Friday, April 16, 2021

Worth Mentioning - Look Back in Wonder

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning. 

Cody covers three period pieces and a Wes Craven TV movie.

MINARI (2020)

I hadn't heard of writer/director Lee Isaac Chung's film Minari until it was announced that it had been nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. When I saw the nominations, it immediately caught my attention with the name of the actor nominated: Steven Yeun. Glenn from The Walking Dead was nominated for an Oscar? And not just that; with his nomination, Yeun earned the distinction of being the first Asian American to be nominated for Best Actor. Well, if Glenn had delivered a Oscar nomination-worthy performance in a movie, that meant this movie was a must-see for me.

The story of Minari is set in the 1980s, which made the movie even more appealing for me - but if you're looking for something that will play up '80s nostalgia, this isn't going to do it for you. There isn't much in the way of '80s nostalgia here, just remote rural locations and wide open spaces. That said, there were moments and images that did remind me of my own upbringing in the country in the '80s and early '90s. At the core of the story are Korean immigrants Jacob (Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) and their young children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim), who have just moved to Arkansas, where Jacob plans to start a farm that will specialize in Korean produce. The film follows their struggles as they try to get the farm up and running, and also deals with Monica's uncertainty about Jacob's plans, as well as concerns over David's heart murmur.

With Jacob busy on the farm and Monica working sexing chickens, a job I didn't even realize existed, the decision is made to bring Monica's mother Soonja (Supporting Actress nominee Yuh-Jung Youn) to America so she can help take care of the children. It has been so long since Monica saw her mother, this is even Grandma's first time meeting little David... and little David is quite wary of this strange woman he now shares his bedroom with.

As proud as I am to see Walking Dead alum Yeun receive an Oscar nomination, and though Han also turns in a great performance, David is really the star of the film, and 7-year-old Kim proved quite capable of carrying large portions of the film on his shoulders. It's great that Youn was nominated for her performance, because I felt Soonja was the second most prominent character in the film after David, and Youn and Kim worked together to steal the film out from under everyone else. From my view, Minari was primarily the David and Grandma story, and watching them interact was amusing and touching.

Also featuring a memorable performance from Will Patton as a neighbor who helps Jacob on the farm, Minari is a good, interesting drama and I enjoyed watching it, spending time getting to know this family and being transported back to the '80s countryside. I'm glad the film has been honored by the Academy. I'm not sure how many wins it will rack up, it's facing some stiff competition, but it deserved to be nominated.


Six years after making the TV movie Summer of Fear (a.k.a. Stranger in Our House), Wes Craven returned to television to direct Invitation to Hell, a wonderfully ridiculous TV horror movie starring Robert Urich and Susan Lucci.

The script written by Richard Rothstein (Death Valley, Universal Soldier) tells us that the U.S. government wants to get a man onto Venus in the next three years, and a tech company has hired family man Matt Winslow (Urich) to perfect the heat-resistant, weapon-equipped Venus spacesuit for them. While Matt is working on that, his wife Pat (Joanna Cassidy) and children Robbie (Barret Oliver) and Chrissy (Soleil Moon Frye) are trying to adjust to the suburban town they have just moved into, and play a bit of "keeping up with the Joneses". One Jones in particular; Jessica Jones (Lucci). 

Jessica is the one who presents us with the idea that anyone who wants to be truly social in this town has to join the local country club. But there's something strange going on at that country club. Families are brought in there and told to forsake everything for the club, then their initiation involves passing through a "symbolic entrance" to an "ancient spring", which is in a sealed, incredibly hot room in the club. When people come back out of that room, they're not the same.

You might see where this is going just from that description, because when you're watching the movie it's very predictable. Jessica Jones is an evil being with supernatural abilities (this is given away in the first scene), there are body-snatching shenanigans going on in that country club, and when Matt's family joins the club he has to figure out how to access that spring so he can save them. Which, of course, means putting on that Venus spacesuit, because the temperature in that room starts at 800 degrees Fahrenheit and rises from there.

The spacesuit has a lazer gun and a flamethrower built into it, and it's able to scan an area for non-terrestrial lifeforms, which the members of the club happen to be now. So Urich is basically put into a superhero costume for the climax of this film, but don't get too hyped to see an "Iron Man vs. the forces of Hell" ending, because the action here is not exactly impressive.

Invitation to Hell is worth seeking out just to see how it plays extremely goofy ideas in a completely serious, "trying to be scary" manner.


Directed by Mark Griffiths from a screenplay by Michael B. Druxman, Cheyenne Warrior is a Roger Corman-produced Western about a young couple - Matthew Carver (Charles Powell) and his pregnant wife Rebecca (Kelly Preston) - who are moving out to Oregon in an attempt to avoid the American Civil War. When we catch up with the Carvers, they're already somewhere in the Great Plains, where they stop at a remote trading post run by Barkley (Dan "Grizzly Adams" Haggerty), a man who moved to the area from Ohio twenty years earlier and married a woman from the Cheyenne tribe. Barkley's wife has since died, but he still deals with the Cheyenne, particularly Pato Hoffmann as Hawk, his late wife's cousin.

Rebecca will come to know Hawk a lot better than she ever would have imagined, because Matthew makes the idiotic decision to trust unscrupulous fellows played by Clint Howard and Rick Dean from Corman's Carnosaur II. Matthew and Barkley are both killed by the men, and Hawk is badly injured. Stuck at the trading post as winter approaches, Rebecca nurses Hawk back to the health while waiting for the birth of her child... and through their time together, the two begin to develop feelings for each other. And they continue calling each other Mrs. Carver and Mr. Hawk even after they've gotten romantic.

While the romance is the centerpiece of the film, and becomes a major issue when other members of the Cheyenne tribe express their disapproval of Hawk's relationship with Rebecca, there are also spikes of action to make sure Western fans who aren't as big on the mushy stuff will also stay interested. The men who kill Matthew and Barkley are responsible for some of the action, and later Hawk and Rebecca are threatened by members of a rival tribe, the Pawnee.

I have no idea how accurate Cheyenne Warrior is to the truth of the Cheyenne tribe, but I hope the real workings of the tribe were taken into account. It does feel like an attempt was made to be respectful. Carried largely on the shoulders of Preston and Hoffmann, Cheyenne Warrior provides a pleasant viewing experience and turned out to be a much better movie than I was expecting it to be. If you're into Westerns, this is a fine one to spend 86 minutes with.

THE WONDER YEARS (1988 - 1993)

Although he was around eight years ahead of me in age and twenty years behind me chronologically, I feel like I grew up with Kevin Arnold, the character played by Fred Savage on the "coming-of-age comedy-drama" The Wonder Years. The show started airing when I was just four years old, and continued until I was nine, and I must have watched as many episodes as I could possibly catch, because I have strong memories of watching it throughout those early years. I made sure to watch the series finale on May 12, 1993, and this was such an important event to me that I still remembered the details right up until I had my second viewing of the episode in April of 2020, almost twenty-seven years later.

Each season of The Wonder Years was set twenty years before its airdate, so the show followed Kevin, a kid growing up in the suburbs and living with his father Jack (Dan Lauria), mother Norma (Alley Mills), pain in the neck older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey), and hippie older sister Karen (Olivia d'Abo), from 1968 to 1973... and the setting of this show probably had a lot to do with the fact that I was fascinated by '60s and '70s for my entire youth. The writers dropped Kevin into some interesting scenarios over the course of the show's six seasons, and it was all given an added depth through the narration provided by Daniel Stern (who is never shown on screen) as an adult Kevin who is looking back on his younger days in wonder.

Kevin was older than me, but he was still a kid, so I could relate to him as I watched this show back in the late '80s / early '90s. It was like he was leading me through childhood; he was going ahead of me, and I would catch up on some of these things myself some day. Watching the show now, I was surprised to see just how flawed Kevin really is. It's his show, but he is not a perfect kid. Sometimes, actually surprisingly often, he can be a bit of a jerk. I never questioned his actions and attitudes when I was closer to his age, but now I could see - and appreciate - that he wasn't exactly aspirational.

The surprise at how characters were presented extends to Kevin's eternal crush, Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar). I think a lot of youngsters who watched this show as it aired had a crush on Winnie as well, as somehow Kevin was able to convince us that she was the dream girl. Revisiting the show, it turns out Winnie was not the perfect character I remembered her being. She is very flawed herself, and she and Kevin are actually really bad for each other. Viewers were always rooting for them to get together, but it turns out they're kind of a nightmare as a couple. Their relationship isn't helped by the fact that Kevin has a constantly wandering eye, but Winnie is not worth all the trouble, either.

Another notable character was Kevin's best friend Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano), who got less and less screen time as the show went on. He was really short-changed in the final season, and I'm not quite sure why. It might have been at Saviano's request, as he quit acting and became a lawyer after the show ended. By the last batch of episodes, Paul has largely been replaced by other friends in Kevin's life, like Giovanni Ribisi as Jeff Billings, Andrew Mark Berman as Chuck Coleman, Michael Tricario as Randy Mitchell, and Scott Nemes as Ricky Halsenbach.

Flawed though its characters are, The Wonder Years is a great show with a heartwarming quality. It covers some heavy subject matter, like issues related to the Vietnam War, it covers some goofy kid stuff, and most of its 115 episodes are very pleasant to sit through. I loved this show when I was a kid, and I really enjoyed watching it again all this time later.

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