Minari

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is about as heartfelt and pure as movies get. Adapting his childhood experiences growing up in mid-1980s rural Arkansas, Chung doesn’t merely recall the struggles that his Korean American family endured during that period but reconsiders them with a new sense of compassion and grace. The tender retelling of his upbringing as a first-generation immigrant is all the more compelling when you factor in that Chung was likely no more than ten years old when the events of the film took place. While Chung’s script is centered around his perspective as a child, he writes every character with sympathy and specificity, calling to mind the adage that children are often more insightful and perceptive than we perhaps give them credit for.

We meet the Yi family as they tail a moving truck in their station wagon, making their way to the modest mobile home where they will soon set down their roots. When the Yis arrive, the patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) exits the car first, seeing the untapped potential in the vast acres of farming land that lay before them. Much more tenuous is his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), not nearly as thrilled with their surroundings and even more apprehensive of the hard work that will be necessary to make their exodus from California worthwhile. The young David (Alan Kim) and his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) may be the most excited of all, ignoring the residence’s tacky, light brown interior paneling and instead choosing to note that their house has “wheels like a big car!”

Crops certainly don’t grow overnight, so Jacob and Monica take jobs at a nearby hatchery — the former is purported to be an “expert chicken sexer” by his new superior — until their yield increases. Mom and dad’s absence during the work day brings the need for Monica’s spritely mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to move in from Korea to watch over David and Anne. Kids being kids, the pair playfully talk behind their grandma’s back in English, all while trying to stay out of a level of trouble that would warrant a stick-whipping. Thanks to a neighboring war veteran Paul (Will Patton), Jacob is able to avoid some of the rookie mistakes associated with starting one’s own farm but still faces an array of pitfalls that put more pressure on his ability to provide for his clan.

The film’s title refers to a water plant whose seeds Soon-ja scatters at the base of a nearby river. Known to produce a vegetable that has myriad culinary uses, minari grows healthily and abundantly once it settles its roots and serves as a perfect metaphor for dogged optimism that Jacob holds for his family’s future in their new surroundings. Minari may not have a traditional antagonist but that doesn’t make the organic obstacles that occur any less challenging or the natural elements that inform the conflict any less brutal. It ultimately arrives at a truth about the immigrant experience that feels specific to this story but potentially applicable to so many others: that hardship and sacrifice may cost parents their personal lives in order for their children to build up better lives for themselves.

Bringing this salient point home is the transcendent ensemble acting, anchored by a soulful and zealous performance by Yeun as an obdurate father almost literally breaking his back for his family. Ye-ri is right there with him, taking a character who could play like a one-note nagging wife in the wrong hands but is instead given the dimension and depth that she deserves. Portraying the surrogate for the real-life Chung as a youngster, Alan Kim gives David a cherubic craftiness and sheepish introspection that make his work nothing short of winsome. Continuing a string of outstanding work in his young career as a film composer, Emile Mosseri lends a gorgeous musical score that aches with the possibility of unknown futures. Thoughtful and touching in equal measure, Minari is a family drama whose ability to generate empathy seems effortless.

Score – 4.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Streaming on HBO Max is Tom & Jerry, a live action/CGI comedy starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Michael Peña about the eternally feuding cat and mouse duo who wreak havoc on one of New York City’s most upscale hotels.
Debuting on Hulu is The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a biopic starring Andra Day and Trevante Rhodes about the legendary jazz singer and the drug addiction that tragically cut her life and career short.
Available to watch on Apple TV+ is The World’s a Little Blurry, a music documentary centered around the rising career of Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Billie Eilish.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

C’mon, Mann: The Insider

Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal

“In ‘The Insider,’ I had violence – lethal, life-taking aggression – all happening psychologically, all with people talking to other people.”

– Michael Mann

It’s easy to think of Michael Mann as an action filmmaker. When I hear the director’s name, my mind immediately goes to the all-timer of a street shootout from Heat, with Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer raining hellfire on outmatched police squads. From iconic shots like Kilmer flawlessly reloading his Colt 733 rifle in that film or Tom Cruise quick-drawing on two alleyway thugs with lightning speed in Collateral, Mann has earned a reputation for training his actors to represent tactical precision in their weapons handling. As exciting and visceral as his action movies can be, his most engrossing work for my money is The Insider, a docudrama where no guns are fired or even shown in its 158 minute runtime.

Based on a true story, the film begins with a shroud over the camera and the proverbial wool pulled over our eyes. The face covering belongs to CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who’s being harshly transported to the founder of Hezbollah, Sheikh Fadlallah, in the back of a Middle Eastern van. He hopes to convince the Sheikh to sit down with Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) for a 60 Minutes interview that may change the way American minds view the burgeoning Islamist movement. It’s not an easy task but it’s obvious from the outset that Bergman doesn’t mind the challenge of a potential new story, as long as he feels the work is meaningful and can change the world around him.

It’s this tenacity that draws Bergman closer to Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a tobacco executive who staunchly refuses to consult with Bergman on scientific documents from cigarette conglomerate Philip Morris. After pressing Wigand, Bergman discovers that he’s bound by a confidentiality agreement that seems immensely restrictive in its scope and vicious in its potential repercussions. Bergman spends a large portion of the film working through numerous loopholes that allow Wigand to break through the robust non-disclosure and eventually gets him to sit down for the 60 Minutes interview. It’s only after taping it that Bergman learns the higher-ups at CBS plan on airing a highly abridged version of the segment for fear of litigation from Big Tobacco.

Around the halfway mark, The Insider slyly expands from a film about the intense lobbying power of the tobacco industry specifically to a movie about the sweeping influence of media conglomeration on how information is distributed. Adapting from the incendiary Variety Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, Mann and legendary screenwriter Eric Roth poured an incredible amount of detail and journalistic rigor into their Oscar-nominated script. Beyond just being well-researched and steeped in hard-hitting truth, it’s a screenplay packed with loaded dialogue and quotable lines that read well but play even better when coming out of the mouths of high-caliber actors.

Mann’s previous film Heat famously paired De Niro with Pacino as the crime and justice sides of the same coin, so much so that it’s difficult to determine who between the two is the protagonist. The Insider similarly brings Pacino back for a character who certainly isn’t the antagonist but also goes about things very differently from Wigand, the film’s underdog hero. We’re used to seeing Crowe as an imposing figure — he would star in Gladiator 7 months after The Insider‘s release — but before his days of schooling strangers on the value of the courtesy tap, Crowe shined in smoldering roles like this that kept his rage simmering under the surface. At the beginning of a tense meeting, Wigand’s ex-employer faux-dotes on him in front of higher-ups by remarking “it’s spooky how much he can concentrate” and Crowe does an incredible job of capturing Wigand’s fiery intellect.

Conversely, Pacino externalizes all of Crowe’s fear and paranoia by lashing out on executives over pay phones and new-fangled mobile phones but really, is there an actor in the 90s that we collectively trusted to do bigger better than Pacino? Equally at home in an authoritative role is Plummer as revered journalist Mike Wallace, who steals nearly every scene that he’s in with his impossibly smooth confidence. After a confrontational meeting with a member of CBS’ legal team, Wallace reassures Bergman with a quick tap on hand and cooly reminds him, “don’t worry; we call the shots around here.” The presence of character actors from Philip Baker Hall to Stephen Tobolowsky further drives home the notion that indeed, we’re in good hands here.

Watching the movie 20 years after its release, the most “dated” aspect of the film is how much concern is given towards a 60 Minutes report but really, that says more about how poor the state of investigative journalism is now rather than the actual narrative seeming antiquated. It’s a time capsule of a quaint era when journalists worked hard to present matters of public interest in the most objective terms possible and the American people trusted the news to keep them informed. Now, hard-hitting exposes are typically buried under mountains of infotainment (a term this film may have actually coined) and knee-jerk headlines, while the rise of social media has made getting to the truth seemingly impossible at times.

And those are just the stories we see. What makes The Insider so powerful is that for once, we get to sit in those boardrooms and high-rise offices and hear the conversations that the rich and powerful work hard to withhold. Technology, and big data specifically, has allowed for the news to be curated for individuals more finely than ever but without the right people above the keyboard fighting to publish the unvarnished truth, for-profit reporting will gladly take its place. It’s unlikely that many of us will get in a post-robbery gunfight with the cops or confront a duo of armed bandits but as long as you have a smartphone in your pocket, you’re almost guaranteed to be an unwitting victim of behind-the-scenes corporate control on a daily basis. Perhaps that’s what makes The Insider the most unexpectedly bruising film of Michael Mann’s career.

Nomadland

In her elegiac and emotionally captivating new movie Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao opens with a curious title card about a small city in Nevada named Empire. It’s a remote town so driven by a single industry that when the local sheetrock plant closes down in 2011 after 88 years in business, the entire town was evacuated and the zip code was literally abandoned not long afterwards. Among those displaced by the devastating closure is Fern (Frances McDormand), who doesn’t have much need to stay after the recent passing of her husband. She finds a new partner, of sorts, in a van she dubs Vanguard, which carries the remainder of her belongings that she hasn’t sold off or holed up in a storage unit. With jobs being scarce as a result of The Great Recession, Fern travels from one Southwest city to another, meeting other nomads like herself and adapting to their mutual lifestyle in the process.

What makes Zhao’s film so slyly remarkable is just how lived-in and genuine each aspect of her story feels as it unfolds before us. As in her previous work, the also excellent The Rider, she surrounds the protagonist with real-life figures playing modestly fictionalized versions of themselves. Among the challenges of creating a sprawling picture as this is, I would imagine it’s quite difficult to fill your movie with a bevy of non-actors but Zhao gets bonafide performances out of each and every one of them. Also serving as the film’s editor, Zhao has a brilliant instinct for how to cut conversations together where sentences may overlap but every word still registers and resonates. There’s a pace and rhythm to the dialogue in Nomadland that you just won’t see anywhere else.

Credit for the naturalistic exchanges also extends to McDormand, giving an understated performance that is necessarily more reactive and reflexive but no less compelling as a result. As a bereft wayfarer still acclimating to her changing circumstances, she reveals Fern’s empathetic nature while letting us in on her sadness little bits at a time. It’s a much different role than the one for which she most recently scored a Best Actress Oscar, the incendiary Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which openly wore its anger and bitterness on its sleeve. McDormand suggests Fern could possess similar resentment but sublimates it into savvy survival skills and a sturdy work ethic that allows her to pick up hands-on labor nearly everywhere she goes, even while work is difficult for others to find.

Adapting from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, whose subtitle Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century pitches it as a how-to guide, Zhao doesn’t graft a complex narrative onto Nomadland. A more pedestrian storyteller would have telegraphed a redemption arc or a series of inorganic obstacles for our heroine to overcome but Zhao knows that it’s more than enough for us to simply spend time with these nomads and hear them out. We learn about their way of life, from the Ten Commandments of Stealth Parking to bucket-based tips that I shouldn’t delve into here. While some were driven out of their homes, others choose the mobile lifestyle for their own reasons and just as they don’t judge one another, Zhao asks the same of us in the audience.

As the theatrical experience continues to experience setback after setback, there’s no movie I’ve seen in the last 12 months that made me wish I was watching it in a theater more than this one. While I might typically expect that sentiment to arise from an effects blockbuster rather than a $5 million awards drama, I’ll take the golden hour desert vistas captured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards over the fussed-over frames of a spandex superhero showdown any day. Hopefully sometime soon, I would love to see the images of this film illuminate the big screen when it’s safe to go back to our beleaguered multiplexes. A stunning meditation on transience and trauma, Nomadland is a patient and perceptive portrait of people who are rarely, if ever, given the chance to represent themselves in the movies.

Score – 4.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Debuting on Netflix is I Care A Lot, a dark comedy starring Rosamund Pike and Peter Dinklage about a woman who makes her living stealing from the elderly by deceiving judges into appointing her as their “legal guardian.”
Swooping in on Disney+ is Flora & Ulysses, a family superhero comedy starring Matilda Lawler and Danny Pudi about the adventures of a young girl and her adopted squirrel who has superpowers.
Available to digitally rent is Silk Road, a based-on-a-true-story thriller starring Jason Clarke and Nick Robinson about the tech mastermind behind Silk Road, a dark web page that sells narcotics, and the DEA agent tasked with taking him down.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Little Fish

Meeting at the intersection of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Contagion, the new sci-fi romance Little Fish is a quietly devastating and exquisitely rendered tale that would have hit hard even if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. However, its story of an out-of-control virus that causes memory loss rather than respiratory infection is even more ominously timely than its creators could have initially intended. Originally slated to debut last April at the cancelled Tribeca Film Festival, the film finally arrives on demand with scenes of masked bystanders and clamoring crowds outside of hospitals that are now all too familiar. What keeps this from being a shoe-in for Feel-Bad Movie of the Year is the playful and tender chemistry between its two compelling leads.

The touching relationship at the story’s center is between spirited vet tech Emma (Olivia Cooke) and reserved photographer Jude (Jack O’Connell). The two meet on a gloomy Seattle beach one day, courtesy of a lost dog who serves as the perfect icebreaker. We then move through time as Emma and Jude go on their first few dates and eventually move into the same apartment, all while the world is slowly changing around them. The new illness Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA) is affecting more people every day, causing memory loss that can be either spontaneous or gradual; Emma confesses she doesn’t know which scenario is worse. Through increasing incidents of forgetfulness, it becomes obvious to Emma that Jude has contracted NIA and the two search frantically to find a cure before it’s too late.

Adapting Aja Gabel’s short story of the same name, writer Mattson Tomlin and director Chad Hartigan weave together hushed voiceover narration, vivid flashbacks and modest moments of intimacy to utterly heartbreaking effect. Though it sometimes piles on the misery a bit more than it needs to and in ways that aren’t terribly organic to the primary story, the film works best when it focuses on the aching associated with watching a loved one fade away and the desperate longing between Emma and Jude as they work to preserve their shared memories. With its doomed love story cast against dire circumstances out of the protagonists’ control, Little Fish often reminded me of another dystopian romantic drama: Mark Romanek’s underrated adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Both Cooke and O’Connell turn in some of the very best work of their careers. Cooke feels more natural here than anywhere else that I’ve seen her previously, sporting her native English accent when most of her other roles have called for the “standard” American dialect. She graces her character with a fragile optimism that is a perfect fit for poignant lines like “I find myself wondering how to build a future if you keep having to rebuild the past.” O’Connell imbues Jude with an earnestness and deference that recalls the work of the late Anton Yelchin, with whom Cooke starred in the 2017 thriller Thoroughbreds. Thanks to O’Connell, Jude’s growing confusion and requisite agitation registers with shattering potency.

In his fourth feature film, Hartigan wisely features composer Keegan DeWitt’s staggering and breathtakingly beautiful music score in the majority of the movie’s scenes, particularly in montages showing the central relationship blossom. During the latter half of his story, he also makes subtle use of unreliable narration, making the audience question if we’re misremembering things or if the NIA-affected characters are. Hartigan occasionally spins his wheels and gets lost in the tragic nature of his film from time to time but his terrific leads see his vision through. Though it arrives at a time when viewers may not necessarily be in the mood to take in its oppressively melancholic story, Little Fish is nevertheless a profound reminder of the powerful bonds we hold with those closest to us.

Score – 3.5/5

New to streaming this weekend:
Debuting on HBO Max is Judas and the Black Messiah, a biopic starring Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and the member turned FBI informant who betrayed him.
Available to watch on demand is Saint Maud, a psychological horror film starring Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle about a Catholic caretaker who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of her troubled patient.
Also gracing the rental moviescape with its presence is Willy’s Wonderland, an action comedy starring Nicolas Cage and Beth Grant about a janitor squaring off against murderous animatronic mascots who come to life in an abandoned family entertainment center.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Malcolm & Marie

As the coronavirus continues to affect all manners of public and private life, we’re beginning to see its effect on the creative process for artists and thus, its influence on pop culture at large. Last month, HBO put out Locked Down, a romance-heist movie written and shot in secret during the ongoing pandemic. Now Netflix has released Malcolm & Marie, another project conceived as a result of covid-19 restrictions that also revolves around good-looking people arguing with each other inside their lavish residences. Thankfully, the film isn’t nearly as tone-deaf as celebrities recording themselves singing lines of “Imagine” from within their mansions but it’s also a far cry from the escapist entertainment that we could all use right about now.

We meet up-and-coming filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) as they return late from the premiere of his soon-to-be lauded independent feature. Malcolm puts on a James Brown record and drunkenly saunters through their opulent Malibu home while his young belle makes him some midnight macaroni and cheese. The mood seems to be celebratory and joyous, until he presses Marie on why she doesn’t seem to share his sense of ebullience. We find out that Malcolm neglected to thank her in the speech that he gave after the movie that evening, even expressing gratitude for the gaffer before her, and discover that there’s much more wrong at the foundations of their caustic relationship with one another.

The film’s dubious tagline implies that the titular couple are “madly in love” but it doesn’t take long into Malcolm & Marie for us to recognize that there is hardly any love here at all. Instead, they seem to vacillate between various degrees of lust and loathing while revealing deeper shades of ugliness about themselves in the process. These are two grotesquely self-involved individuals who would seem to model their lives after the “if you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best” mantra. It’s painful watching them try to reconcile their differences on behalf of an obviously doomed and toxic relationship but clearly, writer/director Sam Levinson is intending to convey that agony in as visceral a manner as possible.

The scathing screenplay, which has its leads alternate bruising monologues spit venomously at one another, does have poignant insights about the insecurities of the creative process and the pressures of being a black creative in modern Hollywood. “You’re complaining about reviews that haven’t even been written yet,” Marie scolds Malcolm as he neurotically predicts how critics will receive his latest work while mansplaining the importance of William Wyler to her at the same time. As someone who writes about movies, it was hard for me not to blanch at the extended sequence where Malcolm bitterly breaks through the pay wall of the LA Times’ website to viciously dissect a reviewer’s insipid hot take of his new film line-by-line.

Washington and Zendaya, both of whom serve as co-producers of the film and the latter of whom works with Levinson on his HBO series Euphoria, are undoubtedly convincing at maintaining tension throughout their real time knock-down drag-out fight. The luminous black-and-white cinematography by Marcell Rév captures the two rising stars with an honesty and tactility that perfectly compliments the film’s fervent and urgent nature. So as to not upset Malcolm, I won’t guess which camera or lens Rév used but I can say with confidence that the movie looks much better than Netflix’s recent monochromatic misfire Mank. Handsome but hollow, Malcolm & Marie is an arduous lockdown-era therapy session between two people who shouldn’t be in quarantine with each other in the first place.

Score – 2.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Coming to HBO Max is Earwig and the Witch, the first CGI-animated film from Studio Ghibli starring Shinobu Terajima and Etsushi Toyokawa about an orphan girl who discovers that she’s the daughter of a witch.
Arriving on Amazon Prime is Bliss, a sci-fi romance starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek about a recent divorcee who meets a mysterious woman who tells him they’re living in a computer simulation that he created.
Available to rent digitally is Falling, a family drama starring Viggo Mortensen and Laura Linney about a middle-aged man whose father moves in with him and his husband after showing the first signs of dementia.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup