Tuesday, June 30, 2020

HBO Go: Review of PERRY MASON: Gratuitous Grittiness

June 30, 2020

After graduating from reading the Hardy Boys mysteries, one of the next books I enjoyed a lot were the Perry Mason novels written by Erle Stanley Gardner. Mason was a smart criminal defense attorney who came to the rescue of innocent people accused of crimes, usually murders. Together with his trusted secretary Della Street and his private investigator Paul Drake, Mason would be able to get his client off the hook by convincingly proving that someone else was the murderer.

For two episodes running now, there is a new series on HBO Go entitled "Perry Mason." In this current version set in the Great Depression, Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) was a depressed and drunk detective, estranged from his family and suffering from PTSD following his service in the war. Della Street (Juliet Rylance) was the secretary of Atty. E.B. Johnson (John Lithgow), who hired Mason to investigate his cases. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) was a cop who could not rise in the ranks because he was African-American. 

There had been already been a long-running TV series from 1957 to 1966 (starring Raymond Burr as Perry Mason and Barbara Hale as Della Street) which was very faithful to the style of the books. Burr and Hale reprised their roles in a series of television movies of similar spirit which were released from 1985 up to Burr's death in 1993. This reboot is aiming for something different. So far, this is just Perry Mason only by name, but everything else about it is not the same as the books described anymore. 

The atmosphere of the whole show was as dark and gloomy as the recesses of this Perry Mason's mind. This involved a working-class couple Matthew (Nate Coddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin) Dodson, whose 1-year old son Charlie had been kidnapped. However, upon delivery of the $100,000 ransom, the infant was found to be dead. The couple was a member of the Radiant Assembly of God church under the charismatic leadership of preacher Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany). One of the wealthy elders of the church, Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), hired Atty. Johnson and Mason to help them with their son's case.

In these first two episodes, we are still getting to know this version of Perry Mason, his flaws and the reasons behind these flaws. We see him as street-smart and manipulative to pry valuable clues out from the most unlikely sources. So far there has not even been any scene in a courtroom yet, which was unexpected for a series entitled "Perry Mason," but I look forward those scenes as they seem to be coming up soon. 

So far, I could call this show gratuitously gritty noir, unflinching from showing sex and violence at its darkest, dirtiest and most disgusting. The production values are topnotch yet the mood is generally grimy. Because this is set in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, Golden Age Hollywood was a looming presence (with references to Fatty Arbuckle, Clark Gable and Groucho Marx), so that is interesting for me. However, the present murder case and the religion angle are not connecting so well with me yet.

With still six more episodes to go in this series, I am not yet sure if I will be hanging on until the end. Will they be sticking to just this one crime story, or will other more engaging angles come out later? Let's just see first where the next couple of episodes will take us. However, as of now its disloyalty to the source material is still eating at me. 6/10

Sunday, June 28, 2020


June 28, 2020

Lars Erickssong (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdóttir (Rachel McAdams) had been very close friends growing up together in the small fishing village of Husavik in Iceland. Ever since he saw ABBA win Eurovision on TV back in 1974, Lars had been obsessed about writing the perfect song to win the Eurovision for Iceland, something his father Erick (Pierce Brosnan) was very disappointed about. However, Sigrit, with her beautiful singing voice and faith in elves, supported Lars' dream all the way as his partner in their band called Fire Saga. 

For the current contest, Lars submitted his song "Double Trouble" for consideration to the Iceland song committee, and by sheer luck they made it to the finals. Despite a disastrous performance, bizarre circumstances still aligned that caused Fire Saga to be Iceland's representatives for the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest held in Edinburgh, Scotland. There, rustic Lars and Sigrit had an exhilarating time hobnobbing with the glamorous contestants from other countries, like Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) from Russia and Mita (Melissanthi Mahut) from Greece

I am not really a Will Ferrell fan. I never watched any of his famous films like "Elf" (2003) or "Anchorman" (2004). I believe the first and most memorable film I saw him in was "Blades of Glory" (2007) and this was on HBO only several years later, not on the big screen. Come to think of it now, the plot of "Blades of Glory" about achieving an impossible feat was also seen here. As Lars, Ferrell (now 52, but seemed 60) looked too old to be the son of Pierce Brosnan (now 67 but seemed 60) or the love interest of Rachel MacAdams (now 41, but seemed 31). However, the childish immature demeanor he had in his role still made us accept him as the leading man in this foolishly outlandish yet curiously charming comedy. 

I was also not a Rachel MacAdams fan. The first film I remember seeing her in was "The Notebook" (2004) which I did not really like too much despite its immense popularity at that time, and up to now. She was really sweet here as Sigrit, I liked her performance a lot. I was floored by her singing prowess while watching the several song numbers in this film, especially that crystalline and breathtaking final note in the song dedicated to their hometown of Husavik. I would find out afterwards though that her voice was mixed with the vocals of Swedish pop singer and former Eurovision contestant Molly Sanden, but anyhow MacAdams was able to sell the performance as if it was truly hers all along, not unlike what Rebecca Ferguson did for "Never Enough" in "The Greatest Showman".

We know Dan Stevens can sing when he voiced Beast in the live action remake of "Beauty and the Beast" and here we see him sing as himself with that rich baritone. American pop star Demi Lovato made short guest appearances as Icelandic singer Katiana, while talk show host Graham Norton played himself as the host of the Eurovision contest. I particularly enjoyed that "Pitch Perfect"-like "Song-Along" where random pops hits like "Believe," "Ray of Light," "Waterloo" and "What a Feeling" were sung by a series of singers, whom I later found out were actually contestants and winners from recent Eurovision contests!

Overall, I enjoyed the high spirits and wholesome humor of this comedy. Some jokes may run too long or fall flat, but it was all in the spirit of goofy fun. I thought it caught all the campy and cheesy spectacle of the Eurovision Song Contest, making this an orientation of sorts non-Europeans about the contest mechanics, style and atmosphere. You can see the disasters waiting to happen during Lars and Sigrit's song performances and this was part of the fun. There were occasional scenes of violence which may be scary for younger viewers, but generally, this was feel-good all the way. Many may keep humming the catchy "Ja Ja Ding Dong" after watching, but Fire Saga's final number on the Eurovision stage was truly a worthy climax brimming with nationalistic pride and fervor. 7/10. 

Thursday, June 25, 2020


July 21, 2020


Director: Olivier Assayas
Writers: Olivier Assayas based on the book by Fernando Morais

One particular day in 1990, Cuban pilot Rene Enriquez (Edgar Ramirez) abandoned his wife Olga (Penelope Cruz) and flew his plane all the way from Havana, Cuba to Miami, Florida, USA to defect. There, he joined an organization led by Jose Basulto (Leonardo Sbaragila) which worked to thwart the plans of anti-Castro groups. He joined missions to help other Cubans were crossing the ocean to the US by dropping them supplies, as well as other shady fund-raising activities. 

The first thing which would attract you to check out this Spanish film was that cast. Three prominent Latino actors headline this -- Penelope Cruz, Gael Garcia Bernal and Ana de Armas. Acclaimed Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez and Brazilian actor Wagner Moura play the two Cuban defectors Enrique and Roque who became members of the Wasp Network. While the US treated them as terrorists, they are regarded as patriots among the Cuban masses. It started off fine telling Rene's story alone. However, adding the stories of the charismatic Juan Pablo Roque (and his marriage to Miami socialite Ana) and network pioneer Gerardo Hernandez made the whole storytelling lose focus and feel episodic. 6/10. 


Directed by: Guillaume Pierret
Written by: Guillaume Pierret, Alban Lenoir, and Kamel Guemra

Lino (Alban Lenoir) was a serving time for his petty crimes when a senior policeman named Charas (Ramzy Bedia) noted his skills in automotive engineering. Lino worked as a mechanic to enhance their police cars to make them stronger and faster to keep up with the cars used by criminals. Charas helped Lino to reach out to his younger brother Quentin (Rod Paradot), who was also involved in illegal activities. However, circumstances turn awry when Charas was killed by a dirty fellow cop, and Lino was being framed to be responsible. 

This French film was sort of a take off from the Fast & Furious films with its gangsters and fast cars, but the car stunts in this one were done practically, none of the incredible F&F special effects. Gruff French actor Alban Lenoir played Lino, a role which would have been played by a younger Jason Stratham if this had been a British production. Lenoir had some awesome scenes of manual combat, especially that exhilarating sequence where he was battling practically the whole police department to escape. It was an exciting watch while it lasted, but it was still a B action movie at its heart. 5/10. 


Directed by: Cüneyt Kaya
Written by: Cüneyt Kaya

Using his innate charm and slick eloquence, Viktor Steiner (David Kross) rose from abject poverty to become a real estate tycoon with the help of his enterprising and quick-thinking pals Gerry Falkland (Frederick Lau) and Nicole (Janina Uhse). However, their under-the-table get-rich-quickly shenanigans soon gave rise to a lifestyle of excess and vice. This life of decadent opulence made them careless in their business deals and later even took a toll on Viktor's personal life. It did not take long when the taxman had to come along to collect their dues. 

This German film had so much of a "Wolf of Wall Street" vibe, you cannot unsee the very obvious references and similarities in style. Like "Wolf," there were scenes of wild parties, cocaine sniffing, champagne fountains, fast sportscars, sexy women -- no surprises here. I will not pretend to fully understand the elaborate financial real estate transactions Viktor and company engage in, from the auctions to the mortgages to the taxes, and to the schemes they resort to circumvent the authorities. Anyhow, it was good to see David Kross again in a lead role 12 years after he romanced Kate Winslet in his Oscar-nominated breakthrough film "The Reader" (2008). 5/10. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Netflix: 3 Mini-Reviews: DA 5 BLOODS, A FALL FROM GRACE, ALL DAY AND A NIGHT: African-American Anguish

June 19, 2020


Directed by Spike Lee
Written by:  Danny Bilson, Paul De MeoKevin Willmott and Spike Lee

Vietnam War veteran buddies Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.) all go on a trip together to Ho Chi Minh City. Their personal mission was to bring home the remains of their squad leader Norman Holloway (Chadwick Boseman). Further on their agenda was to also locate the stash of gold bars from a crashed CIA plane in the area where Norman died. Also tagging along was Paul's son David (Jonathan Majors), who met landmines advocate Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) along the way. 

The premise and intent of Spike Lee for this project was commendable. The strong message how the Vietnam War had victimized African-American young men in particular was effectively delivered.  However, the final form of the script over-cooked the plot, and the execution was oddly amateurish, especially those clumsy action scenes. The acting ranged from glaringly hammy to awkwardly stilted, from supporting actors to the leads. Watching the same senior actor play both young and old versions of themselves was confusing, especially that their leader Boseman was obviously looked their junior. Boseman was cool as usual, but he was barely there. The treatment of Vietnamese characters could have been better. 

Spike Lee is coming from a successful run at the Oscars last year with "BlackKklansman" where he won his first ever Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Therefore, expectations ran high for this follow-up project, which even made it to a list of strong contenders for the Best Picture Oscar next year. Despite all that hype, after sitting through its 157 very uneven minutes, I never got why this should get any awards buzz at all. 4/10.


Director: Tyler Perry
Writer: Tyler Perry

Grace Waters (Crystal Fox) was pleading guilty to murdering her husband Shannon DeLong (Mechad Brooks). Boss of the public defenders office Rory (Tyler Perry) sent Jasmine Bryant (Bresha Webb) to arrange her plea deal to settle the case once and for all. However, when she got to hear Grace's story behind her supposed crime, as well as some corroborating testimony from Grace's best friend Sarah Miller (Phylicia Rashad), Jasmine felt she had enough reasonable doubt to actually bring the case to court.

This was supposed to have been a legal drama, but writer-director Tyler Perry had so much cheesy soap opera melodrama going on. On top of it all, there was another layer of implausibility the way the apparently straightforward plot suddenly developed an outrageous epilogue which threw all realistic logic out the window. The usually exciting court proceedings were all written and staged in an embarrassing manner. Really, what respectable lawyer would defy a judge and insist on calling of a witness to the stand after both sides have rested their case?

Phylicia Rashad (from "The Cosby Show") and the revered Ms. Cicely Tyson were in the cast, but for some reason, acting felt terribly over-the-top across the board. There was nothing in Bresha Webb's voice and performance that made her credible as a lawyer, but then again she's not supposed to be a good lawyer in the first place. The absolute worst offender had to be Mechad Brooks and his ludicrous villain portrayal, complete with evil laughter and absurd behavior. His "Ashtray, b***h!" scene will definitely make you cringe. The over-wretched acting in this supposed tragedy was unintentionally humorous. 3/10.


Director: Joe Robert Cole
Writer: Joe Robert Cole

An aspiring rapper named Jahkor Lincoln (Ashton Sanders) had a tough childhood with his addict father JD (Jeffrey Wright). From petty crimes with his friend TQ (Isaiah John), he eventually became a gangster under Big Stunna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). While in prison serving a life sentence for murdering drug pusher Malcolm (Stephen Barrington), Jahkor's girlfriend Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye) gave birth to their son Zion. 

Ashton Sanders showed off more of his raw acting talent which we all first saw firsthand in his breakthrough lead role in the Oscar-winning film "Moonlight" (2016). Jeffrey Wright gave another marked performance as JD, as he consistently did in the past. The rest of the generally unknown young cast were all very natural actors, as if they have really lived this tough life on the streets. This realistic casting had a very authentic effect on the story that writer-director Joe Robert Cole (noted for co-writing the screenplay of "Black Panther") was trying to tell 

With its slick visual style and infectious rap soundtrack, this certainly had the feel of a very good movie. However, the only problem with this was that the story really had nothing new to say. There was a protagonist who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks to an abusive drug addict father, and later grew up to be a gangster himself. When he had a child of his own, he promised that his son will not be like him. Then we see a flashback of his father making the same promise when he was born. The vicious cycle of life in a black gangster just went full circle, just threatening to turn the same way all over again. 6/10.

Thursday, June 11, 2020


June 10, 2020


Directed by Olivier Megaton
Written by Karl Gajdusek based on the graphic novel by Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini

In the near dystopic future, the US government had developed a loud debilitating signal called the API (American Peace Initiative) which could prevent anybody from committing crimes. Therefore, several criminal groups want to commit one more big caper before their "happy days" are over. One of these rich crime brats was was the brash and crazy Kevin Cash (Michael Pitt) who conscripted Irish gangster Graham Bricke (Edgar Ramirez) to be his muscle -- the same Bricke who just so happened to have been casually involved with Kevin's hacker girlfriend Shelby (Anna Brewster).

The title of this movie immediately grabs you when you see it. There was simply a lot of promise in that title as to what its story may offer. However, it would not take you that long into the movie to know that this was not going to be a smooth ride at all. This was obviously going to be B-movie affair from the first act, and seeing on the timer that it will run 149 minutes (almost 2 hours and a half) long, may make you give up sooner than later. Michael Pitt was so over-the-top in his cartoonish portrayal of Kevin Cash. That scene where Kevin met his tycoon father was the ultimate in hammy acting. The storytelling was so unclear, such that the curious few who hang on to see how the story would just be riding along with what they see without really understanding what was happening. There was even that additional character of a cop Sawyer (Sharlto Copley) which was not well-developed at all. Ultimately, it turned out that its bold title was already the best part of this thing. 2/10

365 DAYS

Written and Directed by Barbara Bialowas and Tomasz Klimala
Based on the novel by Blanka Lipinska

The marriage of hotel director Laura Biel (Anna-Maria Sieklucka) from Poland with her boring husband Martin (Mateusz Łasowski) was on the rocks. They went to Silicy on a holiday trip to try to resuscitate their relationship. One night, Laura was kidnapped by young Sicilian mafia boss Massimo Torricelli (Michele Morrone), who had been obsessed with her since he caught a glimpse of her years ago on the day his father was murdered in his presence. Massimo promised Laura that he will not touch her while she is his prisoner, but guaranteed that she was going to fall in love with him in 365 days.

The so-called "story" of this Polish film was merely a flimsy excuse of a plot on which to display the two lead stars in various degrees of undress and engaged in multiple explicit erotic encounters. One scene of Massimo's aggressive seduction was a scene early on when he actually chained Laura's limbs to the four posts of a bed, immediately reminiscent of the sado-masochism of the "50 Shades" films on which it was probably inspired. There was no suspense at all if sexually-frustrated Laura will fall in "love" with persistently dominating Massimo in her captivity, which made Stockholm Syndrome seem disturbingly attractive. To fill in the other empty minutes without sex scenes, there were repeated scenes of luxurious shopping which Laura indulged in care of Massimo's wallet.  Its current Netflix popularity is due to its hedonistic prurient voyeuristic type of entertainment, which was its primary aim in the first place. 4/10


Written and Directed by Alejandro Montiel

Inspector Juanez and his novice detective Pipa were involved in the investigation of a mousy young woman Minerva who had confessed to killing of her best friend Gloriana. However, evidence seemed to point to a mentally-disturbed young man who lived next door.  Meanwhile, Pipa was also secretly assigned to investigate the involvement of her boss Juanez, whose work ethic had recently been erratic, in the roadside murder of a young man from a gypsy family involved in the murder of Juanez' wife. 

We first met the character of Pipa in the 2018 Argentine film "Perdida" (also on Netflix) where she was investigating the dormant case of her long missing friend Cornelia. "Intuition" was supposed to have been the prequel when Pipa was just a new cop, however, none of the characters in the previous film were here (the name of the missing Cornelia was dropped only once) nor did we get to know the character of Pipa more. Lead actress Luisana Lopilato (real-life Mrs. Michael Buble) is competent as Pipa, while co-star Joaquin Furriel (with his dark brooding eyes) did well playing the secretive Juanez. Everyone else in the supporting cast turned in unfortunate amateurish performances. You can surmise from the synopsis that there are several cases thrown into one complex mix-up here, so it can get confusing what clues, suspects and red herrings belong to which case. However, despite all its incredible leaps of chance, this crime drama does grip you while it lasted. 5/10.

Thursday, June 4, 2020


June 3, 2020


While out running one early morning, high school student Theodore Finch saw his classmate Violet Markey standing on the concrete railing of a bridge. Finch talked Violet from jumping, and since then took extra effort at school to snap her out of her depression, which was caused by the accidental death of her sister. When their teacher assigned a project to report about beautiful places around their state of Indiana, Finch convinced Violet to be partners. As Violet opened up to him however, Finch began to withdraw from her. 

This serious teenage love story was based on Jennifer Niven's best-selling 2015 young-adult novel of the same title. Niven herself adapted her book and co-wrote the script with veteran screenwriter Liz Hannah ("The Post"). Like many young adult films, the words in the dialogues are quite eloquent and quotable, though not necessarily realistic. Lead actors Elle Fanning and Justice Smith had charisma and gravitas as the troubled young couple in the middle of the story. The mental health advocacy of the material (about depression and suicide) was front and center throughout. However, I felt the abrupt climax lacked emotional impact the way it was executed, and actually gave the whole film an unexpectedly ironic twist at the end. There could also have been more flashback scenes to better flesh out the respective back stories of the two teens to understand them better instead of relying on narrations only. 6/10.


In 1995, juvenile delinquent Hyeon-u (Jung Hae-in) took a job in the neighborhood bakery run by Mi-su (Kim Go-eun. The two start to get close, but Hyun-woo's troubled past got in the way and they parted ways. Over the next ten years, Mi-soo and Hyun-woo took divergent careers which kept them away from each other. While fate had been allowing their paths to cross occasionally, unfavorable circumstances persisted to cause problems, making it difficult for them to get back together as a couple. 

When I started watching this movie, I did not expect that the lead actress was Kim Go-eun, best known now as Police Lt. Jung Tae-eul in the ongoing Netflix series "The King: Eternal Monarch." I would admit that Kim was the main reason I persisted to watch this even if the storytelling of the drama became rather slow and melodramatic towards the middle to the end. One of the criticisms against "The King" was Kim's lack of chemistry with superstar Lee Min-ho in the sophisticated sci-fi fantasy series. I thought her unconventional beauty and restrained acting style fit the simple reality-based drama of "Tune In" more. Leading man Jung Hae-in (star of dramas "While You Were Sleeping" and "Something in the Rain") was deglamorized in workman duds as Hyeon-u, but his scenes with Kim still carried heartfelt emotions. Who would have thought that an email password could become something romantic? 6/10. 


Detective Unai Lopez de Ayala (Javier Rey) was called back by Vitoria police chief Alba Díaz de Salvatierra (Belén Rueda) to investigate an apparent resumption of a series of ritualistic murders which he handled 20 years ago. The previously convicted perpetrator Tasio (Àlex Brendemühl) was still behind bars. The new murders followed the exact pattern before: two victims, one male and one female, from rich families, of the same age, both nude but decorated with flowers and positioned in a dramatic tableaux. Autopsy showed that they were killed in a particularly grisly process that involved bees. 

The gothic atmosphere of this film was so very well-captured by the director with the locations, the lighting and the music. In this regard, I thought the chase scene on the rooftop and nave of a cathedral was very well-shot. The main mystery actually started off as very interesting, but as the story went along, it ultimately became very confusing and convoluted because of the numerous characters involved played by different actors going back and forth in time. The scenes of Ayala interviewing Tasio in prison were reminiscent of "The Silence of the Lambs." The way the identity of the murderer was even revealed midway without any build-up was a strange and disconcerting storytelling decision that affected the narrative flow negatively. 4/10.