So…Uhm…The Rise of Skywalker

ecwe-nmu0aaqbms

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is not a great movie. It’s not a horrible movie either. It is, however, filled with so much pandering fan-service that it’s as if someone took a tee-shirt cannon filled with Star Wars tees and shot it on full auto into your face. Some folks may love that. I did up until a point. Your mileage may – no, it will – very. It serves its purposes only well enough to close out the Skywalker saga — and for better or worse, that’s the end of that. Now can we get on with telling other stories?

I’m going to keep this as spoiler free as possible which is hard since there is so much going on.

In the opening crawl we are told that supposedly dead Emperor Palpatine is still alive. So the return of the Original Trilogy’s biggest villain is introduced via a Star Wars version of a tweet. Kylo somehow tracks down the hidden secret base of Palpatine. Finn and Poe Dameron are off on a mission in the Millennium Falcon getting information from a mole within the First Order and make a daring escape from a squadron of Tie Fighters. Rey is furthering her training in the forest of some planet that is the current home of the Resistance and Leia is her Jedi trainer. Yet she is still haunted by her connection with Emo Ren — I mean — Kylo Ren, and memories of her parents dumping her. This is in the first few minutes of the movie.

What will follow is revelations that yeah, the Emperor is somehow: alive, cloned, magically resurrected by dark sorcery — take your pick because that’s literally how they explained it. Multiple choice. So, the Emperor is not only alive but it turns out he has his own fleet of ships and army called…are you ready? The Final Order! Dude shows a lack of imagination for sure. But he sure knows how to make conplicated and convoluted evil plans. So in a proposed merger between the First Order and the Final Order, details are worked out. There is literally a boardroom scene where someone asks what can they Sith have to offer in trade.

Rey, decides to go off on her own to go kill Palpatine because I guess being a space sorcerer really doesn’t equate to high IQs. Finn, Poe, Chewie, BB8, and Threepio(?) join her because going alone would be stupid, and because — you know, friendship. But no need to worry about Rey, there will be plenty of moments for her to rush off on her own without her friends. Now in order to get to the Emperor who is on the mythical and of course uncharted Sith homeworld of Exegol, they need a map, and in order to get the map, they must go on a mini-quest. They fulfill the mini quest, but in order to decipher the map, they must go on another mini-quest. And along the way we are introduced to more side characters and land on more planets and we have more cameos of actors who get to brag to their kids they were in a Star Wars movie. This is what happens when you have a generation of screenwriters raised on RPG video games.

In the middle of their mini-quest, we also run in that old smoothy, Lando Calrissian who drops in and points the way towards the film’s maguffin. But playa still has some swagger as he says “Give my love to Leia.” Yeah, dude, I know you’re thinking “What’s up, Princess? I heard Han’s gone now.”

There are chases in the desert and even an escape from a Star Destroyer that looks eerily familiar. Now where have we seen this before? And there are quite a few lightsaber duels, more than in any Star Wars movie to date.

Meanwhile, Rey and Kylo Ren still have that Force bond version of Skype going on and so they continue to troll each other with Kylo trying to turn Rey to the Dark Side and Rey saying she’s gonna destroy the Emperor and that Kylo is still Emo.

The characters and their interactions with each other are genuinely good and especially the trio of Rey, Finn, and Poe. There is genuine sense of chemistry between them. Too bad it took three movies to get them all together on screen. These are all top actors doing the very best they can with the material that they have been given. Richard E. Grant as Fleet Admiral Pryde is quite menacing as a First Order leader and just as Domhnall Gleeson seems most comfortable and least over the top in his roll, it’s the end of the trilogy. And of course Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine stands out as well. This time around they at least got the makeup effects right on him as opposed to that monstrosity of a Halloween mask look he had in Revenge of the Sith. And believe it or not, even Anthony Daniels’ Threepio gets a moment. Too bad that moment was given away in the trailer.

But we must address the presence of Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa. She of course died before filming could start on Rise of Skywalker and through many tricks of editing and writing, she was added into the film from unused footage from The Force Awakens and maybe The Last Jedi. It is not entirely seamless but in the end it works. Carrie’s spirit does seem to haunt the film as every scene that she is in is a focus of our attention whether it is intentional or not. If internet rumors can be believed, and of course we should never doubt internet rumors, Leia’s role Rise of Skywalker was supposed to be major. They did the best they could do with what they had. Should they have totally scrapped the idea and gone without Carrie Fisher in it or write her off in the crawl? I don’t know, the answer to that. But I will say it was done respectfully ad with genuine heart.

John Williams returns for what he has claimed to be his final Star Wars score and he does not hold back as the music is exceptionally grand and lush when it needs to be. No matter what fans may end up feeling about the new Disney movies, I think that we can all agree that John Williams’ scores have always been consistently good.

The script by Chris Terrio and JJ Abrams is exactly would you would expect from one of the writers of Justice League and Batman v Superman. It’s filled with odd choices in narrative and plot threads that were unnecessary. New Force powers are introduced that basically locks these guys into the category of space wizards now. I know it’s just fantasy. But I read enough fantasy books to know that good ones have well thought out magic systems. Why do you think that there are so many Dungeons and Dragons rule books?

Yet somehow it works as big dumb entertainment the same way that Aquamanor even Godzilla King of the Monsters works as trash . Because once you start thinking about he film everything falls apart. The action and the character interactions are totally watchable. And that is the main reason to watch it. And on a technical level, the film looks and sounds great. The space battle is massive, yet even though it is bigger, still doesn’t compare to the fleet battle in Return of the Jedi

Does Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker make a fitting entry into the series? I guess it does. It hit the story beats it set out to do and hopefully the studio can move on from the heavy baggage of the Skywalker (and Solo) name, because Rogue One and The Mandalorian are both examples of how well Star Wars can be done without that heavy burden. As it is, there is a line in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman where the main character tells Jimmy Hoffa just before his demise “It is what it is.” That phrase and the meaning behind it about sums up Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. 

Final Score: 7.5/10 ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

16130549._sy475_

There was a time when I read practically every Stephen King book as they came out. Eventually I could not keep up and there were a few that I was not too fond of. In recent years, ‘ve tried to tackle the sprawling Dark Tower series. But the last King book I bought and read right after publication would go on to be one of my favorites, 11/23/63. When I heard that a sequel to the novel The Shining was coming out I downloaded it on the day of release. Unfortunately timing being what it was I did not get around to reading it until just before the release of the movie adaptation. And that is how things worked out and we come to Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep.

Doctor Sleep is a direct sequel of The shining and starts off shortly after the devastating events of The Shining. Now being a sequel to his novel rather than the Stanley Kubrick film, it continues with Dick Hallorann being very much alive as well as Danny and his mother, Wendy. A good third to a quarter on the book centers on the  continued repercussions of the trauma that young Danny experienced from the evil that lurked within the Overlook. He is still visited by the ghosts of the Overlook until Dick teaches him a trick to store these ghosts away in special mental lockboxes. This will come into importance later.

By the time we again meet Dan (as he now goes by), he is an adult, and also a complete mess. He is a drifting alcoholic and barely functional enough to hold down a steady job. While traveling on a bus, he gets an intuitive message in his head to get off at a small New Hampshire town. He finds a some peace and friends there as well. And also while there, he confronts the fact that he is an alcoholic and joins Alcoholics Anonymous.

Parallel to Dan’s adult story is that is Abra (like Abracadabra) Stone. Born in 2001, like Dan, she has the ability known as The Shining. But her ability just may be much more powerful than Ddan’s ever was.

We are also introduced to a group of road wanderers who traverse the country in a caravan of RVs and call themselves the True Knot. The True Knot may not look it, but they have a lot of resources at their command and they have lived a long time. They feed on those that have abilities like Dan and Abra. And they do not consider themselves human. They do have the ability to recruit others and make them like they are immortals who must feed on those with psychic abilities to survive. So…vampires.

Dan has achieved success with a few of years of sobriety and has taken a job at the town’s local hospice in the official capacity of an orderly. But everyone has come to call him Doctor Sleep because he has earned the reputation of helping those who are at the moment of death cross over peacefully, though no one really knows how. They just go with it. The precursor that seems to know when it is time for a patient to pass is the hospice’s cat Azzie (short for Azreel, an alternate spelling of Azrael, the Angel of Death) who will enter into the room of the patient which indicates to the staff they are about to pass.

In the meantime, a now older Abra has been able to reach out and occasionally leave messages with Dan, usually innocuous messages of “hello” or “good morning.”  That innocent communication is broken when Abra detects the painful psychic cries of a tortured boy who is a victim of the True Knot.

Everything begins to coalesce into a novel that is both epic and personal as the lives of everyone comes together as Abra, whose ability is so strong that she has drawn the attention of the True Knot’s leader, Rose the Hat. Dan finds himself reluctant at first to get involved but finds that he can’t ignore what they have been doing over the centuries as their victims are primarily children.

Stephen King not only follows up his classic horror novel effectively but also manages to build and in some ways surpass it. Where The Shining was a trailblazing novel by a young writer, Doctor Sleep is the extension from that seminal work by a writer who has matured, gone through more of life, and has learned to juggle multiple characters and narratives to come together into a story that is full of intensity. It does not have the weight or scale as other epics he’s written such as It or The Stand, but it feels like an epic in some ways. And like great epics, there is a gathering of companions that will help Dan and Abra in their fight, and there will be journey across one end of the country to another. And as most readers will suspect right away, there will be a final confrontation with the evil forces at the magnet for past evils, the burnt out remains of the Overlook Hotel.

Doctor Sleep succeeds as both a sequel and as a stand alone novel. It’s not necessary to have read The Shining, but it certainly helps, and I do recommend it. Dan Torrance emerges as one of King’s strongest and most memorable characters. The intricacies and the emotional struggles that Dan experiences as he comes to grips with alcohol addiction over time, feels authentic and may even have come from King’s own experiences with alcoholism. But it is Dan’s hospice persona which is the most emotionally powerful. Anyone who has ever had a loved one go through hospice care may relate to Dan’s ability and some scenes of people who are at their last few minutes of life. He uses his psychic ability to comfort them and ease their passing. In a way he sees this as atonement to the turbulent life he lead as a drunk. And as we go on a journey with Dan atoning for his past sins, we can relate to him all the more because they are common sins many of us may have felt hitting bottom.

Special mention of note goes to the audio edition as read by Will Patton. Will Patton has been the goto narrator for the Dave Robicheaux books by James Lee Burke and for Doctor Sleep, his talents are on full display as he manages New England accents effortlessly.

Doctor Sleep is more than a worthy successor to The Shining, it is a novel with depth and thrills. It may start just a little slow as we are brought up to speed on the intervening years since the events of The Shining but as an example of character build-up it succeeds very well and allows us to genuinely care for our main cast. It also features a villian with an array of cronies that are very memorable. The psychic vampire trope is not one that has been often explored. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons comes to mind as the closest to the creatures that King has created here. However you choose to consume the novel, whether by reading or listening, you should not be disappointed.

Final Score: 9/10

Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

20beautiful2-videosixteenbyninejumbo1600

I was not one of those people who grew up with memories of watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Yet, I knew who he was and I knew he was very popular. It was not until I was much older that I realized the man was not just a popular host of a children’s show but a true hero.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood may be honestly mistaken as a biography of Fred Rogers, especially if you’ve only watched the trailers. But it’s more about how one man, by being kind, by listening and drawing out the pain from others can make a difference in our everyday lives. Yes that person is Fred Rogers, but the real main character of this film is Lloyd Vogel as played by Matthew Rhys.

There is some creative fiction in the story that this film tells and it comes together within the structure of what seems like an extended episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins with Tom Hanks portraying Mr.Rogers in his iconic opening to the show and showing a picture of his “friend” Lloyd who is troubled . He asks if we would like to meet him and thus begins our story.

Lloyd is a damaged man with deep issues that have never been resolved, specifically issues with his father with whom he had been estranged from for many years. When we first meet Lloyd, he is at his sister’s wedding where he gets into an altercation with his father and ends up with a black eye. Lloyd is a writer for Esquire magazine, mostly known for his investigative articles. When he is assigned an interview with Fred Rogers profiling American heroes, he is disdainful of it and thinks it beneath him. All his editor wants is a 400 word profile of the beloved children’s television host. Lloyd is a cynical writer unconvinced that Rogers is the genuine article. But in trying to get to the real story behind Mr. rogers, it turns out that Mr. Rogers uncovers Lloyd’s real story.

Rather than being a straightforward biopic of Mr. Rogers, we end up with more of an example of the effect a person like Mr. Rogers can have on someone and others around him. In a way, it also plays like an episode of Highway to Heaven where an angel helps a common person who is under personal pain come to address that pain and deal with it. In the case of Lloyd, it is primarily focused around unresolved anger towards his father. Now if it were anybody but Fred Rogers or an Angel, his weaving himself into Lloyd’s life would be creepy but this case it is a form of healing.

Lloyd’s story is not all that unique or that different than many other back stories of millions of men in America. And I believe that is what makes this movie so relatable. It is a common story that speaks for common people. The magic of Fred Rogers as it is shown in scenes he has with children is his gift of not being judgmental or talking down to them. As Lloyd tries to get at Rogers’ real story he discovers that there is no Mr. Rogers screen persona and that what he sees on screen is a genuine caring man.

Matthew Rhys does a very good job as Lloyd Vogel. This is a role that could easily been performed as an unlikeable character but under the direction of Marielle Heller, he becomes a sentimental figure that loves his newborn son and has a loving relationship with his wife. And as he begins to realize he doesn’t want to ever become estranged with his family like he has with his father, we see it too.

But of course, it is Tom Hanks that will draw the most attention from everyone. Let’s be honest about Tom’s performance. He does not look or sound like Fred Rogers, but he captures his mannerisms and way of speaking perfectly. He is still Tom Hanks under that sweater. That is not a bad thing as Tom Hanks is known as one of the warmest and nicest guys in Hollywood. There is genuine heart in the way Hanks portrays the iconic children’s host and brings humble sincerity to a role that requires a sincere approach.

Chris Cooper plays Jerry, Lloyd’s father who a first comes across as that embarrassing relative that probably drinks too much and says the wrong thing at the wrong time. But Jerry is also a character that needs to heal as much as Lloyd. And Cooper, like Rhys, takes a role that could easily have been made into a jerk and gives a sentimental nuanced glimps of a genuine human being trying to make things right.

Even though this film is “based on a true story,” we know that it is code that some dramatic liberties are going to be taken. That is certainly true for the subject of Lloyd as much of his background relationship is fictionalized from the real story of the Esquire writer. Much what you see of Fred Rogers story is more true to history, however. Some of it has been re-arranged for the purposes of film, tough. The film as mentioned before is framed like a two-hour episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and it even uses models similar to those used on the show’s set to illustrate transition scenes and cityscapes. Yes, it is as charming and nostalgic as it sounds. These filmmaking choices give it a near fantasy storybook fee to it. That fantasy world certainly comes across in a funny dream sequence where Lloyd finds himself on the set of miniature Mr. Rogers with the other puppets like King Friday XIII and Daniel Striped TIger.

The structure of the main story and the framing of the the narrative as a piece of journalism which is itself framed as an episode of Mr. Rogers’ is unique. But the back story of Lloyd Vogel’s story about his relationship with his father is not unique in itself. And that simple narrative is also what makes this movie so effective. Lloyd is just like many men in life who have grown cynical with the world and has issues from their past that have never been resolved. He’s just like you, he’s just like me.  By incorporating Mr. Rogers as a  supporting character this becomes more than a story of a guy with daddy issues, it becomes a story of how human kindness and the willingness to forgive can cause a ripple effect around you like a pebble dropped into a pond. And in a way that is a lesson that Fred Rogers has always been trying to teach us, understanding, compassion, and that you too were once a child.

Final Score: 9/10

Update: The original Esquire article can be found here.

For comparison of the real life events compared to the film, check out this from The Hollywood Reporter. Cinema Blend also has a one with spoilers.

Re-watch review: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

It seemed like a perfect idea at the time, one of the great horror novels adapted to film by one of the greatest directors of the time. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining will go on to become one of the most highly regarded horror films of all time. It is also famously despised by Stephen King and as a fan of the book, I can sympathize with Mr. King as it diverges gravely not only in scenes, but in character as well. But if you are not familiar with the source material, then, yes, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining belongs on the list of classic horror films that is still watchable to this day.

So in anticipation of Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, I decided to take another look at the film. Using the recent 4K UHD home release for my viewing experience was the perfect way to watch this horror classic as it is the best presentation that it has ever gotten on home video.

Jack Torrance is about to transplant his family and himself to be the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in the high mountains of Colorado. Right away it is mentioned that the hotel is built atop old Indian burial grounds. So you know bad things are going to happen.

Jack’s young son, Danny is a bit odd and like many kids his age, has an imaginary friend, that he talks back and forth to. We and his parents are privy to this as he uses his finger to inexplicably communicate with his family as “Tony,” his imaginary friend.

The hotel is about to close for the season as winters tend to cut it off from the rest of the world. The parting chef, Dick Holloran notices that Danny has what is known as a Shine or Shining. Like Danny, DIck has it too, psychic ability. Danny has it strongly though and DIck tells him not to worry about seeing ghosts in the hotel, they can’t harm him. But if h ever needs help, give a holler by way of shine, and he’ll come.

So, Jack goes on a murderous rampage, his wife Wendy screams a lot, and Danny calls for help because those ghosts of the Overlook really seem to take a shine to his shine. The story is pretty well known by now.

This is one of Jack Nicholson’s most iconic roles and it is well deserved. From the opening you already get the sense of “Yeah, this motherfucker’s gonna end up trying to kill his family.”

Now, having recently re-read Stephen King’s original novel that Kubrick based his movie on, I can see why King took issue with Kubrick’s interpretation. Yet if one were to watch the film on its own merits, it is in my opinion one of the most effective horror films ever made. Imagery such as the hand holding ghostly twins have been seared into the subconscious of horror fans and non horror fans all over the world.

From the opening notes of music by Sibelius, adapted by composer Wendy Carlos, we feel a sense of something ominous approaching. Accompanying it is long establishing shots of Jack Torrance driving up to the hotel, emphasising that wherever the car is going, it is going somewhere isolated.

Kubrick is known as a perfectionist in vision and his films are incredibly engaging visually. This is true of 2001, and it is even more so with The Shining. However, he has been pegged sometimes as emotionally cold, and in the case of 2001, it is rightly so. Yes, the performances are great from everyone, but we never get a sense of who the characters are in the film other than the basics of their characters.

Jack’s character get the most shortchanged in this interpretation as his past and continuing struggles with alcoholism have been cut down. And it is even in the end that the real Jack and the love of his son that allows his family to escape. Dick Hallorann is played memorably by the late Scatman Crothers, but his character is underused and quickly dispatched by Jack’s axe whereas he was integral in the saving of Danny and Wendy.

Kubrick’s extensive use of the steadicam camera was almost dizzying when it was first shown and was a bit unnerving to audiences that were not used o this new technology of smooth tracking and it was employed as a visual feast to the eyes as we travel through long labyrinthine hallways and eventually a labyrinthian hedge as well.

The 4k Ultra High Definition release from Warner Brothers is a visual marvel I am more impressed by older films receiving 4K transfers than I am modern films. It is because 4K resolution, when taken from original elements shine the best with older films since they were originally shot on film which has a natively higher resolution than 4k. Nowadays with digital presentations, studious cut costs and master their films in 2K and when it comes time for home releases, they simply upscale the 2K image to 4K. In most cases it’s good enough, especially for a HD Blu-ray release which has a native resolution of 2K. But when upscaled to 4K the improvements is often minor. The Shining takes full advantage of the technology of improved resolution and add in the HDR Dolby Vision color enhancement, the color reproduction is the best this film has ever looked since it was first shown. Now, this sounds really nerdy even for me, and I am not savvy enough to comment fully other than to say this movie looks phenomenal on the new 4K release.

Approach The Shining movie as a separate entity than the novel and I think you will find that Kubrick’s vision is a classic in horror and suspense. It’s latests home video release is also the best that it has ever looked and sounded. It is one of the few horror films that was made by a true auteur and visionary director and shows that taking the time to be meticulous in direction and vision, can result in a film that stands the test of time.

FInal Score: 8.5/10

Re-read Review: Stephen King’s The Shining

It’s been close to 40 years since I first read Stephen King’s The Shining, and it was without question one of the books that made me fan of King but a voracious reader as well. I don’t often re-read books for the reason that there are so many books that I have yet to read the first time. Since I had the follow-up book, Doctor Sleep, in my to read list and in anticipation of the upcoming movie adaptation, I decided it would be a good idea to return to King’s classic novel and check back in to the Overlook Hotel. So what is there to discover in this re-read?

The Torrance family is about to have a major change in their lives. Jack Torrance is about to take a job at an isolated and secluded hotel in the Rocky Mountains. Wendy, his wife, and five-year-old son Danny get to spend the Winter in the hotel while it is closed for the season. Jack is supposed to be the caretaker of the property while the rest of the staff are gone.

It’s a cliche story idea now, but at the hands of King who is one of the greatest influences of modern horror, it is a story that remains gripping to this day. The Cabin in the woods and isolation is the trope. In this case, it’s the hotel at the top of the Rockies and isolation. So of course horror ensues.

Jack looks forward to the time away from distractions. He plans to use a lot of the isolated time to work on his play. And as a recovering alcoholic, he is glad that the hotel’s supply of alcohol is taken away during the off season that he and his family are staying at the Overlook.

Danny, is a young boy with a peculiar power, a “shine” as the hotel’s cook, Jack Halloran,  calls it, a psychic ability. That ability is often pre-cognitive but in a place as old as the Overlook with its dark past, it also let’s Danny see the ghosts of the hotel.

Wendy feels the most happy being able to spend time with her family in the big luxury hotel.

And then there is the Overlook Hotel itself. It is a magnet for malevolence and dead spirits — not the friendly kind, either. This is a case where an abode is a character onto itself. It has a dark history and an even darker personality to go with it. Yes, it is indeed haunted and the spirits that inhabit it are the suffering spirits who have all met their ends in dark and often violent means. They all seem to coalesce into a single entity.

Danny’s presence in the hotel is a draw to the Overlook’s malevolence and it seems to want the family to not just stay but to die there as well. It is able to reach into Jack’s mind to poison his thoughts and make him slowly lose his grip on sanity, especially in the vulnerable state of being a recovering alcoholic.

This is Stephen King’s third novel and even after all these years it still has the powerful ability to grip me and keep me on the edge of my seat in tense unease. During my re-read, it does show some signs of its age especially in the way of technology as antiquated telephone technology (how many these days remember feeding quarters into a payphone and getting operator assistance?).

The characters are still memorable and though it may seem like a slow burn at first, it is an intentional choice by King to get us to become familiar with the characters. And those who may have only watched the Stanley Kubrick directed adaptation may find some surprises. Jack Torrance is not as mad as he is portrayed by Jack Nicholson. Rather, he is a writer who has achieved some minor success yet is not as successful as he wants to be. He genuinely loves his son and even in the end fights against the darkness that consumes him.

King was going through his own struggles with alcoholism at the time he wrote The Shining and it comes across as deeply personal, which would help explain his vested interest in the integrity of his story and criticisms of Stanley Kubrick. Now What Kubrick did in his film was truly remarkable and is often scary, but it is definitely a Kubrick film than a King film. Yet, The Shining is also one of the greatest horror novels of all time and is well worth at least one read through.

FInal Score: 10/10

Review: Harriet

mv5bzjkyzmuznzktyzi3ys00mtc1ltkxnjctm2vlmtu5ytkwmgfjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynju1nzu3mze40._v1_sy1000_sx800_al_

The story of Harriet Tubman may sound vaguely familiar but like most history concerning people of color, it isn’t covered much in detail in most school curriculums. She has, however, not been forgotten. We know her as a powerful woman who led slaves to freedom and a fighter for women’s suffrage. She was slated to not only be the first African American to be placed on US currency but the first African American woman to be accorded this honor. And it was great fanfare that she would replace Andrew Jackson’s $20 bill portrait, a president who has long been proven a racist and a major factor in the genocidal Trail of Tears relocation of Native American. That plan would be later nixed by the Trump administration and the Treasury secretary for no believable reason.

You would think that a woman of such significance would have quite a few screen depictions of her. And unfortunately the last time she was portrayed outside of a documentary was in 1978 television miniseries A Woman Named Moses, starring Cicely Tyson. Now in 2019, Harriet rectifies that oversight. It does the best it can with an outstanding performance but does not cross over the finish line without a few bruises as far as story and script are concerned.

In the years in Maryland leading up to the Civil War, the slave Araminty “Minty” Ross is already married to a free Black man named John Tubman. It is revealed that there are provisions  from a previous owner called manumits, which allowed for  her father to be freed at 45, which was honored. The manumits also allowed the Minty’s mother and her children to to be freed when the mother turned 45. But the family refuses to honor it and as the family farm is falling into debt after the death of the patriarch, they decide to sell off some of the slaves. Minty is one of them.

Rather than being sold, she decides to run away to freedom. She ends up leaving her husband behind who is a free man knowing that if he were caught with her her he would be killed. She eventually makes her way to Philadelphia which is a haven for runaway slaves. There, she finds the local Anti-Slavery Society offices, where she meets William Still who helps her settle into a life of freedom. With her new life she discards the name given to her as a slave and takes on the name Harriet from her mother, and Tubman from her husband.

All this time, she still fears for her family and husband and decides that she has to go help them to freedom as well. Against the advice of William Sill, she leads members of her family to freedom. This is regarded as her first run as a “conductor” in the underground railroad and she becomes part of the movement to conduct slaves seeking freedom or even outright leading slaves off the field.

Before long, legend spreads of an mysterious figure known as Moses who leads slaves out of the fields to freedom. They do not have any idea that it is not only a runaway slave but a woman. They mostly believe it is a white abolitionist in blackface.

Harriet is fueled by a magnificent performance by Cynthia Erivo, an up and coming actress who has stood out in Widows as the runner. Her characterization ranges from an initially unsure woman who would eventually become a powerful presence that will not be denied her way. She bring strength and emotional nuance to one of history’s heroes.

Leslie Odum plays the real life William Still as a rather patricianly character who is hesitant to take too many risks and gains great respect and awe for Harriet in just a short amount of time.

Janelle Monáe, who has been popping up a lot as a voice actress makes an impressive screen presence as the fictional Marie Buchanan, the owner of the boarding house, and mentor, that Harriet finds herself bonding with.

Harriett as a biopic is relatively accurate in that it covers major events in her life. And it is that historic accuracy that may turn some heads, but they are accurate even though the execution of how it is portrayed may not ring authentic.

Historically, Harriet Tubman was a deeply religious woman and it is portrayed as such in the film. It is also true that she suffered from spells, either fainting or epileptic. She believed these spells also provided her with vision from God. The film, treats it almost like a sort of Spidey sense, especially in times where she is on the run from slave catchers and she is given visions from God not to take a certain road or to cross a certain point across a river. The way this is portrayed may take some audience members out of the picture. It comes across more like a super power than an insight from God. but then again I guess there is really no authentic way to portray visions from God. There are also a few scenes where all Harriet has to do is sing a few bars of a gospel hymn and suddenly slaves know where and when to run.

This film could have easily run a lot longer than the roughly two hour running time as much of her later exploits during and after the civil war are given short mentions just before the end credits roll.  Historically, Harriet Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War and after the war she became a leader for women’s suffrage. She did all this while still being illiterate.

Director Kasi Lemmons who may be best know for Eve’s Bayou does a competent job and definitely knows how to draw out great performances. This is possibly her biggest budgeted film to date and it does suffer from some tropes of big budget films such as a poorly developed villain in the guess of her obsessed former slave owner. Lemmons makes a conscious choice to not submit audiences to the cliched trope of slave whippings or beatings. It is mentioned, and we see scars but often times directors feel a need to graphically portray it on screen as if to remind audiences America’s great sin.

Yet despite a few stumbles in pacing and script, the performances are stunning especially Cynthia Erivo’s. It, like many other  biopics elevates its subject to a larger than life hero for our times. And in the case of the subject, Harriet Tubman really is a genuine hero in American history.

Final Score: 8/10

Review: The Lighthouse

the-lighthouse-2019-banner

Should pale death, with treble dread, make the ocean caves our bed, God who hears the surges roll deign to save our suppliant soul.

Director Robert Eggers made quite a splash with the unsettling horror film The Witch. With The Lighthouse, he ramps that sense of unsettlement up to eleven and creates a horror movie that centers around madness and features two incredible performances from a pair of actors that are often underappreciated for their craft.

The Lighthouse is set entirely on a small island where a solitary lighthouse is to be manned by two men who are also the sole human occupants of the island for four weeks until the next relief comes. Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake is the old grizzled sea dog of the pair who is the senior in charge and has been doing lighthouse duties for a long time now — perhaps too long. Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow, is the young newcomer who has taken his first lighthouse duties thinking there would be good money in it by the end.

The pair are strangers to each other and it’s not even until about halfway through the film that they even exchange names. Tensions begin on the very first day as Pattinson’s character refuses to drink during dinner with the veteran, saying it is against regulations. The old man treats Pattinson as nothing more than a hard laborer. He has him doing all the repairs, all the hard work, and the cleaning. All this time he is noting everything in a log book and makes it clear that he is the only one that maintains with the lighthouse lamp.

As the days and weeks go by, nerves begin to fray as Winslow becomes tired of Wake’s old sea stories and verbal abuses. Winslow begins to see things that he is not sure is  real or imagined. All this time, the relationship between the pair wax from friendliness to outright physical fights as they while away nights drinking alcohol.

Throughout the film, Eggers creates a feeling of dread and unease as we and Winslow question whether what he has seen is either real or not. It does not help that Wake questions the youth’s own grip on reality about questionable actions that are presented as those of Wake’s.

Their confines are claustrophobic and made to look even more so as the films was shot in the narrow aspect ratio of 1.19:1 which is even more narrow of an aspect ration than old tube televisions which were 1.33:1. It is also shot with stark black and white film which adds to the atmospheric nature of dread that permeates the entire movie. The cinematography is by Jarin Blashke, who had also shot The Witch for Eggers previously. While that was a film that was muted in colors, the decision to go black and white for The Lighthouse makes every shadow and every scene all the more unsettling. Location filming took place at the real lighthouse on Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia. The normally attractive tourist spot becomes a menacing gothic figure surrounded by crashing waves and angry storms under the lens of Bashke.

Accompanying this beautifully shot film is a menacing score by Mark Korven, another alum from Egger’s The Witch. From the opening shot, ominous deep minor notes immediately make you aware that an impending dark tale is about to unfold and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Throughout the narrative, Korven’s score looms over scenes like a heavy anchor around the necks of the characters, weighing the feel of the film down with moods of unease, even in the most mundane of scenes.

Much of what makes this film work hinges on the ability of just two actors to carry this film with a minimum of budget and special effects. Fortunately for us, Eggers draws out some of the best performances on the year from the two cast members. Robert Pattinson has steadily been building a solid acting resume, post Twilight and he is steadily maturing as one of the most respected and accomplished actors of his age. Willem Dafoe turns in what is possibly his best performance ever as Thomas Wake, channeling a dark abusive old sea dog, chewing on a pipe, and dripping salty, often vitriolic lines.

 

maxresdefault

Despite this being a horror film, it won’t appeal to all horror fans. There are no jump scares and there is no masked slasher slowly stalking victims trying to run away. Much of the horror in this is psychological and builds up as characters begin to lose their grips on sanity. Soon both men will descend into their own form of madness and we as a viewer are left to wonder whose vision of reality is true — or even if both of them are not seeing things as they are. Most certainly, the ending may not make much sense to average horror fans but even so, it will be one of those endings that will make you think about it after the lights come on in the cinema. If there is a universal lesson that we can all take from this film it’s that it’s bad luck to kill a seabird.

Robert Eggers, with his follow-up to The Witch is carving a niche for himself in the horror genre that elevates him to an auteur status that is currently occupied by artists of vision like Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) who are changing how we see modern horror movies. Instead of going for cheap jump-scares and torture porn deaths, they make you feel dread, fear, and unease. And in the end that is those things make for good horror.

Final Score: 9/10

Bonus Content: While watching The Lighthouse, I could not help but think of an episode of The Simpsons. And true to the South Park meme, The Simpsons already did it with an episode titled Mountain of Madness where Mr. Burns and Homer are trapped in a cabin together and they slowly go mad. Of course it’s not the exact same story but it is a little fun to compare the two.

So for legal reasons, and for my declaration of fair use, below is a clip from that episode.

Review: Parasite

South Korean Cinema has really grown in its ability to cross on over to western consciousness. Their films are celebrated for their action films, and crime dramas. K-dramas have become a sensation online and K-pop has taken its share of the US pop music charts. Director, Bong Joon Ho has been at the forefront of the Korean wave. He gained notice with The Host, a Korean monster movie that was unique in that it had a good monster along with a good story and acting. He crossed over into Western films with the science fiction dystopian film Snowpiercer which had some moderate success. Unfortunately not all his films are easily accessible to the West like the brilliant Memories of Murder. With Parasite, Bong Joon Ho has achieved what no other Korean film has ever done, and that is to win the Palme d’Or, the grand prize at the Cannes film festival.

Parasite is a dark comedy that gradually becomes darker and less comedic as it unfolds over it’s narrative. The Kim family is a family living in abject poverty, that somehow manages to get by in life by doing odd jobs, and leeching wifi from neighbors or nearby cafes. Their apartment is below ground with their only window to the outside world is a gutter level view to a the street at gutter level view to an alley where drunks o to pee. And in a symbolic piece of set design, their toilet occupies the highest elevation in their abode. This family is a giant “your family is so poor” joke.

201920-20parasite-thumb-860xauto-75342

Opportunity comes knocking when a friend of Ki-woo, the Kim’s only son, asks him to take over the job he had tutoring English for the attractive daughter of the rich Park family since he will be studying abroad.  Ostensibly it’s because his friend doesn’t want other college brats fawning over her while he gone. (Yeah, you know bro-code is gonna get broken) Ki-woo, isn’t really qualified as he’s never been to college, having failed the entrance exams several times, but he does have experience. His sister Ki-jeong just happens to a Photoshop whiz and easily forges college documents for him.

He manages to get the job and while there discovers from the mother that their young son is very interested in art but had gone through several art teachers who could not handle the boy’s wild nature. He recommends a highly praised art therapist who is a friend of a friend who is highly sought after but not cheap named Jessica. Jessica is, of course, his sister.

The Kim family is a family of hustlers. And the Parks are the perfect marks, rich and gullible. The Kims quickly adapt to whatever they need to adapt in order to achieve that hustle. And bit by bit, the rich Kim family finds that the entire Kim family is under their employ, even displacing the currently employed driver and housemaid.

Much of the film is darkly comedic, but is also a commentary on the differences in the class differences between the haves and the have absolutely nothings. The differences between the two families is mainly money. Both are quite likable and both are closely bonded together. As poor down and out that the Kims are, they are still a loving family. True, they are a scheming family of grifters, but there is no doubt that they are closely knit and  they truly care for each other. The Parks, for all their riches and are also a loving family. It is evident that the parents truly care for their children. The Park’s true feelings about social class is revealed most tellingly when Mr.Park keeps mentioning how much he dislikes it when people, meaning the help, cross the line.

The dark comedy soon gives way to just plain dark and enters into near grand guignol territory as dark secrets are revealed and it turns out that the Kims are not the only ones in the house running a hustle.

Parasite is filled with great performances from a cast that finds itself in a combined with a great story and direction. The film is also shot incredibly well. The cinematographer was Hong Kyung-pyo who shot the gorgeous dreamlike film about the artistic muse, M. Even the lower class sections of the city that the Kims occupy has beauty to it as bright neon lights up streets shops and golden warm lights illuminate the streets. Director Bong Joon-ho knows his craft and draws out great performances and is able to craft a story where every characters is memorable.

Song Kang-ho, who seems to be in every Korean film, turns in an exceptional performance as Kim Ki-taek, the father that leads the grifting family and has the bearing of the common man, a man who has been through much in life and deals with it as it comes along the best he can. Jang Hye-jin is Chung-sook, the mother of the Kims who wavers from her lower class upbringing to the matronly act of refined housekeeper with ease.

Parasite is wickedly funny and engaging. You’ll find yourself caring for every character, especially when things eventually turn tragic. It also has subtle messages that you will think about later as it pertains to class. And the ending may be ambiguous, but if you really pay attention, it is ultimately tragic as certain things in life won’t ever change and if they do, it’s only in dreams.

Final Score: 9/10

Review: Maleficient Mistress of Evil

Disney has made a cottage industry of remaking their animated films into live action films. The Lion King falls somewhere in-between with it’s photo-realistic computer animation. Almost all of them have been financially successful with varying degrees of critical reception. Two-thousand-fourteen’s Maleficient stands out to me as significant in its quality and unique take on the story of Sleeping Beauty it was based on. Instead of doing it as a remake, it is a retelling from the point of view of the animated film’s villain, Maleficient, and her motivations. It did well in the box office and it was definitely a fun scene chewing role for Angelina Jolie as the high cheek-boned villain.

Maleficient: Mistress of Evil is the direct sequel to its predecessor and continues its story with the now older Aurora (Elle Fanning), the legendary Sleeping Beauty and now Queen of the fairy inhabited Moors, is set to wed Prince Phillip(Harris Dickinson). Maleficient, as Aurora’s Fairy Godmother, is not too fond of the union but is willing to accept it for her sake, even meet with the Prince’s parents, the king and queen of Ullstead.

Though King John (Robert Lindsay) is hopeful that the union of Aurora and Phillip will bring peace between the two kingdoms of humans and fae, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), however, has no such hope or optimism. And in one of the most transparent first act plot turns of modern film, she orchestrates the cursing of the king so that Maleficient can be blamed for it. Driven from the palace and wounded in the process, Maleficient finds herself taken in by the Dark Fae, the fairy folk that she is descended from. Hated and hunted through history the remnants of their kind have retreated to a hidden island sanctuary. Wile there,there is a similar debate of whether to pursue peace or seek out war with the humans. And it is revealed that  Maleficient is especially special among them. Yes, Disney plays the Chosen One card.

Meanwhile, with the King suffering the curse of an unwaking sleep, and the mother of the bride missing, the wedding is going ahead as planned mainly because the plot requires it, I guess. But Queen Ingrith is plotting against the fairy folk who have all been invited to the wedding. Prince Phillip spends much of his time worrying over the sleeping form of his father while Aurora suspects that the Queen may not have the best interest of the fairy folk in mind. She uncovers the conspiracy pretty easily — very easily, like she walks into it.

This is a movie that really did not need to be made. Yes in the Disney cartoon, there is a wedding at the end and I guess it’s the reason for the plot of this sequel, but what could have been a direct to video one hour sequel in the old days is a full on high budget vehicle with large battles and a padded story that stretches it just long enough to make it a feature film.

What makes the film work, however, are stand-out performances by both Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer who stare great daggers at each other in the few scenes they have together. If their were more scenes of that, the movie would have benefited from it. It is also visually stunning at times with images of the Moors that pop on the large screen, especially on large formats like IMAX. Fans of costuming will love the work done in this film as Jolie sports some great outfits, even with basic black. Michelle Pfeiffer looks absolutely regal in her queenly regalia despite exuding absolute menace.

The plot is quite simple, easy to digest, pretty predictable, and yet it will keep you engaged enough only because the audience has already invested in the characters established in the last film. It most definitely winds up with an easy ending that ties everything up to easily. In other words, the ending is a very Disney ending.

Bearing in mind that this is still essentially a tale for a younger audience, there are some dark images and ideas that are portrayed in it. Warwick Davis plays Lickspittle, someone who works for the queen and is in charge of developing weapons to kill fairies. His research involves experiments on living fairies in fact. Now, the nature of fairy tales is dark and it may surprise some that there is such dark themes in the film but I take that as par for the course. Young children may find some of it unsettling. But young teens will probably be fine.

Despite its flaws, the visual style, and the fine performances do elevate the film into something that is definitely worth a watch, maybe at a matinee.

Final Score: 7.5/10

Review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

42800305._sy475_

R.F. Kuang’s second book in her Poppy War Trilogy, The Dragon Republic, is not only as impressive as her first novel, The Poppy War, but is actually more mature in its writing style and confidence in storytelling that shows through the further world-building lore that is based heavily on Chinese history. There will be spoilers ahead for The Poppy War as this review will assume that you are already aware of the events, especially the end of that book.

After the events of The Poppy War, Rin and the surviving members of the Cike are on the run as the she is now enemies with the Nikan Empress who betrayed the nation to the invading Mugen Federation. She is also haunted by the death of Alton, the only other member of her Speerlie race. And even though she ended the war with the Federation by effectively committing genocide, chaos is left in its wake as soldiers without a nation to return to have resorted to wandering the country as bandits.

She soon finds herself joining with the warlord of the Dragon province who is also the father of her old school rival Nezha. It is the Dragon Warlord’s plan to lead a rebellion against the Empress and instituting a government based on democratic republic. As cynical as Rin is about this form of government she joins for the sake of vengeance against the traitorous Empress. Her best friend, Kitay,  from Sinegard Academy joins in the cause as well. Nezha, scarred and matured by the war is now a general under his father’s leadership.

New to the narrative is the nation of Hesperia. They come across as the equivalent of the Western European powers, equipped with firearms (something that the Nikari people have not seen) and airships, they are an imposing figure that allegedly supports the idea of a Dragon Republic. But they hold back on actual military support as they believe the Nikan people are not civilized enough yet. They also have their own agenda involving the spreading of their single deity religion and the examination of Rin’s shamanic power so that they can cure what they consider to be a manifestation of chaos.

The grim portrayal of Kuang’s world continues on an even broader scale as the scale of Rin’s observations on the war torn country around her expands to the multiple provinces. The effects of country that has just survives an invasion but now thrown into a civil war are all around her. There are mass exoduses and refugees fleeing from one place to another to escape conflict. On top of that is the lack of food for a population being overrun by conflict.

Rin still suffers from being more impulsive than she is smart — even though she is very smart. She is also still obsessed in following in the footsteps of Alton as a leader, even using his trident for which she is ill suited as a wielder. Her problems are even more compounded when her first face to face fight against the Empress results in her being cut off from her shaman powers.

Amid the cast of ambiguous characters with ambiguous motivations, Kitay stays the most true, and perhaps most innocent of characters. He also remains Rin’s truest friend. As in the previous novel, he anchors Rin as a moral compass and is the voice of reason. It doesn’t always work though. Fellow warlords and other generals tend to disregard some of his advice. Even Rin will give into her impulsive self than listen to reason much of the time.

Nezha’s character is much more fleshed out in The Dragon Republic as more is revealed about his family background and his motivations. His character arc is all the more intriguing when he and Rin come to know each other better and he also becomes a good friend to her. But he is also conflicted as a general and son of the Dragon Warlord who ultimately sees Rin as more of a tool of war and a bargaining chip that he throws to the Hesperians to study in exchange for their promised support. It becomes clear that the warlord is willing to sell her out if it is in his best interest.

The images of the after effects of war are haunting. There are many observations of starving peasants or bodies of civilian casualties littering field or floating in rivers. The Dragon province becomes a destination point for refugees fleeing starvation and band of former Mugen Federation soldiers now reduced to raiding defenseless villages. There is starvation and a definite lack of resources for these refugees which is made abundantly clear in the narrative.

Kuang’s structure and tone has definitely improved since the last book and events flow more naturally in the same three-part structure that was the structure of the first book. We also learn more about the shaman magic that Rin and others (including the Empress) have inherited. More is also revealed about the founding of the Nikan nation by the founding shamans. And with the introduction of the Hesperians, we get conflict not only in cultures but of religion as well.

Things coalesce in the third part of the book and it can seem to move quickly as groundwork that had been laid out throughout the narrative comes to a head as most of the novel’s plot threads come together with battles, betrayals and loss. As this is meant to be a trilogy, the novel ends at an appropriate point that does not feel like a cheap cliffhanger, but will still leave you with anticipation for the third and concluding book in the trilogy.

Ms. Kuang has grown quite a bit as a storyteller from her debut to her second novel and her ability to weave complex ideas has grown with her. He displays some great depictions of military tactics and action. She also manages to juggle a bigger cast and more complex issues such as politics and the plight of wartime refugees. Her main character, Rin has to go through a lot of development and emotional growth which she did not manage to handle as well in the first book. And the complexities of Rin’s character arc throughout the book is often filled with frustration, anger, and raw emotion as she has to examine what her place in the world is with or without her shamanic powers.

The Dragon Republic is more than a worthy follow-up to The Poppy War and I for one am in great anticipation of the final book because this is an amazing story that has been captivating from the beginning.

Final Score: 9/10