the early 1970's, starting from its opening credits to the overall aesthetic. We are so immersed in this time period, yet The Holdovers never seems dated or stuck in the past. Rather, it is one of the freshest, most original films of 2023, in turns funny and heartfelt. It is a credit to director Alexander Payne how well he navigates his cast and keeps the film going.

This is Paul Giamatti's best performance out of so many wonderful performances that he has given. As Paul Hunham, he is acerbic, aloof, cutting. "I don't understand," Teddy Kountze (Brady Hepner) states when Hunham gives his class schoolwork over the holidays. Without missing a beat, Hunham retorts in a dry, dismissive manner, "That's glaringly evident". What makes Giamatti's performance so brilliant is that he makes Hunham into a flawed yet fully formed person. Other actors might have made him perpetually sardonic or deliberately cruel. Giamatti, however, makes him more rigid but not without sense. He values knowledge and loathes these wealthy scions who coast through life without any effort. He may be blunt to the point of insulting, but as The Holdovers moves, we see how he cocooned himself.

Giamatti makes Paul, if not cuddly, at least understandable, almost relatable, in his flaws and quirks. Moreover, we see the gradual shift in his nature and outlook. It is a subtle shift, best captured from when he refers to his temporary ward as "Mr. Tully" to "Tully" and finally "Angus". We get wonderful moments of acting from Giamatti, some which just have his face tell us. When he sees the Barton employee that he imagines might be interested in him kiss someone else, he turns away to face the audience. The look of sadness and resignation is deeply affecting.

Randolph more than holds her own as Mary, who is funny and heartbreaking. At one point, she remarks to Paul, "You can't even dream a whole dream, can you?" after hearing what he would like to do if he weren't at Barton. Her best scene is at the Christmas party she, Paul and Angus attend. Slightly inebriated, she finally allows herself to grieve for her son. The next day, she remarks to Paul that she had "cocktail flu", the best euphemism for a hangover I have heard.

Sessa in a standout debut performance is equal to acting alongside these veterans. Angus is in turns maddening and lonely, guarding secrets and sadness behind his sarcasm. 

David Hemingson's screenplay is sharp and funny without being saccharine or cynical. It keeps to their characters and how they would speak, but it also gives each character a complexity and growth through their time together. Paul, for example, explains to a store Santa the origin of St. Nicholas of Myra. It is true to how he sees the world but still manages to be funny without making Paul look bonkers. Paul's kiss-off to his hated schoolmaster is one of the best kiss-offs in film, showing a wit behind the goings-on. 

If there is an issue with The Holdovers, it is the length. It does feel longer than its two-hour-plus runtime. I understand that the first set of holdovers was there to set characters, but I think that section could have been cut.

That, however, is a minor flaw. The Holdovers is a delightful, intelligent film. You care about these characters, even with their flaws and quirks. A film that has you chuckling one moment, quietly sighing the next, it is a nice time staying with The Holdovers