Monday, August 6, 2018

Movie Review: Kings

Kings * ½ / *****
Directed by: Deniz Gamze Ergüven.
Written by: Deniz Gamze Ergüven.
Starring: Halle Berry (Millie Dunbar), Daniel Craig (Obie Hardison), Lamar Johnson (Jesse Cooper), Kaalan Walker (William MCgee), Rachel Hilson (Nicole Patterson), Issac Ryan Brown (Shawnte), Callan Farris (Ruben), Serenity Reign Brown (Peaches), Reece Cody (Tiger), Aiden Akpan (Jordan), Gary Yavuz Perreau (Carter), Ce'Onna Meilani Johnson (Sherridane), Lorenz Arnell (Damon), Lorrie Odom (Angela), Lewis T. Powell (Quinn), Flor de Maria Chahua (Maria), Quartay Denaya (Latasha Harlins), Janet Song (Soon Ja Du), Richie Stephens (Officer Bilson).
Deniz Gamze Ergüven is hardly the first filmmaker to hit a sophomore slump – but I have a hard time remembering the last filmmaker who crashed harder with their second film, after a debut film as good as her first. That film was Mustang (2015) – which earned the Turkish director a lot of just acclaim, comparisons to Sofia Coppola, and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film – at the time, I may have even liked it more than the eventual winner, the wonderful Son of Saul. That film gave her the clout to go back to Kings – a screenplay she had written years before, but could not find the financing for. The film made the festival rounds last fall, and came out at the perfect time, as there were many documentaries examining the L.A. riots of 1992 released last year (the best two being L.A. 92 and Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992). Those films tried to add much needed context to the riots, and I’m tempted to say that Ergüven’s purpose was exactly the opposite – zeroing in on this confusing time for one large, Los Angeles family. I’m not sure I can say that however, because even after watching the film, I really struggle to figure out just what Ergüven’s point was. It’s tough to think of a more misjudged film than Kings.
The film opens with perhaps it’s best scene – in which young Latasha Harlins goes into a liquor store to buy orange juice, and ends up being shot by store owner Soon Ja Du – who is charged, and convicted of the crime – but is shockingly only given probation by the judge. We then flash forward a while, to the weeks leading up to the riots. There are TV’s on in the background of nearly every scene in Kings – showing us the progression of the trial of the officers who brutally beat Rodney King – we know when they are convicted, the riots will start.
But Ergüven isn’t overly interested in the trial – or the larger context playing out in L.A. at that time. Instead, her focus is on the family of Mille Dunbar (Halle Berry), a single mother raising approximately 8 children – some of hers, some are foster kids, although the movie never really spells out which is which. Millie works hard, but has no money. The one white guy in their neighborhood is Obie (Daniel Craig), a drunk writer, who lives across the alley and is prone to walking around naked, firing his shotgun out the window when things get too noisy, and occasionally snapping, and throwing things off his balcony. He will, of course, eventually become a love interest for Millie.
The other major plot thread involves the eldest son living with Millie – Jesse (Lamar Johnson) – and the two homeless kids he will meet. Millie runs into William (Kaalan Walker), who she knows slightly, after his mother has been sent to jail – and of course, invites him to live with them, despite his fiery temper. Jesse will meet Nicole (Rachel Hilson) at school – and later will help rescue her from some dangerous guys in a liquor store parking lot. A love triangle of sorts develops between the three teenagers – although its mostly in Jesse’ mind, as the moment Nicole sees William, it’s clear who her choice is.
The first half of the movie is basically their daily lives – as Millie struggles to make ends meet, Obie slowly becomes a real person – a nice guy – and Jesse tries to straighten out William, and win over Nicole. These scenes are particularly good, but they aren’t horrible. Then the riots start –and the movie flies off the rails.
Everything that happens after the riots start doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Jesse does something colossal stupid right off the bat – that leaves William bleeding to death, as Jesse and Nicole try to race him to the hospital, amidst all the chaos. For some reason Ergüven decides the best thing to intercut this with is Mille and Obie going on a frantic search for three of her younger sons – who head out into the riots, but mostly involves the pair of them handcuffed together to a lamp post – as they comically banter and flirt with each other as they try to free themselves.
The two storylines don’t mesh together – at all – and are incredibly awkward. There is a good sequence of Jesse and Nicole driving through the riots, and not being able to see much except for smoke and chaos – but the effect is lost every time they cut to Berry and Craig flirting with each other. Worse still, is nothing that any character does in the back half of the movie makes the least bit of sense – from Jesse’s stupid violence, to Millie and Obie leaving her two youngest children at home, alone, during the riots – the actions of her three other kids, which is downright awful.
I still think Ergüven is a talented director – anyone who made a film as good as Mustang earns a film as bad as Kings before I completely write them off. Still, it’s hard to imagine a worse film as a follow-up to a great film as this one.

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