Review: ‘The Devil Below,’ starring Alicia Sanz, Adan Canto, Chinaza Uche, Zach Avery, Jonathan Sadowski and Will Patton

April 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Adan Canto, Chinaza Uche, Zach Avery and Alicia Sanz in “The Devil Below” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Devil Below

Directed by Bradley Parker

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional rural town of Bluefield, Kentucky, the horror flick “The Devil Below” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: Four geologists and their tour guide try to solve the mystery of an abandoned mine that trapped 195 people decades earlier, and the explorers uncover sinister forces during their excursion. 

Culture Audience: “The Devil Below” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching formulaic and mindless horror movies.

Will Patton and Alicia Sanz in “The Devil Below” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

There’s absolutely nothing creative or original about the dreadfully predictable horror flick “The Devil Below.” It’s about a group of people who go somewhere remote and “forbidden” to try to find out why numerous people have mysteriously died or vanished in this death trap. The group of explorers think nothing will happen to them. And you know what happens next. Even though this concept has been recycled countless times in horror movies, there are ways to bring some freshness to this concept, but the “The Devil Below” fails miserably.

Directed by Bradley Parker and written by Eric Scherbarth and Stefan Jaworski, “The Devil Below” (formerly titled “Shookum Hills”) checks every horror cliché box in this lazy and unimaginative story. The acting is mediocre and the dialogue is forgettable. The movie starts off explaining that the death trap is a now-abandoned coal mine that was owned by the Shookum Hills Mining Company in the fictional rural town of Bluefield, Kentucky. In 1970, 33 people died and 162 went missing in an unexplained mining accident.

The opening scene shows another death in the present day: A miner named Schuttmann (played by Will Patton) is with his son Eric (played by Duncan Novak) near the mine, when a strange force seems to grab Eric and pull him down into the mine shaft. Meanwhile, someone or something stabs Schuttman in the neck. It won’t be the last that viewers will see of Schuttman though.

Sometime later (the movie doesn’t saw how much later), a feisty tour guide named Arianne (played by Alicia Sanz) is getting ready to lead a group of four geologists, who want Arianne to take them to the Shookum Hills mine, which is no longer on any current maps. Arianne doesn’t want to tell these geologists that she has no idea how to find the place. She needs the money that they’re paying her, so she decides to just “wing it” and hope they won’t figure out that she doesn’t really know how to get to the abandoned mine.

The four geologists are:

  • Darren Atkins (played by Adan Canto), the group’s ambitious and aggressive leader who has a checkered past that is eventually revealed in the story,
  • Terry Ellis (played by Jonathan Sadowski), a structural geologist, who is the jokester of the group.
  • Shawn Harrison (played Chinaza Uche), a field geologist/comparative mythologist, who is the skeptical worrier in the group.
  • Jaime Cowan (played by Zach Avery), the laid-back and easygoing member of the group.

The town of Shookum Hills in Kentucky burned down years ago and also isn’t on any current maps. On the way to the abandoned mine that Arianne doesn’t really know how to find (Arianne and the four geologists are in Arianne’s Jeep), she decides to stop at a nearby convenience store. The store is predictably dark and dingy, and the scruffy store clerk looks at this obvious out-of-towner with some suspicion.

When Arianne shows the clerk an old map of the Shookum Hills mine and asks how to get there, he immediately becomes hostile and says he doesn’t know. When Arianne leaves, the clerk gets on the phone and tells the person on the other line, “Dave, we have a problem.” The next thing you know, Arianne and the geologist crew are being chased through the woods by some of the local residents in a truck.

Arianne figures out that the people chasing them will go straight to the mine if they lose track of Arianne’s Jeep. And sure enough, that’s what happens. Arianne sees the direction where the truck is headed. And that’s how Arianne and the geologists find the mine. Or is it a sinkhole from hell? It’s easy to predict what will happen from there.

Shawn explains why he’s skittish about being there: “The prevailing theory is there was never actually a coal mine but America’s response to the well to hell … The Russians drilled about eight miles in Siberia until the drill broke, and they lowered a heat-resistant microphone into the well and heard this sound. Some say it’s the screams of the damned.” He then plays a scratchy audio recording of people wailing in agony. And with that, Shawn has already telegraphed what’s going to happen in this story.

As the body count piles up, “The Devil Below” uses the annoying horror movie trickery of making it look like someone has died but that person is really still alive. The first two-thirds of the movie are quite dull, but the last third is just absolutely moronic. Let’s put it this way: People who should have no logical reason to realistically move about or be alive, due to severe bodily injuries, end up acting as if they only have some pesky bruises. What’s lurking inside the mine is also very stereotypical.

The cinematography of “The Devil Below” is an ugly brownish hue for most of the film, except in the underground mine scenes, which at times has a bright red glow. This underground death trap is supposed to be hellish, so of course the filmmakers chose the most predictable color to represent hell. There’s a certain hell that viewers will experience if they watch “The Devil Below” to the very end. And that’s the hell of knowing that they wasted time watching this idiotic and boring movie.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Devil Below” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Minari,’ starring Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han, Noel Cho and Will Patton

February 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han and Noel Cho in “Minari” (Photo by Josh Ethan Johnson/A24)

“Minari”

Directed by Lee Isaac Chung

Korean and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1980s, in an unnamed part of rural Arkansas, the drama “Minari’ features a cast of Asians and white people portraying the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Korean American family moves from California to Alabama, so the patriarch can start a farm, but the family experiences culture shock and unexpected hardships.

Culture Audience: “Minari” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted dramas about family struggles and the American Dream.

Will Patton and Steven Yeun in “Minari” (Photo by Melissa Lukenbaugh/A24)

The standout drama “Minari” makes an emotional impact in moments of quiet desperation and anxiety during a family’s quest to achieve the American Dream. It’s not a movie packed with fast-paced action, nor does it fall into predictable clichés of how immigrant families in America are often portrayed on screen. It’s an intimate “slice of life” portrait of a pivotal time in a Korean American family’s history, with impressive performances from the movie’s cast.

Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari” won the 2020 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Award in the U.S. dramatic category (the festival’s top prize) and the Audience Award in the same category. And it’s an arthouse film that’s also a crowd-pleaser. There isn’t a false note in the entire movie, although the deliberate pacing of “Minari” might not be to everyone’s taste, especially if a viewer is expecting more melodramatic antics in this story.

Set in the 1980s, “Minari” centers on the Yee family, who have recently moved from California to rural Arkansas. Jacob (played by Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (played by Yeri Han) are in their 30s and have opposite feelings from each other about this relocation. Jacob is excited and optimistic about this new chapter in the family’s life, while Monica is skeptical and worried. When they drive up to their new home, which is a trailer, Monica expresses her disappointment to Jacob: “This isn’t what you promised.”

Jacob and Monica’s children are daughter Anne (played by Noel Cho) and son David (played by Alan S. Kim), who are aware that their mother isn’t thrilled about moving to rural Arkansas, where the family doesn’t know anyone. But the children have no choice but to go along and see what happens. Anne, who is about 11 or 12 years old, is an obedient and unfussy child. David is 7 years old, very precocious, and a little bit rebellious. David also has a heart murmur, so he’s often reminded by his parents that he can’t run or do any physical activity that could over-exert his heart.

It’s mentioned in the movie that Jacob and Monica are Korean immigrants who moved to the United States after they became a couple, while Anne and David were born in the U.S. It’s why Jacob and Monica usually speak to each other in Korean. Anne and David are also bilingual, but they prefer to speak English.

There are other signs that Anne and David are more open to assimilating with Americans than Jacob and Monica are. The children (especially David) want to make new friends in their new hometown, while Jacob and Monica prefer to keep to themselves and feel more comfortable around the few other Korean immigrants in the area. (“Minari” was actually filmed in Tulsa, Oklahoma.)

In California, Jacob was a very skilled farm worker whose specialty is being a chicken sexer: someone who identifies baby chickens by their sex, so that the males can be separated from the females. Female chickens are considered more valuable than male chickens because females can produce eggs. When the Yee family arrives in Arkansas, Jacob gets a chicken sexer job at a place called Wilkinson Hatcheries, which employs mostly Korean immigrants. Anne works there too, doing the same thing, but she’s new at learning this skill.

There’s been tension brewing between Jacob and Monica. When she first sees that they’ll be living in a trailer, instead of a house, she mutters to herself, “It just gets worse and worse.” And several times during the movie, Monica expresses regret about moving to Arkansas, and pines for what she says was the better life that the family had in California.

But Jacob has other ideas. The property they own in Arkansas comes with about one acre of land that’s ideal for farming. One of the first things that Jacob does is scoop up some of the grassy soil in his hands. He marvels, “This is the best dirt in America.”

Monica is dismayed that Jacob’s plans to have a backyard garden as a hobby quickly turns into plans to start a small farm. It’s a lot to handle for Jacob, who also needs to keep his day job at the hatchery company. Monica reluctantly goes along with Jacob’s decision for her and Jacob get a bank loan to start the farming business. Jacob’s plan is to sell his farm produce to places that carry Korean food. Jacob immediately begins teaching David some aspects of farm life, no doubt because Jacob thinks that David might want to inherit the farm someday.

Jacob determines that there’s enough water flow on the land to build a well and irrigation system. He then buys a tractor from a local, scruffy eccentric named Paul (played by Will Patton), who offers to work for Jacob on the farm. Paul is a Christian who’s a religious fanatic. One of the first things Paul does during the tractor sale is pray in tongues over the land. This behavior makes Jacob uncomfortable, so he declines Paul’s offer to work on the farm.

However, it soon becomes clear that Jacob has no one else to turn to in this sparsely populated area. Paul ends up working for Jacob, who learns to tolerate Paul’s religious quirks. For example, Jacob is a smoker, and the first time that he lights up a cigarette in front of Paul, the reaction from Paul is as if he’s near the fire of hell. In his free time, Paul has a habit of walking down the area’s dirt roads with a large, heavy wooden cross on his shoulder, to recreate the biblical story of Jesus doing the same thing.

Throughout the movie, it’s made every clear that the Yee family is very isolated. Monica suggests to Jacob that they move to a bigger city called Rogers in Arkansas, but he brushes off that suggestion and says they’ve invested too much in the property that they have now. Anne and David are homeschooled, but since Monica and Jacob have to spend their weekdays at the hatchery, they need someone to help take care of the kids during the day.

And that’s why Anne’s feisty mother Soonja (played by Yuh-jung Youn) comes to live with the family. She travels from Korea to Arkansas, but her immigration situation is never explained in the movie. Due to visa restrictions and how quickly that Soonja was able to get to Arkansas, it’s implied that her stay in Arkansas will be temporary. Jacob wants to make enough money through the farm so that eventually, he and Monica don’t have to work at the hatchery anymore and will be able to work from home while the kids are there.

However long Soonja plans to stay, “Minari” takes place over the course of about five or six months, with Soonja coming into the picture during the last couple of months that the story take place. In the movie, Anne mentions that she’s the only living relative for Soonja, who lost her husband in the Korean War. When Soonja arrives with food from Korea, such as chili powder and anchovies, Anne gets so emotional that she cries.

Soonja doesn’t get a very warm welcome from David though. It doesn’t help that David has to share his room with Soonja, even though she sleeps on the floor. David tells Soonja and his other family members why he doesn’t trust Soonja: David thinks she doesn’t act like a “real grandmother,” because she can’t read, she often curses, and she wears men’s underwear. Soonja tries to bond with David by cracking open a nut with her mouth and then telling him to eat it what she just spit out. Naturally, David refuses.

Soonja also tries to be friendly to David by giving him a pack of playing cards. Monica asks Soonja if that’s an appropriate gift for a 7-year-old. Soonja replies: “Start him young to beat these other bastards!”

David has a bed-wetting problem, and when Soonja finds out, she teases David by saying to him in Korean: “Penis is broken.” David replies, “It’s not called a penis! It’s called a ding-dong!” In an act of impish revenge, David plays a prank on Soonja that won’t be described in this review, but it’s enough to say that the prank can be considered amusing, nauseating or both.

Soonja and her minor clashes with David are the movie’s main comic relief, as the stress continues to build in the family because of problems with the farm. Starting the business has been a major financial drain on the family’s funds and there are some setbacks which make it questionable when or if the farm will be profitable. The more that it looks like the business will fail, the more that Monica wants to leave Arkansas.

Jacob refuses to quit, and he tells an increasingly frustrated Monica that it’s about more than the money. It’s about a sense of accomplishment and setting an example for their children: “They need to see me succeed at something,” Jacob says.

More than once, Jacob tells Monica that if the farm fails, she can do whatever she wants, including leaving him and taking the children with her. In other words, the stakes are pretty high for this family, which also has the added worries of some health problems that happen later in the story. Except for the bank loan and Paul’s assistance, Jacob doesn’t ask for much help. Part of it is because of his pride, but part of it could also be Korean culture, which teaches that families should try to keep their problems to themselves so that they won’t burden society.

Because the Yee family lives on a fairly isolated farm and the children are homeschooled, they don’t come in contact with a lot of the local people in their part of Arkansas. Therefore, “Minari” doesn’t have any scenarios where the Yees experience any blatant racial discrimination. Shortly after Soonja arrives, the Yee family attends a local church service, where the Yees are the only non-white parishioners. The white churchgoers are friendly and occasionally culturally ignorant, but they do not deliberately exclude the Yees.

The title of the movie comes from a noteworthy scene when Soonja and David are in the woods and she notices that a nearby creek would be ideal to grow minari. Soonja mentions that minari is the type of herb that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their ethnicity or socioeconomic status. The minari becomes a metaphor not just for following a dream but also for persistence when there’s an obstacle to that dream.

Chung’s writing and direction for “Minari” are uncluttered but rich with emotions that are relatable to people who have close-knit families. There are some arguments and hard decisions that have to be made in how this family will move forward, but these scenes of conflict never look gimmicky just for the sake of bringing more drama to the story. The movie’s production design, cinematography and production design are assets in bringing authenticity to this family tale.

Yeun, Kim and Han deliver the movie’s most memorable performances. There’s an underlying power dynamic between their three characters in the movie that are the catalysts for the biggest developments in the story. Soonja’s arrival puts added pressure on Jacob to be the family’s chief provider, because he doesn’t want to look like he’s incapable of taking care of his family.

David and Jacob also know that Soonja is a reminder of Korea, a country that Jacob and Monica left to seek a better life in America. At one point, David comments about Soonja in a disdainful tone of voice that she “smells like Korea.” Even at this young age, David is aware that his parents think that they’re better off in America than in Korea. However, Soonja’s vibrant presence, even in her unsophisticated glory, is a reminder of how people shouldn’t be dismissive of their family heritage and the value of wisdom that comes with age.

“Minari” takes its time to get to the most dramatic part of the story. But viewers who like to immerse themselves in the everyday lives of a very specific family will find a lot to admire about this film. The movie takes place in the 1980s, but there are lessons learned in the story that are timeless.

A24 released “Minari” in select U.S. cinemas on February 11, 2021, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on February 12, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is February 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Blood on Her Name,’ starring Bethany Anne Lind, Will Patton and Elisabeth Röhm

February 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bethany Anne Lind in “Blood on Her Name” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Blood on Her Name” 

Directed by Matthew Pope

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed small U.S. town, this crime thriller has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latino and African Americans in supporting roles) that represent the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A divorced mother who has killed a man tries to cover up the crime.

Culture Audience: “Blood on her Name” will appeal primarily to people who like tension-filled crime stories about ordinary people caught up in terrible circumstances.

Will Patton and Jared Ivers in “Blood on Her Name” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Blood on Her Name” sounds like it might be the title of a horror film,  but the story is really a crime thriller about choices that a desperate woman makes that will have long-lasting effects on her family. It’s suspenseful from beginning to end, and it will make viewers wonder what they would do if they were in the same situation.

In the beginning of the story, auto-body shop owner Leigh Tiller (played by Bethany Anne Lind) is bruised and battered from an obvious physical fight. But that’s not the worst of her problems. The man who caused her injuries is now dead, and Leigh is desperately trying to figure out where she should dump his body and get rid of the weapon (a mechanic’s wrench) that she used to kill him. The movie never shows the fight, even in flashbacks, so viewers will have to speculate about what took place during this fatal altercation.

With the body wrapped in tarp, Leigh takes the corpse with her in a canoe out to a lake, where she throws the wrench into the water.  The movie’s only real plot hole is that it doesn’t explain how Leigh, who is of average height and weight, could carry a dead body of that size by herself and load it in her car and then a canoe. Adrenaline has been proven to give people extraordinary strength, so that will have to be the only logical explanation.

As Leigh is about the throw the body into the lake too, the dead man’s cell phone rings. She lets it go to voice mail and then listens to the message. It’s the dead man’s son, who sounds concerned that he hadn’t come home the night before. In that moment, she decides not to dispose of the body in the lake, and she puts the body back in the trunk of her car.

Leigh is obviously in a major panic and isn’t thinking straight. Not only does she seem unsure of what to do with the body, she’s also taken no precautions to prevent her DNA or fingerprints from being on the body or the tarp used to cover it. The other less-than-smart thing that she does is keep the dead man’s cell phone. Apparently, she doesn’t know that police can track a cell phone’s location and travel route by the nearest cell phone towers that pick up the cell phone’s signal.

The next day, Leigh is in the car with her delinquent teenage son Ryan (played by Jared Ivers), as they drive to a meeting with Ryan’s parole officer. It isn’t specifically said what Ryan did that got him arrested, but it was bad enough where he ended up in jail, Leigh has to pay restitution, and Ryan has to do drug testing by urine sample.

While in the car, Leigh tells Ryan not to worry about the man who came to their home last night because he left right after Ryan left. From the expression on Ryan’s face, he’s somewhat skeptical, but he doesn’t press the matter. When Ryan and Leigh meet with parole officer Nathan Parrish (played by Tony Vaughn), the officer asks what happened to Leigh’s face, and she lies and tells him that she got injured on the job.

And where is Ryan’s father? He’s divorced from Leigh and is in prison for dirty deals involving stolen cars. It’s implied in the movie, but not said outright, that he used the auto-body shop to sell parts from these stolen automobiles. While he’s in prison, Leigh has taken over the shop, which is so small that only two people work there: Leigh and her loyal mechanic Jimmy Gonzales (played by Reynoso Dias), who immediately asks what happened to Leigh when she goes to work and he sees the injuries on her face.

Leigh tells Jimmy that that a junkie broke into the shop when she was alone, and she fought him off. When he tells her that she should report the break-in and assault to the police, Leigh says she won’t, because she doesn’t want the shop to have “a bad reputation with the few customers we have left.” When she’s alone, Leigh checks the computer surveillance video from the previous night and deletes what appears to be damning evidence.

And then Leigh does something strange: She goes back to the body to retrieve the dead man’s wallet, she takes out the driver’s license to get his address, and then drives to the address that’s on the license. She parks a little way down the street so she can get a good look at what’s going on at the address.

While parked in her car, she sees on the dead man’s cell phone that he’s been getting increasingly angry text messages from a woman who’s the mother of the son who left the voice mail from the previous night. The profile picture on the text messages shows what the woman looks like, and the same woman is sitting out front in the trailer. Her son, who appears to be in her late teens, is seen outside of the trailer too. The woman’s name is Dani Wilson (played by Elisabeth Röhm), and her son’s name is Travis (played by Jack Andrews).

While Leigh is spying on the dead man’s family, Leigh is startled by a cop, who asks why she’s parked there in the middle of the day. And the cop happens to be Leigh’s widowed father Richard (played by Will Patton), who’s on patrol duty. Even though this story takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, it’s obviously a small town because Richard doesn’t have a cop partner when he’s on patrol. And as the story unfolds with Leigh trying to cover up what she did, it’s even more obvious that the city where she lives has a very small police force.

Why was Leigh parked in front of the dead man’s home? We find out that it’s because she wanted to see where she could return the body to his family without being caught. She goes back to the home at night to dispose of the body in the family’s shed. She then leaves a hand-written note in the family’s mailbox that says, “He’s in the shed. I’m sorry.”

Even though it would have been easier to get away with what she did if the body was never found, one can only speculate that she wanted the body to be found because she felt guilty and wanted to give closure to the dead man’s family. In a weird way, she’s thinking that it’s more “respectful” to leave it at the dead man’s home instead of leaving it at a random place where a stranger would find it.

But how much will this decision cost Leigh in the end? And who exactly was the dead man? Those questions are answered in the movie. But there are some twists and turns along the way, including Leigh noticing that her unusual necklace (a tiny wrench on a chain) is missing, and she might have dropped it when she left the body in the shed.

“Blood on My Name” (ably directed by Matthew Pope, who wrote the screenplay with Don M. Thompson) maintains a panic-stricken tone throughout the film. If some of Leigh’s decisions might seem illogical, consider that this is probably the first time she’s killed someone, and the death doesn’t appear to have been planned in advance. And then factor in that her father is a cop who would be investigating the disappearance/death of this man, and it’s easy to see why her thought process would be scrambled by extreme fear and guilt.

During different scenes in the movie, Leigh starts to have flashback visions of herself as a child of about 8 or 9 years old. It’s here that we see that she used to idolize her father at that age, and she admired his job as a cop so much that she would ride in the back of his police car. But she now has a strained relationship with her father, no doubt because she was married to a man who’s now in prison. In case it wasn’t clear from her actions, Leigh’s nickname could be “Bad Life Choices.”

“Blood on Her Name” is not a groundbreaking film, but it’s a taut thriller with solid acting and a few unpredictable revelations that add depth to the movie. The morality dilemmas in the story aren’t just about what someone would do to cover up a crime but also what someone would do to protect a family.

Vertical Entertainment released “Blood on Her Name” in select U.S. cities and on VOD on February 28, 2020.