Category Archives: Reel Views

Reel Views

Godzilla vs. Kong

Starting in 2014 with a boots-on-the-ground reboot of Godzilla, Legendary’s MonsterVerse now culminates with Godzilla vs. Kong, an intermittently fun slugfest that embraces the schlock of past creature features but still has too much thickheaded filler to recommend. The franchise’s previous entry, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, was the kind of wall-to-wall melee that I wanted from this universe, packed with all sorts of mythical baddies for the oversized lizard to tango with. After only one standalone movie to his name, Kong: Skull Island in 2017, Kong deserved another sequel to bridge the gap between that film’s 1970s setting and present day. Instead, director Adam Wingard hastily shoehorns in decades of dense exposition just so we can see the two beasts duke it out but the brawl simply doesn’t feel earned within this fictional cinematic world.

We catch up with the titular oversized gorilla as he appears to be living out his days on his home of Skull Island, until we find that he’s actually residing inside a dome made to resemble the magical isle. It turns out Kong is actually being protected by the tech company Monarch from Godzilla, who laid waste to many a titan in the events of King of the Monsters and would have no compunction about taking Kong out of the picture as well. When Godzilla attacks the headquarters of Apex Cybernetics, another tech company looking to control the monsters, its founder Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) seeks out theoretical geologist Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) to journey to the center of the Hollow Earth for solutions to their colossal calamity.

It’s often said that people don’t go into these types of movies to fully invest in the human characters, since the monsters are so obviously the main attraction and the people below them are often casualties in the big showdowns anyway. For a movie that shouldn’t care much about them, Godzilla vs. Kong spends far too much time setting them up. The most compelling by a mile are those played by Rebecca Hall and Kaylee Hottle, the former playing a Jane Goodall-type linguist and the latter her adopted daughter who lived with Kong on his native island. These should have been the two main characters in a Kong standalone film, who could have spent the entire movie assimilating the ape to his new surroundings, perhaps similarly to the way the MCU did with Captain America in 2014’s The Winter Soldier.

But of course Warner Bros, perpetually playing catch-up to Disney, rushed this franchise along too quickly and doesn’t have any time to set up Kong as his own entity. Instead, we have to spend time with King of the Monsters characters reprised by Millie Bobby Brown and Kyle Chandler, who are here to consider Godzilla’s motives and defend him against the shady Apex corporation. Along on that B-plot are Hunt for the Wilderpeople standout Julian Dennison and the always welcome Brian Tyree Henry, playing a conspiratorial podcaster who manages a few funny lines along the way. If that wasn’t enough, we also get an Apex operative played by the stunning Eiza González, who oversees Skarsgård and Hall in their The Core-like mission with Kong to the Earth’s center.

If you don’t care about any of this and just want to see some cool fights, then the film at least delivers on that front but really only on two occasions. The first big set piece, where Kong and Godzilla fight at sea atop aircraft carriers, features spectacular daytime CGI and makes interesting use of its unconventional setting. The final showdown, comprising most of the film’s final act, shows Wingard doubling (tripling?) down on the garish neon aesthetic of his 2014 indie The Guest as the titular titans pick off the brightly-lit Hong Kong skyline building by building. Godzilla vs. Kong technically makes good on its title but would have been much more satisfying had the producers taken their time to build up the stakes and set up the disparities between the competing colossuses.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is Thunder Force, a superhero comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer about two estranged childhood best friends who reunite after one devises a treatment that gives them superpowers to protect their city.
Opening in theaters is Voyagers, a sci-fi drama starring Tye Sheridan and Lily-Rose Depp about a crew of astronauts who succumb to paranoia and madness while on a multi-generational space mission.
Available to rent on demand is Held, a horror thriller starring Jill Awbrey and Bart Johnson about a married couple who is terrorized by an unseen force controlling their smart home while on vacation.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Nobody

Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk goes from Mr. Chips to Scarface in Nobody, a cheeky shoot ’em up that cleverly reconfigures its key influences into one massively entertaining package. The most inescapable of these inspirations is the John Wick series, in which Keanu Reeves plays a hitman who retires legions of other hitmen who are after him for one reason or another. It also recalls vigilante films like The Equalizer and Taken, in which seemingly mild-mannered, middle-aged men are forced into large-scale retaliation when loved ones are caught in the crosshairs. But the movie that Nobody evoked most specifically for me is Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, where Viggo Mortensen plays a small-town diner owner whose thwarting of two robbers sends his life into a tailspin.

Odenkirk stars as Hutch Mansell, a listless accountant and father of two who seems to be stuck in a suburban rut. His teenage son Blake (Gage Munroe) has little to no respect for him and his wife Becca (Connie Nielsen) barely speaks to him, except to pester him about forgetting to take out the trash every Tuesday night. The tedium of his life snaps one night when he catches a pair of burglars in the act, only to let them go despite seeming to have the drop on them. Feeling the disappointment of his son and wife growing after the incident, Hutch shifts gears and decides to go after the robbers for embarrassing him on his own property. His path of vengeance soon intertwines with Russian drug kingpin Yulian (Aleksei Serebryakov), whose two primary passions are karaoke singing and ruthless violence.

Wick creator Derek Kolstad is Nobody‘s sole credited writer and he carries over elements of the first John Wick screenplay into this more overtly humorous take on a similar tale. Where the senseless killing of Wick’s puppy is what springs him back into action, a kitty cat bracelet that Hutch believes the thieves stole is ostensibly the reason that he goes on a retaliatory rampage. Where Kolstad unfortunately pulls his punches is in character development, instead favoring brevity over depth. While Blake and Becca’s role in the inciting events is critical, their characters are severely underwritten and Nielsen in particular seems to be underserved in a one-dimensional role that wouldn’t have taken much effort to give some nuance.

Director Ilya Naishuller drops clever clues early on in the film that there may be more to Hutch that meets the eye. In an expertly-edited montage, which dryly documents our protagonist’s mundane existence, he peppers in shots of Hutch capably performing pull-ups on a bus shelter bar during his commute. There’s a voice, that of the rapper-actor RZA, with whom he seems to exchange weapons intel over a hidden radio disguised as a CD player in his office. But beyond foreshadowing, Naishuller also doesn’t forget to deliver the goods when it comes to satisfying and kinetic action sequences once the cards are finally out on the table. The brutal bus brawl that comprises the film’s climax gives any of the setpieces in the John Wick trilogy a run for their money.

Lead actors in action movies sometimes get overlooked, perhaps taken for granted once they have a few films of the genre under their belt (Liam Neeson, for one, comes to mind). While this is Odenkirk’s first time in this kind of role, he does an incredible job of conveying someone who comes off as inadequate but may just be powerful beyond measure. When he takes hits during the lengthy fight scenes, we believe that he’s muddling through these imperfect melees out of necessity rather than bloodlust and will no doubt have the scars and bruises to prove it. Most importantly, he brings a wry humor and self-deprecation that perfectly rounds out the performance. Fierce and fun, Nobody may just be the movie that gets everybody back to the theaters.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Premiering March 31st both in theaters and on HBO Max is Godzilla vs. Kong, a creature feature starring Millie Bobby Brown and Alexander Skarsgård in which the two iconic monsters duke it out as the world watches.
Coming to Netflix is Concrete Cowboy, a modern Western starring Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin about a teenager who discovers the world of urban horseback riding when he moves in with his estranged father in North Philadelphia.
Available to rent on demand is Shiva Baby, a comedy starring Rachel Sennott and Molly Gordon about a college student who runs into her sugar daddy at a Jewish funeral service with her parents.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Father

Despite it being a difficult subject to broach, dementia has been relatively popular in cinema over the past several months. Last summer saw the release of Relic, an Australian horror film that makes literal the treacherous indicators of a decaying mind. In the fall, there was Dick Johnson Is Dead, Kirsten Johnson’s unconventional Netflix documentary about her aging father’s worsening mental faculties. Just in time for Oscar season, we now have The Father, a prestige drama told from the perspective of a protagonist suffering from progressive memory loss. None of these three films will be easy for those who have loved ones suffering from similar ailments to watch and I suspect The Father could even be the most difficult to watch of the three.

Adapted from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play Le Père, the movie centers around octogenarian Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and his slowly deteriorating state of mind. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) and her husband Paul (Rufus Sewell) have welcomed him into their London apartment, where he passes the time listening to opera and hiding valuables from caretakers that he deems untrustworthy. When Anne breaks the news that she and Paul are planning on moving to Paris, Anthony feels a sense of betrayal and fear of abandonment that reverberates through the rest of the story. As more characters are introduced, the sense of reality becomes more subjective as faces blur together and facts begin to lose their sense of permanence.

In his directorial film debut, Zeller demonstrates a keen ability to put the audience in the shoes of an essentially housebound man who grows more paranoid with each passing day. He has a way of making the limited confines even more stifling by filling the space with the loneliness of a man’s later years. When other characters do show up to the apartment, they are sometimes played by different actors who seem to have differing backstories from the people we think we know. Credit to the film’s deceptive nature also goes to editor Yorgos Lamprinos, who utilizes jump cuts and unconventional timing to give the film an off-kilter rhythm that mirrors an unsettled mind.

Despite establishing a uniquely deceptive tone that’s pitched somewhere between family drama and psychological thriller, the actual narrative is not as involving on its own merits. Even at just over 90 minutes, the film’s pace is often languid and not especially packed with incident. Perhaps this is a story better told on stage, where the singular location isn’t as much of a drawback and the atmosphere of the room heightens the experience. The theatrical aspect is carried over primarily in the central performance by Hopkins, which is indeed good work but exudes the kind of righteous anger that culminates in the film’s “stagiest” moments. It doesn’t feel as understated as the work that Colman and Sewell are doing here, although it’s possible that it was never supposed to anyway.

I applaud Zeller for creating a movie about dementia that so entrenches us in the experience of suffering from such a cruel and pernicious disease. The most effective scenes in the film recall the fear and insecurity that permeate heady alt-horror fare like last year’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things but it doesn’t feel like a gimmick or exploitation; it just feels real. Just recently nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it doesn’t seem likely to score any wins (especially since Chadwick Boseman is a lock for Best Actor) but the nods enough may draw enough attention for crowds to seek it out. The Father is certainly not an easy sit but it’s a brave portrayal of those struggling with senility and the caregivers on whom they rely.

Score – 3/5

Other new movies coming this weekend:
Premiering on Netflix is Bad Trip, a hidden camera comedy starring Eric André and Lil Rel Howery about two friends who embark on a cross-country road trip to NYC with pranks and misadventures along the way.
Streaming on HBO Max is Tina, a music documentary about Tina Tuner’s early fame, her private and professional struggles and her return to the world stage as a global phenomenon in the 1980s.
Opening in theaters is Nobody, an action thriller starring Bob Odenkirk and Connie Nielsen about a mild-mannered Good Samaritan who becomes the target of a vengeful drug lord.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Considering how the DC Extended Universe has unfolded over the past 8 years, it’s enough to wish that Superman would zip around the Earth to turn the clocks back and give Warner Bros a mulligan on the franchise. Beginning with the equally contemplative and cacophonous Man of Steel in 2013, the film’s director Zack Snyder became the de facto architect of a franchise that was already playing severe catch-up to the Disney-backed Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film’s sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, was intended to be a precursor to a trilogy based on the Justice League, DC’s analog to Marvel’s Avengers. Responding to that film’s poor reception, the executives at WB rushed out a solo iteration of Justice League just a year later, sandwiched in between standalone entries for Wonder Woman and Aquaman.

To say that 2017’s Justice League, intended to be the culminating film for the DCEU, had a troubled production would be an understatement. Snyder and his screenwriter Chris Terrio went through many different story ideas that had to be shifted at the last minute to match continuity with the preceding Suicide Squad, which also underwent profound changes in post-production. More studio meddling occurred after Snyder stepped down during post-production due to the tragic passing of his daughter, causing Joss Whedon (ironically, the director of Marvel’s The Avengers) to be called in as an uncredited co-director. The theatrical cut of the movie, derogatorily dubbed by die-hard comic fans as Josstice League, was derided by critics and fans alike, causing WB to pivot wildly again to spin-offs like Shazam! and Birds of Prey.

Now we have Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a rare director’s cut that is over twice the length of its theatrical companion. WB’s mandate that Justice League‘s runtime be no longer than 2 hours produced a myriad of plot holes and left hours of critical story moments on the cutting room floor. At a staggering 242 minutes, the “Snyder Cut” is obviously outside the realm of reasonable cinema but represents a fullness of vision that is admirable on its own unprecedented terms. The general storyline follows the trajectory of the original: the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) awakens both a trio of ancient artifacts known as the Mother Boxes and the warmongering alien Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) to stop him.

When Justice League was released, I considered it the nadir of woefully misguided DCEU and opined that it “literally feels like it was patched together by a focus group that was held up at gunpoint.” Against all odds, Zack Snyder’s Justice League emerges as the strongest realization of these DC’s characters and the franchise’s finest film. Paradoxically, much of its success is addition by subtraction. Gone are the pathetic attempts at quippy humor, like Superman describing the experience of resurrection as “itchy” and The Flash riffing on the concept of brunch. The aggressive color grading that made the Russian-set third act appear as if the air was made of Cheeto dust has been undone. Cavill’s mustache, which had to be removed with CGI during extensive re-shoots for the original, is more convincingly absent this time around.

Most importantly, the movie actually has time for trivial things like character motivation and story development. Divided in 6 chapters with a cameo-heavy epilogue, it’s structured more like a comic book series than a traditional superhero epic. Cyborg, who was little more than a curious afterthought in the 2017 version, has a complete and satisfying arc that renders his character both essential and compelling. The Flash’s humor, which came across as strained and desperate in the predecessor, somehow fits in much better and tempers the self-seriousness for which Snyder has been known to indulge. Sporting film history’s largest Most Improved Award on its oversized chest, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an unwieldy yet undeniably powerful instance of creative control overcoming corporate contamination.

Score – 3.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Premiering on Netflix is Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, a documentary covering the 2019 bribery scandal that snuck the kids of rich and famous families into top US universities.
Available to rent digitally is Happily, a comedic thriller starring Joel McHale and Kerry Bishé about a married couple who go on a tense couples’ trip with friends who may not actually be friends at all.
Also new to video on demand is Last Call, a comedy starring Jeremy Piven and Taryn Manning about a man who returns to his Philadelphia suburban neighborhood when he inherits his family’s pub following his mother’s death.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Cherry

Transitioning in and out of a franchise-defining role can present a unique challenge to an actor, especially early in one’s career. Take Daniel Radcliffe. Starring in the first Harry Potter movie at the age of 11, he only appeared in one non-Potter film, the Australian weepie December Boys, during the octology’s 10 year run. His effort to break free from the specter of the bespectacled sorcerer in the 10 years since the series capping Deathly Hallows has led to roles that range from safe to bewildering, with flashes of brilliance in between. Tom Holland, currently filming the second sequel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, has faced a similar challenge shedding the image of his squeaky-clean superhero persona when taking on new projects like the pitiless dud Cherry.

Based on the bombshell autobiography from Army vet Nico Walker, Cherry stars Holland in the title role as a wayward young man who drops out of an Ohio university to become a military medic. In the transition, he meets the precocious but charming Emily (Ciara Bravo) and quickly falls in love with her. It isn’t long before he’s rushed through basic training and sent off to Iraq to treat soldiers’ horrific wounds while fighting for as much phone time with his true love as possible. When he returns stateside, he finds respite from his worsening PTSD by way of opioids and quickly falls down the steep spiral of drug addiction, while jeopardizing Emily’s future in the process. As hinted in the film’s prologue, Cherry eventually turns to bank robbery as a means of funding his heartbreaking habit.

After disintegrating the universe (half of it, technically) in Avengers: Infinity War and putting it back together in Avengers: Endgame, directors Anthony and Joe Russo are necessarily dealing in smaller stakes here by comparison. The main issue with Cherry is that even though the scale of the story should be much more modest, the Russos render every frame of their posturing crime drama with the same intensity of a big budget blockbuster. Nearly every scene incorporates at least one filming technique, be it exaggerated uses of focus or shifting aspect ratios, that seem designed to inspire nods of understanding from packed film school lecture halls. It’s enough to make one wonder if MCU architect Kevin Feige needed to tell these guys to rein it in more often than to punch things up during their 4 film stint with Marvel.

Beyond the over-stylization of the film’s visual palette, the Russos also lay it on way too thick when it comes to the themes of the narrative, which are displayed as ostentatiously as lighted letters on the side of a bank. There is a sensitive story still to be told about how veterans returning to the US don’t receive the treatment they need and become victims of drug abuse and suicide at disproportional and alarming rates. The directing duo may indeed care about these issues but the leading principle behind their vision isn’t “how can we intelligently convey this tragedy?” but rather “how can we make this look really cool?” When they do attempt to address the societal problems that sprout up from the story, their grasps at profundity couldn’t be any more amateurish and shallow.

The try-hard theatrics behind the camera could be forgiven if they at least generated a revelatory performance from Holland but the young actor is caught trying just as hard to shatter his clean-cut image. I simply never bought him as an ex-soldier turned hardened criminal, no matter how many four-letter words he spit out or how many times he brandished a gun in someone’s face. Ciara Bravo, whose name is incidentally homophonous with two letters from the military phonetic alphabet, is only slightly more convincing in her underwritten role. A product of directors trading epic storytelling for an epic failure, Cherry is filmmaking made rotten by the sickness of rampant over-direction.

Score – 1.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Premiering on Netflix is Yes Day, a family comedy starring Jennifer Garner and Édgar Ramírez about a pair of parents who give their three kids a “yes day”, where kids make the rules for 24 hours.
Streaming on Disney+ is Own The Room, a documentary from National Geographic which chronicles five students from disparate corners of the planet as they take their budding business ventures to the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards.
Available to rent digitally is Dark Web: Cicada 3301, a techno thriller starring Jack Kesy and Conor Leslie about a hacker and his friends who get caught up in a secret society’s global recruitment game.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run

Coinciding with the launch of yet another unwanted streaming service, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge On The Run arrives this Thursday on the newly rebranded Paramount+ platform. Though this is the first time American audiences will have a chance to see it, the film was distributed internationally on Netflix last November and even had a Canadian theatrical run way back in August. Sadly, the third entry in the SpongeBob SquarePants franchise comes as an afterthought not only due to its awkward release strategy but also because it adds little to the legacy of the iconic series that has run for over 20 years now. It’s another road trip/buddy movie variation that has even lower stakes than the prior two films and even more transparent fluff to pad its scant 85 minute runtime.

We begin at the start of what seems to be another ordinary day in Bikini Bottom, the quaint underwater city home to all manner of talking sea creatures. The pineapple-dwelling SpongeBob SquarePants (Tom Kenny) wakes up, hugs his beloved mollusk Gary (also voiced by Kenny) and goes off to flip Krabby Patties at the fast food joint Krusty Krab. Plankton (Mr. Lawrence), owner of the rival restaurant The Chum Bucket, has been after the Patty formula for years. After another unsuccessful attempt at stealing it from Krab owner Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), he instead decides to “snail-nap” Gary and hand him over to the vain King Poseidon (Matt Berry) to supplement his skin care regimen. With the help of his trusty friend Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), Spongebob sets out to The Lost City Of Atlantic City to save his treasured companion.

Both fans of Spongbob and first-timers will notice early on in Sponge on the Run that something looks a little, for lack of a better word, off. That’s mostly due to the fact that this is the first Spongebob outing to be completely in CGI, replacing the trademark 2D animation style of the series from which it’s adapted. This gives the characters and settings a brighter sheen that will no doubt draw in the eyeballs of younger audiences but come across as hollow for those who experienced the show from its humble beginnings. The first Spongbob movie, which came out 5 years after the series debuted in 1999, actually has the feel of a supersized original episode of the show but Sponge on the Run retreads storylines from existing episodes without adding much in the process.

It becomes apparent about a third of the way through, with the appearance of a live-action Keanu Reeves as a mystical sage, that this film is going to rely on celebrity cameos even more than the first movie relied on David Hasselhoff. Moments after Reeves’ initial musings, Spongbob and Patrick enter the Inferno Saloon and we’re treated to a completely out of place musical number by Snoop Dogg followed by Danny Trejo as an umbrella-wielding bar-owner. Worse yet are the litany of flashbacks by each of the main characters, which are only included to set up the Kamp Koral, a spin-off series also debuting on Paramount+ this Thursday. Spongebob creator Stephen Hillenburg, who passed in 2018, wanted to conclude the series after its third season for fear that it would jump the shark and sadly, it seems that’s exactly where we’ve ended up.

Of course the movie isn’t totally devoid of jokes that land. My favorite bit, taking place at our hero’s low point, is scored by an ominous portion of Hans Zimmer’s musical contribution, only to reveal that it’s actually the result of Patrick playing around with sound patches on his keyboard. I appreciated the sparing but effective use of Awkwafina as Otto, an automaton whose original function was to fire employees at the Krusty Krab but who ultimately serves as a perpetually unreliable getaway driver. Despite a few amusing gags, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge On The Run wrings nearly all of the goofball charm and surreal wit out of what used to be a shining spot in the world of TV animation.

Score – 2/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Arriving on Amazon Prime is Coming 2 America, the belated sequel to 1988 comedy, again starring Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, about an African monarch who searches for his long-lost son in the United States.
Available on Disney+ through Premier Access is Raya and the Last Dragon, a fantasy adventure starring Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina about a magical realm where a young warrior searches from the world’s last remaining fire-breather.
Premiering on Hulu is Boss Level, a sci-fi action movie starring Frank Grillo and Mel Gibson about a retired soldier who finds himself trapped in a program which results in a never-ending time loop, leading to his repeated death.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

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

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