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

 


KAJILLIONAIRE (2020)

September 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A single month with new releases from both Charlie Kaufman (I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS) and Miranda July, is almost enough to make this movie lover forget for a moment that we are suffering through a global pandemic, raging forest fires, and the most obscene presidential campaign of my lifetime. Ms. July is an absurdly talented writer and filmmaker, and it’s her first feature length film since THE FUTURE (2011). Prior to that, she served up ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (2005), and has a unique way of displaying her strange life observations. She and Kaufman are masters of quirk, and excel in twisting our minds.

Evan Rachel Wood stars as Old Dolio Dyne, daughter of Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (an unrecognizable Debra Winger). This is an oddball family of petty crime con artists who live in a run down, unused office next to the Bubbles, Inc. factory. And yes, they make bubbles in the factory … bubbles that seep through the walls into the office where this family sleeps. One of their scams is on the landlord (a surreal character himself) who has to explain to an always-negotiating Robert that “rent is an installment”.

The first part of the film allows us to get to know the family members. We see them pull off stealing mail from a neighboring post office box, and returning stolen goods for the reward. Ms. Wood stays attired in an oversized green track suit jacket, and has lowered her speaking voice by an octave, adding impact to her monotone liners. She’s socially awkward, and likely on the spectrum as she seems to be the smartest of the bunch. Daddy Robert is a control freak and has an emotional disability in regards to California earthquake tremors. He and Theresa show no signs of affection towards each other or Old Dolio.

An airline baggage scam results in the family meeting Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), an eager to join the grifters woman, whom Old Dolio sees as her replacement as both a daughter and partner. Jealousy ensues. Melanie is contrasted to Old Dolio by her bubbly personality, and by a wardrobe that is significantly more revealing than a tattered track suit. Old Dolio watches uneasily as Melanie is soon receiving the attention from Robert and Theresa that their own daughter craves.

The second half evolves into a film not so much about cons or heists (the film admits it’s no OCEANS 11), as about family dynamics. The twists and turns find Melanie helping Old Dolio break free of parental over-control in order to experience independence … and pancakes. Learning about warmth and affection from “normal” families is eye-opening for her, and sometimes a little confusing for us to follow.  Who is scamming whom, and when are they telling the truth?

Miranda July has created a crime-drama-comedy (dark comedy), with plenty of space to let the characters and dialogue breathe. “I’m Mr. Lonely” by Bobby Vinton kicks in periodically, and the score from Emile Mosseri (THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO) complements it well. On the heels of last year’s team of family scamsters in PARASITE, this shaggy group has never met a swindle they wouldn’t try. And they never expected it to backfire with their own daughter. The divide between those who like the film and those who don’t was pretty clear after Sundance, and Miranda July will likely never be one to appeal to the masses. But for those of us who connect with her oddball way of seeing life, we appreciate the focus on what makes a family of outsiders click … especially when a superb performance from Evan Rachel Wood drives the film.

watch the trailer: