LAMB (2021, Iceland)

October 8, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The opening sequence is surreal and a bit creepy, and with it, first time director Valdimar Johannsson accomplishes a couple of things. First, we witness the rugged beauty of rural Iceland, and second, he sets us up for a bizarre tale, as we follow a heavy-breathing unseen creature (or being) that frightens some wild horses before making its way into the sheep pen. Johannsson co-wrote the script with Sjon, the renowned Icelandic novelist, poet, screenwriter, songwriter, and composer.

Noomi Rapace (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, 2009) stars as Maria, and we watch as she and her husband Ingvar (Hilmer Snaer Gudnason) work their remote sheep farm mostly in silence. There seems to be no joy and little connection between them as they go about their chores and duties. The seasons pass until its time for the sheep to give birth (as you might have guessed from the title). It’s at this point where I simply must be careful about what I write, as the less one knows about this one going in, the more effect it’s likely to have. Personally I knew nothing ahead of time, and had not even watched the trailer. Because of that, this easily rates as one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever watched.

Remember the old margarine commercial, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature”? Well, Maria and Ingvar interpret one strange occurrence as “a gift” from nature and the key to their re-discovered happiness. When Ingvar’s troubled brother Petur (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) shows up, his first question is “WTF is this?” That’s as close to a spoiler as I’ll come here, but there are multiple interpretations to be had: the power of nature, loneliness, the challenges and rewards of parenting, commentary on those who treat their pets as kids, and the devastation of grief followed by the hope of redemption.

There are moments of irony with wool sweaters and entrée selections, as well as some dark humor in regards to bath time, an observant cat, a loyal and smart dog, and one specific irked ewe. This is a remote farm in rural Iceland and the setting adds to an already unorthodox story … one which is pulled from Icelandic folklore. Johannsson is to be commended for his initial work. It easily could pass as a project from the creative mind of Yorgos Lanthimos (THE LOBSTER) or Robert Eggers (THE WITCH). In fact, the film’s co-writer, Sjon, is also writing Eggers next film, THE NORTHMAN, slated for April 2022.

Beyond the setting, the atmosphere, and bizarre aspects of the story, what makes it work is how the characters play it straight. These aren’t talkative folks and we believe they could exist in this environment. Ms. Rapace delivers a strong performance, and that shocking ending reminds us not to mess with nature.

A24 is releasing the film in theaters beginning October 8, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER (if you must)


CINDERELLA (2021)

September 2, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. In keeping with the times, writer-director Kay Cannon (the screenwriter for three PITCH PERFECT movies) has turned the classic and ancient Cinderella tale into an agenda movie, albeit one adorned with new and lively adaptations of popular songs. The earliest versions of the folk tale date back 2000 years, while the most widely-accepted fairy tale version was penned by 17th century French writer Charles Perrault, who also wrote “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Sleeping Beauty”. Since then, there have been countless renditions around the globe in various forms: literary, stage, musical theatre, TV, and animated and live action film. As far as I can tell, this is the first feminist take.

Opening with the town folks performing Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation”, we are then introduced to Ella (pop singer Camila Cabello in her first movie), who lives in the basement of her stepmother’s (Idina Menzel) home. Yes, Ella has two stepsisters, although neither are particularly wicked. In fact, Anastasia (Maddie Baillio) appears almost disinterested, while Drizella (Charlotte Spencer) is at times, downright hilarious (in a Leslie Mann kind of way). Even the stepmother has moments of respectability and decency with Ella.

Ella’s only friends are the three mice who also live in the basement. It’s here where she hones her talent as a dress designer and dreams of having her own business (“how hard can it be?”). For her, she sees fashion design as not just her way out of the basement, but more importantly, as her road to independence. She doesn’t need a man or anyone else, and is skilled in daily affirmations. Hers is less of a ‘dream’ and more of a goal, despite the challenges of her situation.

Of course this is still a Cinderella story, and Nicholas Galitzine plays Prince Robert, an unfocused young man who lacks the drive to be king and fulfill the ultimate wish of his father, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan). On the other hand, Robert’s sister, Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive) is both driven and filled with ideas on ways to improve the kingdom. Her father readily dismisses her from matters of importance (men things), while Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver) initially tries to maintain peace in the family. Knowing that this is a musical, and seeing Pierce Brosnan’s name in the credits, might generate nightmarish flashbacks for those who experienced his singing in MAMMA MIA! (2008). While he does tease/threaten us with singing, most of his musical bits are quite tongue-in-cheek.

Bringing a jolt of energy to the story at a time when it’s desperately needed is Billy Porter as Ella’s non-binary Fabulous Godmother, known as Fab G. Porter’s costume and overall flamboyance are a hoot to watch, and oh by the way, he’s quite a singer as well. And yes, the three mice turn into coachmen played by James Corden, James Acaster, and Romesh Ranganathan. They do serve up some comic relief, but likely not as much as they or the filmmaker hopes. Surprisingly, the set design and costume design are fairly drab – the two exceptions being Porter and the ball.

In addition to the opening “Rhythm Nation” song, you’ll hear a version of Salt-N-Pepa’s “What a Man”, as well as other familiar tunes. The music and the shift in Ella’s approach are the contemporary touches, as the girl-power theme stresses there’s no need for a man … even a Prince. The twist on the Cinderella tale varies from previous versions, the most popular being Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 film with Lily James and Cate Blanchett, the 1997 film with Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, and of course, Walt Disney’s 1950 animated classic. Ms. Cannon’s version is still a love story; it’s just love of one’s self and career, rather than the love of another person. A tale perfectly suited to the times.

In select theaters and on Amazon Prime beginning September 3, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


NINE DAYS (2021)

August 5, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The meaning of Life is an ambitious topic to tackle for any filmmaker, but certainly as a first feature film. Japanese-Brazilian writer-director Edson Oda not only doesn’t shy away from existential questions, he has found a creative way of exploring these, leaving us with plenty to discuss after viewing. His approach is often bleak and slow-moving, yet his film excels in pushing us to examine our own attitude and appreciation for the gift of life.

Winston Duke (US, 2019) stars as Will, a kind of guardian angel charged with selecting the replacement souls after deaths occur on his watch. Will has a wall of old-style tube TVs, each with its own VCR wired up. He spends his time watching folks go about their lives. He takes notes and maintains files. See, those he watches are the ones Will previously selected for life. He picks his team, but he no longer plays the game (although he was once alive). His job now is to tweak humanity in the right direction by selecting “good” souls who are tough enough to handle life – not overly sensitive types, and certainly not those too self-centered.

There is no denying Oda’s film is high-concept, and some may outright dismiss his premise. What if pre-life was a competition to determine worthiness?  Will sets up nine days of interviews for the next round of souls. Of course, some won’t last the full nine days, but the process involves a series of quizzes as the candidates watch the wall of TVs and offer up their answers to Will’s questions. Well, all but one, that is. Emma (Zazie Beetz, JOKER, 2019) is a free-spirited soul who sees Will for what he is and what he was. She answers his questions with her own questions, or simply states that she can’t answer. He is intrigued and frustrated by her willingness to play this out in her own way.

Tony Hale (“Veep”) and Bill Skarsgard (IT, 2017) are a couple of the other candidates, and each has their moments to shine. Benedict Wong (DOCTOR STRANGE, 2015) plays Kyo, Will’s co-worker and the one who assists him with the interview process. Kyo also strives to make sure Will maintains some humanity, despite a recent event that shook him to his core, and now has Will second-guessing himself. As Emma slowly gets Will to open up about his ‘alive’ time, we also see how Will recreates a special moment for the candidates as they are dismissed … providing them with a taste of life.

A ‘taste of life’ is fitting because the point Oda is trying to make is that the best parts of life are emotions and sensations – the intangibles that bring joy, fear, and sadness. It’s not all cupcakes and unicorns, and being so tough to block out the senses is not the best way of living. Without him realizing, Emma helps Will re-connect with his inner-being of when he was alive. His re-awakening is a highlight.

The candidates are informed that, if chosen, their memories will be wiped clean, yet “you’ll still be you”. This conforms to the theory that much of who we are is inherent at birth. Again, some may disagree. Oda’s film will inspire thought and debate. If each of us aced our pre-life interviews, let’s make the most of it!  This is a terrific film with a unique look and style, and a standout performance from Winston Duke. We can only hope enough folks take the time to watch and think about the message.

WATCH THE TRAILER


ANNETTE (2021)

August 5, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The anticipation of seeing a film directed by Leos Carax (HOLY MOTORS, 2012), and written and scored by Ron Mael and Russell Mael of Sparks fame, is derived from expecting the unexpected … experiencing something we’ve never before experienced cinematically. And although the film is likely to be quite divisive – beloved by some, dismissed by others, confusing for all – the ingenuity, creativity, and risk-taking are quite something to behold. As for the narrative coherence? Well that’s quite a different topic.

A mere six weeks ago I watched and reviewed Edgar Wright’s excellent documentary THE SPARKS BROTHERS, where Ron and Russell discussed their affinity and vision for movies, despite a few near misses over the years. This particular material was originally conceived as a rock opera album, and it’s probable that very few directors would even attempt the transition to the big screen. It would be equally challenging as an opera, a play, or a stage musical. In simple terms, this is a musical-drama-romance; however in reality, it’s confoundingly difficult to define or describe.

The opening sequence begins in a recording studio with director Carax at the sound board as the Sparks band performs “So May We Start?” Soon they are marching the streets of Santa Monica, joined in singing the song by the lead actors of the movie we are about to watch. The narrator tells us, “Breathing will not be tolerated”, which takes on a touch of irony during a pandemic.

Adam Driver stars as Henry, an offbeat stand-up comedian, and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard stars as Ann, a popular opera singer. Henry bills himself as ‘The Ape of God’ and performs an abrasive comedy act that is interactive with his audience. He psyches up for each performance by shadow-boxing in a robe while puffing on a cigarette. Ann is often shown alone on stage (Catherine Trottman sings the opera parts, while Ms. Cotillard sings the rest). The couple is engaged when we open, and they later marry, have a child (the titular Annette), and take different approaches to their career. Henry and Ann are polar opposites and that’s best exemplified by how they end their respective shows: he ‘moons’ his audience, while she gracefully bows in appreciation.

Henry is a man filled with love, yet clueless on how to love. He’s a tortured soul – the kind that doesn’t believe he deserves the life he has and finds a way to self-destruct. Henry and Ann are passionate lovers and their duet “We Love Each Other So Much” has the most unusual timing that you’ll see in a musical; in fact, the musical interludes (with repeating lyrics) often arise at the most inopportune (or at least unexpected) moments. Ms. Cotillard’s talents are never fully utilized, while much of the film’s weight is carried by Mr. Driver.

After tragedy strikes, the story becomes quite bizarre with Henry and “Baby Annette”. To say more would spoil that which should remain surprising. Simon Helberg’s role as conductor increases in the second half, and his character’s past with Ann lends itself to the complexity of relationships. This is a dark love story, and one that befuddles right up to the end. Director Carax and the Mael brothers could slide into the Avant-garde corner, but that might scare off even more potential viewers, so let’s use ‘fantastical’ instead. Sometimes it tries a bit too hard to shock or agitate, and the stories are a bit discordant, but it’s all for a good cause: provocation. The film, dedicated to Carax’s daughter Nastya (who appears in the opening sequence), sometimes feels like the wild nightmares that you (mostly) don’t want to end. And that’s about all that should be said to preserve the experience.

This Musical opens in theaters on August 6, 2021 and on Amazon Prime Video on August 20, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021)

July 28, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are at all inclined to see this movie, then I would encourage you to do so … and brace yourself for a surreal and mystical treat unlike any other medieval tale previously adapted for the big screen. Writer-director David Lowery re-teams with A24, the studio that also distributed his critically-acclaimed 2017 film, A GHOST STORY, to deliver a trip for your senses based on the tale of Sir Gawain – a tale that’s been told in various and often contradictory ways over many years.

Dev Patel (LION, 2016) stars as Gawain, the nephew of an ailing King Arthur (Sean Harris, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT, 2018) and Guinevere (Kate Dickie, THE WITCH, 2015). When not imbibing with his friends, shaggy Gawain spends his time in the throes of intimacy with his paramour, Essel (Oscar winner Alicia Vikander sporting a pixie do). Young Gawain feels unworthy when he’s amongst the knights and dreams of becoming an important man, so that he too may regale the King with his tales of adventure.

Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury), in an attempt to facilitate her son’s dreams, uses her witchcraft to conjure up his first opportunity for greatness … and the film’s first visually stunning moment. We are mesmerized as The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, THE WITCH, 2015) makes his entrance riding a great steed into the room where the Knights are gathered at their Round Table. The Green Knight, best described as a giant Groot (from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY), puts forth a challenge that only Gawain is willing to take up. The scene is stunning and memorable, and allows Gawain one year of celebrity before the second part of the challenge must be faced.

It’s at this point where Gawain sets off on his journey … one that can be likened to Homer’s “The Odyssey”, in that it’s filled with surprises and obstacles that defy logic and explanation. The surprises include: Barry Keoghan (DUNKIRK, 2017) as a garrulous, yet deceitful forest scavenger; the ghost of St Winifred (Erin Kellyman) requesting help locating her skull in the swamp; scantily-clad (CGI) bald-headed giants slowly roaming the forest; and a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and his mistress who offer shelter and advice that may or may not be helpful. Also on his journey to meet back up with The Green Knight, Gawain is accompanied by a red fox that holds his own surprises.

Director Lowery’s film is a surreal, hypnotic medieval becoming-a-man tale that is both epic and intimate. There is much to unwrap here, including the witches who clearly establish women’s control of men, and the idea that some may view themselves as destined for greatness, but blink when the moment of truth arrives. We do get a glimpse of Excalibur, and Lowery’s frequent collaborator Daniel Hart’s excellent score expertly blends with the infusion of metal music. The film requires the heightened use of your senses, and the fascinating work of cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo keeps us zoned in on each character and every scene.

In theaters Friday, July 30, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


INFINITE (2021)

June 10, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. At one time or another, we’ve all been awed by a cinematic special effect. Some remarkable work is being done by the specialists in the industry, adding previously unimaginable elements to movies. As with most good things, too much of it can be detrimental to a cause. The latest greatest example of this is with Antoine Fuqua’s (TRAINING DAY, 2001) current film, INFINITE. In a mind-bending science fiction thriller (think THE MATRIX), we expect special effects to play a role. What we get is a tidal wave of CGI that leaves us shaking our heads and wondering why no one recognized the extreme level of ridiculous reached here. The goal seems to have been to go above and beyond any “Fast and Furious” movie so that a comparison can’t be found.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Evan Michaels, a diagnosed schizophrenic with violent tendencies when he’s not on medication. Evan is haunted regularly with hallucinations and dreams that seem real, and he’s blessed with knowledge and skills that he’s never learned and memories of places he’s never been. As it turns out, Evan is part of a group called “Infinites”. This group is divided in half: the good guy “believers” and the let’s-end-the-world nihilists. These infinites are able to carry their memories from one life/body into the next as they are reincarnated. It’s a terrific concept based on the novel “The Reincarnationalist Papers” by D. Eric Maikranz. Responsible for adapting the story for the screen are Ian Shorr and Todd Stein.

One of the believers, played by Sophie Cookson (GREED, 2019), works with Evan in an attempt to access a specific memory for the location of a device (“the egg”) in hopes that they can save the world. Simultaneously, the nihilists and their powerful leader played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 YEARS A SLAVE, 2013) are trying to access that same memory in order to use the device to destroy the world. The story really boils down to good versus evil and trying to save the world instead of destroying it. Not overly complicated, which is a good thing in a Wahlberg film.

Mr. Wahlberg, who looks increasingly like John Cena’s little brother, does get to flash his biceps and abs multiple times, including a sequence as a blacksmith forging a samurai sword using ancient techniques. In addition to his typical physicality and always furrowed brow, Wahlberg’s interjected wisecracks – the ones that work in his simple comedies – are lame and simply out of place here. Mr. Ejiofor, a previous Oscar nominee, goes all out in his outlandish portrayal of the super villain – it’s quite a contrast to his more usual subdued dramatic performances and actually fun to watch.

The supporting cast is solid and includes Dylan O’Brien, Jason Mantzoukas, Rupert Friend, Wallis Day, Toby Jones, Johannes Haukur Johannesson, and Liz Carr. As you might expect, given that the memories cover multiple centuries, the film’s geographic locations are varied, and the characters bounce from Mexico to New York City to Scotland to Indonesia. Wahlberg and director Fuqua previously collaborated on SHOOTER (2007), but as mentioned previously, the special effects are just too far over the top here. The opening car chase scene is exhausting, and since we don’t know why it’s happening or who to pull for, it’s mostly just noise without reason. Later, there is a stunt (teased in the trailer) that ensures anyone trying to give the benefit of doubt to the film will instantly surrender. A few attempts are made to trick viewers into believing some deep philosophical thoughts are at work here, and that life is bigger than all of us, but mostly we are left wondering … why the absurdity?

Premieres on Paramount+ on June 10, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


UNDINE (2021)

June 3, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. German filmmaker Christian Petzold has a track record of creating thought-provoking, intelligent, and ambitious films such as BARBARA (2012) and TRANSIT (2018). This time out he re-teams his TRANSIT co-stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski in a film that’s more fable or fairy tale than conventional storytelling. If forced to label, we might go with Fantasy-Romance-Drama-Mystery, which really means the film doesn’t easily fit into a known genre.

The film opens with a very uncomfortable break-up scene between Johannes (Jacob Matschentz) and Undine (Ms. Beer). When he says they are done, she responds, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you. You know that.” While researching the name Undine, I stumbled upon the 1811 German fairy tale of a water nymph Friedrich de la Motte Fouquet, which clearly inspired Petzold. The story has some similarities to “The Little Mermaid”, itself a Danish fairy tale originally written by Hans Christian Anderson. It helps to know all of this upfront to prevent some of the frustration that goes with deciphering what is real and what is imagined.

As one would imagine, water is a recurring element throughout – beginning with Undine’s chance and unusual café meet-cute with Christoph (Mr. Rogowski). The two find themselves attracted and connected after being drenched. Christoph is an industrial diver, so water is a part of his life … as is ‘Big Guenther’, the legendary giant catfish he spots while on a job. Undine is a historian who holds sessions for tourists during which she recounts the architectural evolution and urban sprawl of Berlin over the past centuries, by utilizing scale models of the different eras. We also learn that “Berlin” means marsh, or a dry place in the marsh … yet another water-related aspect.

Ms. Beer, who was so good in FRANTZ (2016) and NEVER LOOK AWAY (2018) continues her fine work, and reuniting with her TRANSIT co-star, Mr. Rogowski (VICTORIA, 2015) works out beautifully, as they have a nice rapport. Mr. Petzold’s film has a supernatural element and is dreamlike at times, and though I’ve used the “fairy tale” description, it’s clearly a very high concept film for grown-ups … and there is enough humor (“Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees) to offset the doomed relationships and Undine’s return to her natural element. It’s quite a trip for those who are up for it.

In theaters and On Demand June 4, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (2021, Sweden)

April 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. A quarter-century once elapsed between feature films for Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. He only directed a handful of short films between “GILLIAP” (1975) and SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (2000). Mr. Andersson makes Terrence Malick look prolific. He’s certainly not a traditional filmmaker and this latest is not a typical movie. In fact, its highest and best use may be in a graduate Psychology or Philosophy class, so that the mental capacity of students can be stretched and tested to determine whether Andersson is celebrating life or bemoaning our existence.

The narrator begins most segments with something along the lines of: “I saw a man …”, “I saw a woman …”, “I saw parents …”, and “I saw a couple floating …”. These lead us into static one shot vignettes with little or no dialogue. For example, in the first segment, a woman on a park bench concludes with, “It’s September already.” There is a priest who makes a recurring appearance as one who has lost his faith. In another, parents have lost a son. The emphasis is on the artistic impression and one’s own interpretation.

Over the opening, and again later in the film, we see a couple floating over the ruins of Cologne. It’s Andersson’s take on Chagall’s 1918 painting, “Over the Town”. Another segment is a recreation of Hitler’s bunker in Kukryniksy’s 1946 painting, “The End”. These are simple, stark, low-key snapshots in time. The color palette seems to be off-gray, and the sun never shines in this world – there’s no tanned skin in the bunch. Andersson offers just enough moments of hope/happiness to prevent this from being 80 minutes of full-on depression. We always think he’s trying to tell us something, but can’t always decipher what the intended message is. Like the best art, it’s up to your interpretation, and surely dependent on individual perspective.

Release delayed due to COVID-19

WATCH THE TRAILER


PINOCCHIO (2021)

February 23, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Part ‘Frankenstein’ and part parable for parenting is how I’ve always thought of the story of Pinocchio. In this latest version, director and co-writer (with Massimo Ceccherini) Matteo Garrone adds a splash “Alice in Wonderland” to Carlo Callodi’s 1883 novel, “The Adventures of Pinocchio”. The result is a grim, not-kid-friendly live-action presentation that’s a bit uneven, yet still engaging.

Oscar winner Roberto Benigni (LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, 1997) is wood-carver Geppetto, a poverty-stricken man who works magic with a chisel, but is never quite sure where his next meal will come from. When the traveling Grand Puppet Theater hits town, Geppetto dreams of creating a beautiful puppet and traversing the globe to show it off. A fellow wood worker gifts him with the enchanted piece of wood from which Pinocchio is born. When he discovers the puppet can talk, Geppetto is so proud of his new son that he shows him off around town and walks him to his first day of school.

Of course we know that Pinocchio is a curious boy, and he immediately sneaks off to watch the puppet show. This sets off his many adventures, while simultaneously making Geppetto quite sad as he undertakes a search and rescue mission. Pinocchio crosses paths with the kinda creepy Talking Cricket (Davide Marotta), the fire-eating Mangiafuoco (Gigi Proeitti), a couple of tricksters in Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and Fox (co-writer Ceccherini), a confused gorilla judge (Teco Celio), and a friendly, but slimy snail (Maria Pia Timo) who lives with the Fata Turchina/Blue Fairy (played young by Alida Baldari Calabria, and older by well-known French actress Marine Vacth).

The enticement of playing all day and having no responsibilities leads Pinocchio to accept an invitation to Toyland, although the train of donkeys pulling the wagon load of kids is our tipoff to what’s about to go down. Pinocchio’s subsequent swim in the ocean and encounter with the sea monster are handled well visually, and the reunion with Geppetto is quite pleasant. You should know that the iconic Pinocchio nose that grows upon telling lies is limited to a single scene, albeit a memorable one.

Benigni was the writer-director-star of the critically-panned 2002 PINOCCHIO, which also failed at the box office. He’s much better suited to the role of Geppetto and does a nice job of capturing the essence of the character. Federico Ielapi handles the role of Pinocchio quite well, and the “wooden” effects of his face are quite impressive. The story is a metaphor for the struggles and challenges of life, and the life lessons are easy to discern … for instance, there is no ‘field of miracles’, regardless of what Cat and Fox promise. Nicolai Bruel’s cinematography is at times visually stunning as we make our way through the countryside of Italy. It’s just that director Garrone (two excellent films: TALE OF TALES 2015, and GOMORRAH 2008) chooses to emphasize the bleakness, and it’s important to note that this is far-removed from the 1940 Disney animated classic. Most will struggle to find an emotional connection, though the look of the film and life lessons are top notch. Guillermo del Toro has a stop-action animation version currently in production and it’s not surprisingly rumored to be even darker than this one.

After a long delay, the film gets a digital release on February 23, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


MINARI (2021)

February 11, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. “The American Dream” could actually be labeled ‘The Human Dream’. The idea of being part of a loving and supportive family, while achieving a bit of societal success and living comfortably and safely in a home one can call their own, is a dream that bears no boundaries, gender, or skin color. This autobiographical film from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung is centered on his childhood recollections of his family move to rural Arkansas to start a farm.

It’s the 1980s and this Korean immigrant family has packed up to leave their dead-end California life to begin anew on a 50 acre parcel in Arkansas. Father Jacob (Steven Yeun, “The Walking Dead”) has a dream of cultivating Korean vegetables to fill the demand from an increasing Korean populace. Mother Monica (Yeri Han) sees less dream and more nightmare as they drive far from a city and pull up to a tattered mobile home (“it has wheels”). Their young son David (Alan S Kim) has health concerns from a closely monitored heart murmur, and is constantly being ordered to “don’t run, David!” David’s older sister Anne (Noel Cho) is mature and smart for her age, and acts as his life guide.

Monica and Jacob take jobs at a local hatchery to support the family while the farm is developed. The hatchery job is exactly what they escaped from in California, so Monica sees their situation as worse, not better … foreseeing failure on the farm. A heartfelt argument leads to compromise and Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) comes to live with them. As David notes, she’s not a “normal grandmother”. Rather than bake cookies, she freely spews profanity and quite enjoys the “water from mountains” (Mountain Dew) amidst her practical jokes at the expense of others. In other words, she’s a hoot!

Jacob accepts the offer of help from Paul (longtime favorite character actor Will Patton), a local evangelical Christian who praises Jesus frequently, and has an unusual Sunday ritual. The two men manage to cultivate the crops, yet run in to many obstacles along the way. But Chung’s film is clever in that the real core is family dynamics. Grandma’s planting of fast-growing minari herb in the creek bed acts as a metaphor for the plight of this family. Each member finds their way, and it’s clearly stronger as a unit than broken.

This is such a beautiful film with a gentle story grounded in realism. These people talk and act like a family, and the pressures they face are real. Racism in the south is never dwelled upon, but the struggles of a changing citizenry is faced by all. Emile Mosseri’s score is unusual, but fits perfectly, while Lachlan Milne’s cinematography at times reminds of Terrence Malick, possibly due to the setting. Filmmaker Chung has created a tender, relatable film and the cast performs superbly. The result will strike an emotional chord for many.

In theaters on February 12, 2021 and VOD on February 26, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER