Movie Review: When They See Us (2019)


Title: When They See Us
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Company: Harpo Films | Tribeca Productions | ARRAY | Participant Media
Summary/Review:

This Netflix miniseries dramatizes the stories of five teenage boys from Harlem who were accused and convicted of brutally raping a woman jogging through Central Park, but would be exonerated for the crime over a decade later.  The film covers the same as the Ken Burns’ documentary Central Park Five but with a greater emphasis on the emotional impact on the boys and their families.  When they see is directed by Ava DuVernay, who is also responsible for the biopic Selma, the documentary 13th, and fantasy/adventure A Wrinkle in Time (which is quite a varied portfolio).  While the four parts tell a complete story, each part also works as a stand-alone film.

The first part focuses on the night of the incident.  The media portrayed them as part of a “wolf pack” of “superpredators” who went out “wilding,” commiting crimes for fun. The truth is that the 5 boys and others were caught up in spontaneous gathering of about 30 teenagers who mostly didn’t know one another and went to Central Park to horse around.  And yes, some of them did participate in assault, robbery, and vandalism, but by and large that was a small portion of the larger group.  Oddly, one of the most beautiful scenes in this movie is an overhead shot of the boys running into the park.  The five – Raymond, Kevin, Korey, Yusef, and Antron – were among those rounded up by the police. When the unconcious jogger is found, the police held them overnight without food or sleep, interogate them without parents present, and coerce them to confess to a crime they knew nothing about. The NYC District Attorney Sex Crimes Unit leader Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) works up a narrative from the skimpy evidence to place the boys at the scene of the crime.

The second part focuses on the trial.  The film only dramatizes one of the two trials.  We see the boys support one another as they resolutely refuse a plea bargain or anything but their full innocence.  There’s support among the families too, but also a lot of tension as what course of action to take and distrust of the other families’ children. Archival footage of Donald Trump condeming the Five is shown with a mother commenting that his fifteen minutes are almost up, perhaps too big of a wink for this movie.  Their lawyers are not up to snuff to take on the city’s prosecuter Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga) despite the only evidence being coerced confessions that contradict one another. The five are all found guilty.

Part three focuses on the four younger members of the group – Antron, Raymond, Yusef, and Kevin – each of whom serve around 6-7 years in juvenile detention.  The film shows their transition from boys to adults through phone calls and visits with their families.  Then each is released and tries to return to their lives.  There are tensions with family members as they adjust to changes that happened during their imprisonment.  Worse, the law regarding what convicted felons and sex offenders can do leaves them very little opportunity to find work and housing, and require frequent check-ins.  One of them turns to crime to make ends meet and ends up back in prison.

The younger four are played by different actors as a child and as an adult – Kevin Richardson (Asante Black and Justin Cunningham), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk), and Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares).  They all put in an excellent performance portraying their characters, but the major star of the miniseries is Jharrel Jerome who plays Korey Wise both as a teenager and an adult.  Wise was 16 at the time of the case and thus tried as an adult.  He was sent to prisons where the other prisoners and guards targeted him for severe abuse.  Wise requested transfers to other prisons farther from NYC and spent lots of time in solitary for his own safety.  In one prison, there’s even a white guard who is sympathetic to wise and treats him humanely.  Many of the most intense scenes of the film focus on Wise enduring long periods of time in solitude and having memories and daydreams. Flashbacks show his close relationship with his transgender older sister until their mother throws her out of the house.  One of the most beautiful sequences shows Wise imaging that instead of going to Central Park with the other boys that he took his girlfriend to Coney Island.

In 2001, Wise meets another prisoner named Matias Reyes (one he’d actually had a fight with in prison several years earlier).  Reyes admits that he had raped the Centeral Park jogger on his own.  His description of the attack and DNA evidence verifies his claim, and this leads to vacating the convictions of Richardson, McCray, Salaam, Santana, and Wise.

This movie is beautifully directed  and yet a brutal depection of a grave injustice. It is an important film to watch to get an understanding of the discriminatory nature of the criminal justice system against black and brown people.

Rating: ****

Theater Review: The Haunted Life at Merrimack Repertory Theatre


Play: The Haunted Life
Venue: Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Writer: Sean Daniels
Director: Sean Daniels and christopher oscar peña

Susan and I enjoyed a night out at the theater last night thanks to tickets I won from WERS.  We saw a new play called The Haunted Life at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA which is based on a novel written by Lowell’s own Jack Kerouac.  Kerouac’s wrote the novel in 1944 but it wasn’t published until 2014, and it contains a lot of autobiographical details about Kerouac’s life.

The play focuses on 19-year-old the Holden Caulfield-esque character Peter Martin (Raviv Ullman), and begins in the summer of 1941 when he is home for the summer after his freshman year at Boston College.  One of Peter’s friends tries to encourage him to join the Army in order to find adventure, while another friend, Garabed (both played by Vichet Chum), keeps Peter up all night arguing about poetry.  Peter also enjoys picnics with his girlfriend Eleanor (Caroline Neff). At home, Peter’s father Joe (Joel Colonder) – himself a French Canadian immigrant – rages about the new immigrants destroying America.  Peter’s mother Vivienne (Tina Fabrique) worries about her older son who ran away to join the merchant marine a decade earlier and of whom Peter hardly remembers anything.

After fighting with his father over his racism, Peter also runs away to the merchant marine. When the US enters World War II, Peter leaves the merchant marine and tries to set himself up as poet in Manhattan, but is unable to make himself write anything. In of the most biting lines of dialogue, he tells Eleanor that he’s an “inactive poet,” to which she responds “an inactive poet is not a poet.”  Losing friends and family to the war, Peter shuts out everyone else in his life, and wallows in brooding despair.  Surprisingly, it is reconciling with his father that helps Peter to engage with the world again and decide what is important to do with his life.

The play is performed on a simple stage with few props against a backdrop of many windows fitted together.  The performers frequently deliver monologues that comment on Peter’s feelings and actions, that can be poetic or pretentious depending on your perspective.

Vichet Chum is probably the strongest actor in the show and displays his versatility in playing multiple characters.  Caroline Neff has a relatively small part, but also puts in a great performance, and also was the only actor who didn’t seem to be rushing her lines.  I was delighted to find out that Tina Fabrique provided the vocals for the original Reading Rainbow theme song, although I’m sure does not want to be pigeonholed just for that.  Fabrique may have the smallest part in the play but gives a depth and warmth to what could’ve been a stereotypical “mother” role.  I appreciate the casting of actors that encapsulate the modern-day diversity of Lowell that adds to the sense that the issues debated in a play set almost 80 years ago are still the same issues of today.

The Haunted Life continues performances through April 14, so if you have the opportunity, get yourself to Lowell and see it!

TV Review: Broadchurch (2017)


Title: Broadchurch
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

I recently watched the third and final series of the the British program Broadchurch.  I watched the first two series a few years ago back before I started writing reviews of tv series so I’ll sum up my thoughts on them first.  Series 1 focuses on the murder of an 11-year boy in a small, coastal town of England and the effect that the murder and mystery has on that town. It’s visually striking, well-acted, and takes the time to explore the feelings of grief, anger, and suspicion among the characters.  The second series focuses on the trial of the murderer intercut with the investigation of an unrelated cold case.  This series veered into being too silly and contrived and paled in comparison to the first series.

I really enjoy the work of the actors Olivia Colman and David Tennant as the detectives Ellie Miller and Alec Hardy.  They play ordinary, rumpled people with complicated lives, not at all the typical glamorous television detective.  I love the interplay between them and how amidst the bickering they develop mutual respect and friendship.  The rest of the cast are made up of talented British actors, and a large number of them have been involved in Doctor Who (as has the creator and writer of Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall, who is now the showrunner for Doctor Who).

The third series takes place a few years after series 2, with the focus set on the rape of a middle-aged woman named Trish (Julie Hesmondhalgh).  The explores her personal trauma as well as effect the crime has on Trish’s family, friends, and the townspeople in general.  The first episode is a very stark portrait of Trish being taken into the rape crisis response system.  Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker) – the mother of the murdered Danny from the first two series – returns, now working as a Sexual Assault Response Association counselor assigned to work with Trish.

While Beth works to channel her grief into helping crime victims, her estranged husband Mark (Andrew Buchan) can’t let go of Danny’s murder and becomes increasingly unstable. Meanwhile, the men in Trish’s life, even those she’s tangentially associated with her all seem to have secrets and lies, and histories of bad behavior.  Ellie and Alec soon have a long list of suspects as they find toxic masculinity and rape culture at every corner of this small town.  The whole series is best summed up by Alec when he says “What’s bothering me about this case is that it’s making me ashamed to be a man.” Even when the actual rapist is identified, you’re left feeling concerned that there are so many scuzzy men walking free in this town.

Series 3 is a definite improvement over Series 2, although it falls a bit short of Series 1.  It’s good in how it takes the time to respectfully and realistically depict a rape case.  The show feels even more bleak this series, not that you’d consider a show about a murdered child to have much humor, but it did have more light moments than this series.  On the downside I think the mystery part got a little too contrived with a half-dozen suspects all having done something nasty and creepy related to Trish.  It’s weird too that everyone seems to know one another and get together for soccer games or flashlight marches, but don’t seem to know one another at other times. Overall though, this is a well-acted – if harrowing – procedural drama.

Movie Review: Eighth Grade (2018)


TitleEighth Grade
Release Date: July 13, 2018
Director: Bo Burnham
Production Company: A24
Summary/Review:

More than any movie I’ve seen before, Eighth Grade captures the reality of the insecurities and search for identity of a young teacher.  Set in the last week of 8th grade, 13-year-old Kayla records advice videos to post online which act as narration as we see her attempt to build her confidence and try new things. Kayla is voted “most quiet” in her class and doesn’t have any close friends. With high school looming she has to navigate going to a popular girl’s pool party (only because she was invited by the girl’s mother) and trying to talk to her crush, awkwardly during an active shooter drill.  Shadowing a genuinely kind high school girl boosts her confidence but then she endures an awkward come-on from a creepy high school boy.

This movie is carried by Elsie Fisher, who as a young actor has the unenviable task of having the camera on her at almost all times. Even when other people are talking, the audience sees the small but telling reactions in Fisher’s eyes and face, which is actually a really good representation of how a shy person experiences a lot of social situations.  When using social media – which Kayla does often – the camera catches the reflection of her face on the screen. And while Hollywood loves to have “perfect” people in the movies, Fisher looks like a real kid with pimples and crooked teeth. Kayla’s description of having the scared feeling of waiting to go on a roller coaster without ever getting the good feeling of getting off a roller coaster is the best analogy for constant anxiety I’ve ever heard.

I see a lot of my younger self in Kayla, but all the more so, I get a glimpse of my future self in Kayla’s dad, Mark, portrayed by Josh Hamilton.  Hamilton captures all the dorky awkwardness, anxiety, and pride of being a dad when one doesn’t quite know how to connect with the child changing before one’s eyes.  This is brilliant movie and it honestly captures life experiences that many people will relate too, albeit not without cringing, because it cuts so close.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Up in the Air (2009)


TitleUp in the Air
Release Date: December 4, 2009
Director: Jason Reitman
Production Company: Dreamworks Pictures
Summary/Review:

Ryan Cunningham (George Clooney) is a frequent business traveler who has become an expert in the ins and outs of air travel and enjoys the perks of loyalty reward programs [NOTE: this means lots of product placement for air carriers, hotel chains, and rental car companies]. His job is to work as a consultant who does the face to face work of firing employees and preparing them for their new job search, a job that is unspeakably awful although Ryan has a strong ethic for doing it as sympathetically as possible. Along his travels he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another frequent flier, and they agree to meet up for casual romance when their itineraries cross.

Back at the home office in Omaha, Ryan’s boss informs him that a new young hire Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has come up with an idea to fire people through videoconferencing thus eliminating travel costs.  Before the transition, Ryan takes Natalie out on the road to mentor her in his way of doing things.  Having to travel together makes each of them begin to question their life choices.  Ryan also goes to his sister’s wedding despite being distant from his family, and brings Alex along as his guest and begins considering a more committed lifestyle.

This movie goes to pains to show that Ryan’s live as a frequent traveler is bad, although I’m not quite convinced that someone could not be happy enjoying that life if they chose to.  Obviously they make it bad by having Ryan doing a terrible job, never keeping in touch with his sisters, and when he finally realizes he has feelings for Alex, making her a philanderer (the most unbelievable part of this movie is that any woman would agree to go as a date to a family wedding and not mention that she has a husband and children).  Despite this central flaw, this is still an entertaining movie with some funny bits and some touching bits.  Cooney, Farmiga, and Kendrick are all talented and charming actors, so they really make the movie.

Rating: ***

TV Review: Stranger Things (2017)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 9
Summary/Review:

When Stranger Things appeared on Netflix seemingly out of nowhere last year, it was the surprise hit of the summer.  Stranger Things 2 came with huge expectations, and I’m happy to see mostly lives up to them.

The strengths of Stranger Things is that it uses the tropes of horror and suspense films to explore issues like trauma, grief, friendship, and facing mortality.  The multi-episode set-up also allows it to delve into developing characters more than the films it emulates.  Plus, it has a terrific cast, especially the youngest actors, who continue to impress.

The nine episodes of the second season easily split into three sections.  Episodes 1-3 feel very much a continuation of the first season with the characters still dealing with the after effects of what happened a year earlier.  Episodes 3-6 raise the stakes, both with the growing threat of the Shadow Monster and Eleven discovering her own past.  Episodes 7-9 really take a left turn from anything we’ve come to expect from Stranger Things, most especially in the controversial episode 7 “The Lost Sister” which features only Eleven/Jane from the regular cast as she visits Chicago to meet up with a gang led by another young woman with powers from the Hawkins Lab.  I’m glad the Duffer Brothers decided to experiment and push the limits of the show, although I also have some problems with the episodes that I’ll go into later.

The second season introduces several new characters.  Bob Newby is Joyce’s nerdy new boyfriend played by Sean Astin, which is a direct tie to one of the 1980s movies that influenced this show, The Goonies.   I never saw that movie, but I thought that Bob had a lot in common with another Astin character, Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, in the way that both Bob and Sam loyally help out the best they can and show surprising bravery even when they don’t know what’s going on around them.  Bob is a charming character and a great addition to the show.  Paul Reiser, known for his duplicitous character in Aliens, plays the Dr. Sam Owens who has taken over leading the Hawkins Lab.  It was an interesting decision to have Hopper, Joyce, & Will forming an uneasy détente, and Owens lends a funny, more compassionate face to the lab, but since he’s played by Reiser, you trust him anyway.  Finally, there are the step siblings Max and Billy, played by Sadie Sink and Dacre Montgomery.  Max is a new addition to our party of nerdy middle schoolers, and I thought Sink did a great job with developing Max in limited time.  Billy is the new bully in town, and Montgomery plays him convincingly creepy, but he seems one-note especially for Stranger Things which is usually better at letting characters develop organically.

If there’s one major problem of this series is that all the new characters and multiple plot lines happening at once make the show feel crowded and it works against Stranger Things strengths.  That being said, there was some great development for returning characters as well.  Will was missing for most of Season 1, so it’s a revelation to see that Noah Schapp is just as good an actor as his contemporaries and really sells Will’s fear, confusion, and possession.  It was also great to see Dustin and Lucas develop, really showing that they’re growing up, and getting to see into their homes and meeting their families for the first time.  Steve Harrington, the first season bully, has now fully transitioned from his experiences into a “great babysitter” leading the youngest characters against the demodogs and winning the hearts of Tumblr fans everywhere.

On the downside, Finn Wolfhard’s Mike seems underused this season, although his delivery of the line “It was the best thing I’ve ever done” was the most tearjerking moment of the season.  Similarly, Natalia Dyer’s Nancy and Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan have a subplot that’s okay but just doesn’t seem as interesting as what those characters could be doing.  Then there are some out of character moments. It seems unlikely that a smart kid like Dustin would continue to protect D’art after he knew it was from the Upside Down.  And I don’t think Eleven would be jealous of Max to the point of hurting her.  It would’ve made more sense if she overheard a conversation of how Mike and his friends were still in danger from the Hawkins Lab and that helped prompt her journey of self-discovery.

Which leads us to the final three episodes.  I can understand why people don’t like “The Lost Sister,” although I also understand and appreciate what The Duffer Brothers were doing.  It was good to take a risk and try to expand what was happening in Hawkins into the larger world as part of Eleven’s story, but for Stranger Things, it was rather trite.  Kali’s gang were a note-perfect recreation of a 1980s movie idea of a punk rock gang, but that was it, there was no effort to develop these people as real characters.  And Eleven’s Yoda-style tutelage under Kali happened so quickly that I can understand why a lot of viewers felt it was unnecessary to happen at all.   The final two episode have a lot happening and it seems that a lot of the dialogue is reduced to the characters providing exposition for the audience.  By this point, Stranger Things has developed their characters enough to coast on plot conveniences, but I thought the way that everyone came together in the conclusion of the first season happened more naturally.

The final moments at the school dance are charming and well-earned, and are built on what this show does best.  While there was some unevenness in the second season, overall I’m pleased, and I’m glad there will be another season.  There’s a lot of stories that can built on in future seasons, especially if they work on Eleven/Jane integrating into everyday society for the first time.  I also have many questions that may or may not be answered.

Previous post: Stranger Things (2016)

Book Review: The Anniversary Present by Larry Thomas


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Fiji

Author: Larry Thomas
TitleThe Anniversary Present
Publication Info: Suva, Fiji: Pacific Writing Forum, [2002]
Summary/Review:
I read one play in this collection by the contemporary Fijian dramatist Larry Thomas (of whom it is difficult to find much information online).  The story is about an older married couple, the wife proud of the new set of furniture she’s received from her irascible husband.  Other characters include their adult daughter and ne’er-do-well son-in-law, an estranged son, and a nosy neighborhood.  The story feels very familiar, and I couldn’t help imagining the story playing out on the set of All in the Family.  Nevertheless, it is a Fijian story where the characters speak in the creole of the more disadvantaged members of the society and the conflicts among Fijians and Indians underlie the story.  I feel that without more background information I am missing out on a lot of the greater meaning of the drama, but still found it an interesting read.

Rating: ***

TV Review: Stranger Things (2016)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The hit of the summer is an homage to horror and thrillers of the 1980s, mixing the film aesthetic of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter with Stephen King’s “kids and monsters in Maine” formula transferred to Indiana.  There are also elements of later works like Twin Peaks, Donnie Darko (itself a 1980s pastiche), and Broadchurch among others.  Despite the effort to emulate the eighties ethos, Stranger Things is not a remake or a ripoff but a highly original work of its own.  I don’t think a show this sophisticated would be made in the 1980s and the movies of that time would not have the time to develop the characters and the relationships so well.  Movies in the 1980s would also rely on wowing the audience with special effects, but Stranger Things creates suspense by keeping most of the supernatural elements offscreen and in the imagination.

What’s great about Stranger Things is that it has three concurrent plots with different themes.  A 12-year-old, Will Byers, goes missing and his best friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas go looking for him to be joined by the mysterious Eleven who has telekinetic powers, learning about friendship and forgiveness.   A teenage story features Will’s brother Jonathon forming an unlikely alliance with Mike’s sister Nancy to hunt down the monster with Nancy’s boyfriend Steve acting as antagonist and sometimes ally.  Finally, the adult story focuses on Will’s mother Joyce and police chief Hopper realizing that  Will’s disappearance is not a typical runaway or abduction case and involves malicious behavior at the government’s Hawkins Lab.

The whole series is 8 episodes of brilliance – great acting, plotting, pacing, and dialogue –  with a few scares thrown in.  It’s worthy of the accolades it’s receiving and I recommend watching it if you haven’t checked it out yet.

TV Review: Game of Thrones (2016)


TitleGame of Thrones
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 6
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

In the brutal winter of 2015, I idly decided to give this Game of Thrones show a chance (my wife is a huge fan of the books) and ended up binge-watching all four seasons then in existence.  Medieval fantasy is not usually my thing and the violence on this show can be overwhelming, but I got sucked into the stories and the performances, particularly by Maisie Williams, Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Rory McCann, Conleth Hill, John Bradley, Jerome Flynn, Liam Cunningham, Gwendolyn Christie, and Natalie Dormer.  So then I listened to all five of the audiobooks, and was ready just in time to watch season five as it was broadcast.

And I was disappointed.  The show not only went off-the-book, it went off the rails.  The Dorne plot – a dull tangent in the books – became even more pointless in its tv adaptation.  Ramsey Bolton was repeatedly depicted as senselessly cruel turning a menacing character into a caricature.  And interesting characters like Brienne, Arya, and Daenerys tread water for much of the season.  So I was not looking forward to season six.

Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised.  Season six sees an improvement in writing, several startling revelations, and most impressively some really fantastic directing and cinematography.  This is particularly true of the final two episodes, “Battle of the Bastards”  and  “The Winds of Winter,”  both directed by  Miguel Sapochnik. This season also re-introduces the Greyjoy story on the Iron Islands and the story of Bran and his companions north of the wall, although both stories felt rushed, it was good to see these characters again.  In retrospect, I think it would’ve been wiser of Game of Thrones to spend more time with these stories sprinkled over seasons 5 and 6, rather than their half-assed attempt at the Dorne story (which they literally killed off in season 1.

Some highlights of season 6:

  • The rise of the High Sparrow in King’s Landing (Jonathan Pryce does a great job of making a religious fanatic seem to be the most reasonable person around)
  • The return of Jon Snow
  • The reunion of Jon and Sansa
  • Bran’s visions of his family’s past
  • Theon reuniting with Yara and supporting her as Queen
  • Daenerys victory over the khals
  • The death of Hodor – “hold the door!” – <sniff>
  • The return of The Hound and the Brother Ray’s pacifist community
  • Lady Mormont in every single scene she appears in
  • Arya recognizing her identity and purpose
  • The “Battle of the Bastards” is an amazingly filmed and choreographed with scenes unsettlingly reminiscent of the Hillsborough Disaster but with swords and pikes.  It was amazing work of film, but so disturbing I don’t think I’d ever want to watch it again
  • The building tension of the scenes leading up to the destruction of the Great Sept and the heartbreaking simplicity of the depiction of Tommen’s suicide
  • Sam’s joy at seeing the library at the Citadel
  • The revelation of Jon’s parentage
  • Daenerys making Tyrion the Hand of the Queen

There are still moments of the season that missed the mark, with some poor leaps of logic, but overall this season showed the best of what Game of Thrones can be and established the setting for the climactic final seasons.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Fight Club (1999)


Title: Fight Club
Release Date: 1999
Director:  David Fincher
Summary/Review:

Scratch this off the list of movies everyone has seen except me.  Not that I hadn’t already known the basic plot details of the movie for some time.  Still that made it fun to watch for evidence of the big twist before it was revealed.  Of course there are things I didn’t know about like Helena Bonham Carter’s character and her significance in the movie (and why does every Helena Bonham Carter have black rings around her eyes?) And oh my, that final scene wouldn’t have gone over well if the movie was made a couple of years later.  This movie of course is a stylized and violent satire of masculinity and consumer culture.  I think it hits a few points pretty well, misses the mark on others, but basically is an interesting story with good acting and direction.

 

Rating: ***