Kimchi meets kudzu in the ravishingly gorgeous family story of an immigrant South Korean family making its way in ‘80s Arkansas in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (A). Steven Yeun is noble, quiet and towering as the father torn between his family and his farm, and because duty often eclipses being daddy, he consistently disappoints his mate portrayed by Han Ye-Ri, a performance of grit, grace and melancholy. Veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung turns in one of the great cinematic supporting performances as a spry grandma, a highlight of her every scene as she cusses her way through card games, pilfers from the church offering plate and guzzles “mountain water” sodas between moments of selfless love; and Alan Kim may be one of the cutest kids to ever appear on screen as the family’s precocious youngster with a heart murmur and a penchant for proclaiming what’s really on his mind. The latter two provide the comic heart of the movie to punctuate some of the Steinbeckian drama afoot between the parents trying to make ends meet and their marriage work against a backdrop of occasional earth, wind and fire eruptions. Chung captures a semi-autobiographical story with a dreamlike gaze, exploring topics of fortitude and faith with the skills of a master. Who knew the hillbilly elegy promised moviegoers would tap into Asian origins? The film offers a slow burn tale told with deep respect and reverence for its characters, and it doesn’t miss a beat in its rural authenticity or its snapshots of bygone traditions. Its series of small moments swell into a satisfying final act, and the full effect grows on you like the movie’s titular watercress vines, pulling viewers in and adding moving details which are the spice of life.
Talk about a son possessed – and often obsessed – with the topics fascinating his famous father! Director Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (B) follows in the footsteps of his filmmaker dad David Cronenberg, with both men specializing in intellectual tales of psychological trauma played out against the human body as a bloody and phantasmagoric canvas. Expect rage and repercussions. Andrea Riseborough is ostensibly the star of the film although her character is largely inhabiting the mind and body of Christopher Abbott, who gets the real juicy part, in a film that also features Sean Bean and Jennifer Jason Leigh in effective small parts. The plot involves assassinations carried out through a diabolical mind control process, but it’s largely style over substance as memories and intentions collide in some epic suspense showdowns. Wall to wall with hallucinogenic imagery and graphic violence, the film is catnip for fans of thriller and horror genres. The set-up is strong, set pieces superb and stakes high throughout. The film can’t quite bear the weight of both its protagonist and parasite, but it’s boldly audacious nonetheless. The auteurist apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and it’s rotten to the core in the best possible way.
Paul Greengrass delivers a star vehicle for Tom Hanks in full, gallant, paternal nobility mode in the old-fashioned but pleasant enough News of the World (B), a western that could have used a bit more bite. It’s a handsome production gorgeously shot, and the subtext that not too much has changed in the 150 years since it takes place seems to want to rear its thematic head in what turns out to actually be a fairly routine endeavor. Hanks is solid as the military veteran and roving newspaper reader who finds a new calling when he discovers an orphaned girl, and the plucky Helena Zengel is at least competing on the same aisle and shelf with Wilson the Volleyball in the supporting boon companion department. The action sequences when they happen, from a canyon shootout to a brief wagon chase, are rousing enough. Overall though the characters could have been more interesting and the stakes much grander. It seems the higher calling of showcasing Hanks as another cinematic saint takes the edge off a more grandiose frontier of possibilities.
This is an epic story of a simple man transforming himself into a self-made super man of a different sort, and it’s an opportunity to witness eagerness and disillusion in ample doses on a wide and wary canvas. Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden (B+) adapts a classic Jack London novel to an Italian setting in which the titular sailor played marvelously by Luca Marinelli falls so deeply in love with a woman above his station (a wonderful Jessica Cressy) that he nearly loses himself in search of success in writing, education and politics. It’s illuminating even when tough at times. Veteran actor Carlo Cecchi also has a nice supporting part as a begrudging mentor. The director weaves a pulpy story with dreamlike flashbacks and a keen eye on characters. It’s not completely clear if the central romance is totally convincing, but Marinelli is so utterly committed to his role that not a moment lacks authenticity. Literary fans will enjoy the juxtaposition of an iconic American novelist’s work to foreign soil and following a classic character through his particular passages.
Writer/director Emerald Fennell’s debut film Promising Young Woman (A-) is an absorbing hybrid dark comedy thriller with an unforgettable storyline and a fiercely focused central performance by Carey Mulligan as a one-woman avenging force. As the wronged protagonist, Mulligan shape shifts into a variety of show-stopping personas in stunning episodes to underscore her poignant points, and the themes are never preachy or pedantic. In fact, the satire is so sharp, the movie continually blurs lines between genres and leaves viewers fairly unsure of what’s coming next. The film’s unconventional, entertaining script helps showcase and sell a story which otherwise might have been marginalized into well-meaning long-form essays or flash-in-the-pan hashtags. Fennell’s creative, symmetric, candy-coated aesthetic is countered and complimented by some of the most unhinged and provocative dialogue set to film about toxic male culture. Escaping the main character’s burn book (bit parts include Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Max Greenfield) is Bo Burnham’s character who gives a fleeting glimmer of hope into the male psyche. The filmmaker also employs phenomenal music choices ranging from pop tunes to Broadway anthems to punctuate the proceedings. This will go down as a definitive movie about the ramifications of sexual assault on both victim and perpetrator and will surely speak to a generation to think twice before being complicit in micro-aggressions and beyond. It’s a smart and sneaky surprise and not for the faint of heart.
Talk about a throwback: raiders of a lost artifact are romancing an ancient stone capable of granting its owner worldwide domination, but despite a few footloose flashdances of frivolous fun and a flurry of war games capable of shifting the def con, this comic strip bonanzarama devolves quickly into an aggressively tone-shifting eclectic boogaloo. Patty Jenkins follows up her original solemn Wonder Woman with an off-the-rails sequel, WW84 (C), set in the excess of the eighties, and it’s largely a lasso of lunacy. The DC Universe settles in D.C. as the protagonist quietly works in the museum antiquity business while side hustling with crime fighting on The Mall and at the mall. Despite her gorgeousness and swell stunts, Gal Gadot looks like she has a migraine for most of the movie as her plucky naiveté transforms into full warrior mode. She’s still the best thing about the film and adds pomp, pageantry, grace and grandeur to even the most throwaway lines. Kristen Wiig fares poorly as an underwritten friend turned rival (it’s like her SNL “Penelope” character says, “I can be a CGI character too, and mine is a fierce cat!”). Pedro Pascal is also adrift as a villainous megalomaniac whose intentions vary scene by scene. It’s like you get two villains for the effect of one. Only Chris Pine in an extended cameo retains a bit of dignity. Nearly everything earthbound in the story including a prolonged wish fulfillment conceit is a relative dud; but when characters take flight, including in the famous invisible jet, the film mildly soars. Action sequences, more infrequent than expected, largely deliver on the storyboard. But most of this anticipated blockbuster is a clunky cacophony, and even nifty nostalgia can’t save it.
A meditative and melancholy excursion into an Oregonian outpost circa early 1800s, Kelly Reichardt’s parable of a fur trapper brigade’s sad sack chef, a spry Chinese immigrant on the run, a widowed royal dairy cow and the collective gleam in drifters’ eyes as they embark on a land of milk and honey just might be the American story nobody anticipated this year. Filmed with naturalistic wonder in the great outdoors within the intimate framed contours of a simple cinema square, First Cow (A-) is both a chronicle of renegade relationships featuring superb performances by John Magaro as Cookie and Orion Lee as King-Lu as well as a genuinely crafty and camouflaged story of start-up culture. Not a lot happens in the first hour aside from atmosphere and character development as the central duo of accidental entrepreneurs gathers a notion involving furtive nocturnal extractions from the titular divine bovine whose cream is the secret ingredient of a pastry delicacy received like a Manhattan Cronut in the food desert of the Wild West frontier. The plot sharpens for the second half and rewards patient viewers. Early lessons about the uphill battle of the struggling class versus the capitalist society’s one percenters are abundant to witness as the burgeoning businessmen face the menace of wealthy Toby Jones. But the real traveling medicine show here is a glorious tale of abiding friendship, showcased in mundane tasks and small gestures, each one a grace note from fine actors well directed. Reichardt’s delicate way of grazing through unchartered scenery and lingering on undiscovered details, even from a distance, lends great delight to this immersive story. She crafts an absolute American original, rich with a lived-in quality and sterling originality.
Writer/director Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (A-) is a film of quiet dignity and grace, with ambiguity around the edges which gives the central plot even more immediacy and universality. Sidney Flanigan is stunning as Autumn, a soulful, forlorn teen protagonist. Faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support, Autumn and her cousin, Skylar (also amazing Talia Ryder) travel across state lines to NYC on a fraught journey of friendship and compassion. Hittman has a tremendous observational lens for capturing the details propelling a few days in the life of these brave girls. Her combination of vérité and character study is absorbing and affecting. Time and again, Hittman gets the story beats right, prompting viewers to hang on every word and feel the characters’ emotions deeply.
George Clooney directs and stars in The Midnight Sky (C+), an often frosty outer space slog with gorgeous visuals, an inert plot-line for most of its duration and a final act that almost rights the ship of all that came before. Clooney’s lone protagonist is a frail Arctic scientist who, along with a nearly mute child stowaway, must contact a crew of astronauts returning home from a Jupiter moon to catastrophe on a future earth. The action of this oddly paced odyssey occurs in fits and starts and is workmanlike, but the bifurcated drama rarely feels as ambitious as intended. A star-studded cast including Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo gets little interesting to do aside from a spontaneous third-act singalong and meteor shower adventure. The special effects provide some lovely spectacles to behold including some technological and lunar marvels and some all-too-human foibles with gravity amidst dueling stories in the North Pole and aboard the spacecraft. Themes about global/interplanetary cooperation were covered more successfully in The Martian, and adult/child survival dystopian stories were better in The Road, but some final moments of poignancy nearly rescue the film from weightlessness.
Somewhere jammed between “all the feels” and “being very satisfied with itself,” this jazzy riff on purpose is semi scat-tat-tacular. No, it doesn’t explain the meaning of the universe per se, but Pete Docter and Kemp Powers’ cerebral entry in the Pixar pantheon, Soul (B), is often illuminating in its exploration of the ways of the world, its presentation of an iconic Black acting ensemble and its depiction of the magical and musical syncopation of Manhattan life. This animated opus told in a minor key keeps a tight grip on its voice cast, with Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey in prime positions as band teacher Joe and surly spirit 22, respectively. They’re both serviceable in rather ho-hum parts. When Joe experiences a freak accident whisking him into an overly complicated purgatory, he soon returns to NYC to hone his mentorship skills and be reminded of the sensory and interpersonal elements of city life that matter most. The real revelation here is not the complex universe the film paints nor the rote race against time propelling its winsome plot but rather the quality of the earthbound animation, what with the natural lighting and lens flairs adding sparks to bustling urban streets, brotherly barber shops and intimate music dens. Characters honestly get short shrift compared to the artisan craft at work here; and if it all falls a little short of the franchise’s best, it still finds ways to tickle some idiosyncratic ivories.
It’s not a certified fact that Deon Taylor watched too many ‘80s Showtime After Dark films growing up, but judging by his latest directorial product for the big screen, Fatale (D), he leans into a bygone genre crafting a guilty pleasure with more of the guilt than the pleasure. Like Zalman King’s secondhand princely protégé, Taylor summons Dante Spinotti’s glossy L.A. cinematography and Geoff Zanelli’s aggressively on-the-nose score for a convoluted story of adultery and double crosses. This mild orchid of a noir features a flat-out terrible performance by Michael Ealy as a sports industry business mogul and a committed but bonkers piece of acting by Hilary Swank as the titular femme with her share of secrets. It’s not entirely obvious which of this dreadful duo is the protagonist; they’re both pretty significantly flawed and jawdroppingly inconsistent. There’s scant chemistry in the love scenes, little suspense in the thriller moments and nearly zero believability in the way the characters generally behave. Still, the single audible scream one sequence invoked in this moviegoer signaled that some of the proceedings held a hint of intrigue. Overall though, this is definitely not the forbidden film worth seeking out in a pandemic.
Cue the catchy overtures, swirling footlights and confetti cannons because the unhinged and hilarious musical movie event of the year is hoofing its way into the streaming services of Middle America. Down-on-their-luck Broadway stars shake up a small Indiana town as they rally behind a teen who wants to attend the high school dance with her girlfriend in director Ryan Murphy’s joyous musical TheProm (A-). Luminous newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman is the friend of Dorothy at the film’s center whose big-hearted journey down the mellow brick road to the year’s big party involves larger-than-life troubadours who imbue the townsfolk with star quality, bravery, tolerance and a beguiling Bob Fosse tinged talent called “zazz.” Casting for the ensemble is simply inspired, including delicious diva Meryl Streep, foppish godmother James Corden, oblivious blowhard Andrew Rannells and spunky day-drinking chorus girl Nicole Kidman. Murphy deftly balances a tender central tale with acerbic showbiz insider antics for a film entertaining, uplifting and heartbreaking in equal doses. If anything this celebrity goodie bag may be overstuffed with too much, but it’s hard to resist a singing and dancing variety show packed with ample doses of genuine homespun love. The themes of acceptance and reconciliation are a well timed clarion call to the better angels of our national consciousness, and it’s all gift wrapped in glitter for the age of Twitter. The glorious music, clever lyrics and fabulous choreography come together with precision especially in the youthquake euphoria of tunes such as “You Happened,” “Time to Dance,” and “Unruly Heart.” Keegan-Michael Key as the high school principal gets a lovely grace note in an ode to theatre called “We Look to You,” earning the first of many tear-jerking vignettes. For musical lovers, this Prom is a punch bowl of sweet and tart ingredients sure to rouse, stupefy and please.