Now that New Director / New Films is over and done with, I can now focus on going back to some of the movies that I watched either right before the festival started, or in the middle of it, but never got to actually have the time to write about them. Here we go:
Somehow I failed to write about this last year when I had the chance in October. Anyhow, it’s no secret to anyone now some nine months after its release that Lee Isaac Chung’s movie Minari is not just a quintessentially American story but a masterpiece of storytelling. It focuses on a Korean-American family headed by Jacob and Monica (Steven Yeun and Yeri Han), who have moved from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s in an attempt to not only escape the drudgery of their city life but to make some solid roots of their own. From the get-go, it becomes clear that this will be a task easier said than done. Already, there is tension in the marriage, with Monica upset from having left her life behind. Being Asian-Americans with little education leaves both Jacob and Monica to have to work (yet again) in another factory. However, Jacob has big plans to create his own farm and befriends a muttering American named Paul who served in Korea (Will Paxton, as usual, underrated). Coming into the picture is Monica’s mother Soonja (Yoh-Young Youn), a woman with a character all her own who the youngest son David (Alan S Kim) doesn’t accept.
Minari looks like a type of movie that doesn’t get made anymore (and I know, it sounds cliche, but check and see the last time you saw a movie about a family trying to make it in rural America and you’d have to go all the way back to the type of dramas Sally Field was making in 1984, or perhaps, the similar but fantasy-laden Field of Dreams. This is a gentle movie that depicts a family displaced on all ends, trying to hold itself together in a country that at one point fought against them. Chung wisely leaves any racial tensions outside of the picture, although a friendship between David and a young boy, while innocent, seems to be laden with an undertone of fascination with “the other” rather than a true, lasting friendship. Even Paul’s need to serve Jacob’s family seems to stem from some unknown guilt as the man carries a religious weight throughout the entire movie, even when that weight is treated without any sense of an ulterior motive.
If I have one complaint about Minari, it would have to be that come awards season Yeri Han was left without any nomination for her difficult role as the wife. It seems to be a tradition that Hollywood still doesn’t seem to consider the role of the supporting spouse to be that relevant to a story. Monica’s constant sense of displacement added to the fact that she is, alongside Jacob, the glue holding this delicate family unit together, makes for some intense moments whenever she and Jacob throw verbal barbs at each other. Aside from that one complaint, Minari is a wonderful movie to see, not so much because of its cast but despite it. If anything sounds and feels and looks more American, it is a family who comes from a different part of the world venturing into a place they can call their own. This is the closest I can call to seeing the seeds of life grow and its title describes the movie perfectly.
Kelly O’Sullivan is a force of nature and someone who should be on everyone’s watch list because that girl is Going Places. O’Sullivan writes and stars in Alex Johnson’s feature-length debut, Saint Frances. Here she plays Bridget, a deadbeat thirty-something who seems to be sleepwalking through life while everyone else around her has become settled and grounded. At a gathering, she meets a man who’s going on and on about nothing in particular while she cringes. When he tells her something around the lines of “You’re 24. It gets better,” Bridget flatly replies, “I’m 34.”
That doesn’t stop her from hooking up with Jace (Max Lipschitz), a cute but much younger guy with who she makes a quick connection. Their connection will be fated in more ways than one, but in the interim, it becomes just a chapter that lands her as a babysitter for a lesbian couple named Annie and Maya (Lila Mojekwu and Charin Alvarez) who are expecting another baby and need someone to take care of their precocious 6-year-old daughter Frances. Frances, it turns out, has come to the world fully formed as an adult and has some things to say, plus an attitude to spare. It is inevitable that a bond will form between the two.
Which, suffice it is to say, won’t be enough. Bridget still has a job to do, and a life to live, even as she herself is still figuring things out. Her presence in Annie’s and Maya’s home might not be considered disruptive — Bridget is helpful to a fault — but because Annie works long hours in her law firm and Maya’s postpartum depression has left her swimming in barely contained tears when Annie finally notices that Bridget and Maya have been getting closer as friends, she has a moment. The moment, surprisingly enough, leads to a release of emotion so raw and intense that it left me completely awash in tears of my own.
I love the way O’Sullivan wrote her character as someone simply trying. She’s not worldly, she barely has anything figured out, and even a scene when a former college friend who has become someone famous places Bridget in the position of being humiliated, she takes it all in stride, unaffected (but not completely; she still throws in a jab with Frances help). The movie isn’t afraid to also posit the way women judge other women, and a moment when Maya is breastfeeding her infant. baby slowly turns into a confrontation with a “Karen” who admonishes Maya for simply tending to her child. What O’Sullivan and the child actress playing Frances do to defuse the scene is priceless.
Saint Frances is unique in that it is very well aware that its people, the successful and not so successful don’t have it all figured out yet. Yes, there are cringe-worthy moments like the one I described in the previous paragraph, but eventually, what comes through is the all-encompassing love that Bridget exudes. Hers is a character I wanted to continue to see long after the movie itself was over. On that basis alone, this to me is one of the best movies of 2020.
Ammonite and The World to Come
I’m lumping these two movies together because it seems that lesbian period dramas in which the two female protagonists slowly but surely fall in love albeit the circumstances of their time are becoming the rage since Carol, but more importantly, 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Let me be clear: I’m perfectly happy with these movies, I’d rather see two women falling for each other and surviving into the end credits than something as dismal as The Children’s Hour or anything that came before or shortly after that because in every single one of them the woman (or both women) were harshly punished.
The thing is that where Carol and Portrait both breathed life into the genre, Ammonite and The World to Come arrive a little stale and predictable — so much that it inspired an SNL skit that has to be seen to be believed. Both movies operate on the notion that narrating stories about women giving into their passions even at the danger of being exposed and possibly convicted seems to foster great cinema. Ammonite treads on the concept that perhaps there was a queer attraction between Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison (Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan), although no documents survive today that confirms it. Whether or not it did happen, Ammonite simply doesn’t hold that much water in its central romance so anything that happens seems forced. The World to Come doesn’t quite do much better despite the presence of Katerine Waterston and [Oscar nominee] Vanessa Kirby. Theirs is played fairly straight (for lack of another term), but too often it seems to be closer to an anachronism than something that would have actually transpired even if the two women in The World to Come had lived practically on top of each other in super-tight quarters. Both movies suffer from a case of forced drama, and that does not good drama make.
Another trend that seems to be taking place is that of placing an older couple at a crossroads in life in which one of the two has a terminal disease, leaving the other one to have to handle it on his own. Still Alice gave Julianne Moore an Oscar, Two of Us was France’s entry to the 93rd Academy Awards, and who can forget 2012’s Amour?
Now we get Supernova, a well-intentioned and superbly acted movie about two older gay men (Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth) en route to a gathering. There is a lot of reminiscing and talking back and forth that happens, and we get that one of them is not doing too well. The disclosure arrives almost immediately, which was never meant to be a surprise. Tucci’s character has dementia, and soon he won’t be able to take care of himself.
Supernova is a talky affair, but it also manages to imbue its narrative with moments of pause. I was reminded in a way of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend in which his two male leads talked and talked and talked, and none of it was boring — if anything, their time together (which was almost the entire film) was the core structure of the story. In Supernova Firth and Tucci are almost always on camera, together, with few scenes apart from each other. The two share a deep, smoldering chemistry that burns even when their characters fight. Even so, the director, Harry Macqueen, has a non-judgmental sensibility for his characters in that he lets them have their moments without sugar-coating their performances until maudlin takes over. This is a romance that looks lived in, which makes the pain of what must inevitably happen more heartbreaking.
I’ll always have a soft spot for horror films because in their stories lies a deeper template in which grief or darker traumas are expunged in the manner of a haunting. In The Vigil, that template occurs when a young man named Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) receives an offer to be a shomer for a man who has just died. Needing some quick money, Yakov accepts, but as we’ve come to expect in horror movies involving a haunting, nothing will go as expected and before things get better, they will get very, very worse, especially for Yakov.
Honestly, I don’t know what to say other than I enjoyed this short movie. It’s got a great sense of mood and dread that settles in progressively once Menashe Lustig’s character — who hired Yakov in the first place — leaves for the night, leaving Yakov alone in the apartment with a dead man a mere 10 feet away from him. Thomas uses technology and social media to create a sense of displacement in which we as an audience know what is happening but only through Yakov’s earbuds which blast music to a point, it’s a wonder he can even hear himself breathe.
Using the allegory as a means to tell a story about trauma and PTSD is a great way to get through to the meat of the pain. Lynn Cohen, as the dead man’s wife, has a strong supporting character as a woman who knows all too well about demons who refuse to leave a man in pain. On the plus side, while The Vigil does get rather gruesome at times, it never crosses into implausibility and remains firmly entrenched within a man’s fractured psyche. It knows all too well that demons per se do not exist and cannot drag a person to hell. We already live in a hell out of our own making. We just need to find a way to get out of its binding hold. What works for it, is the sense of claustrophobia at every corner plus the sense that something unspeakable is but within grabbing reach of the main character. At 80 minutes in length, The Vigil might be a bit short for its own good but being its mainly a one-man shiver show, it is enough and then some.
I’m coming to truly enjoy these movies in which unlikely folk turn out to be the biggest badasses ever. So far, only older men have played this part — Charlize Theron doesn’t count because her movies don’t focus on her being a pushover turned lethal killing machine. John Wick might not have been the first — he was, in fact, preceded by Hardcore Henry by a few years — but his character is the one most of us including me remember. Now we get Bob Odenkirk stepping out of his attorney in Better Call Saul and into Liam Neeson’s shoes in Nobody, written by the same guy who wrote Theron’s Atomic Blonde and the John Wick movies.
Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, a mild-mannered regular guy whom everyone — including his family — seems to both ignore and treat as if he were a nuisance to kick into submission. He accepts it, and goes through the motions, visiting his retired father (Christopher Lloyd, a much welcome presence) at his assisted living home and speaking to his as-yet unseen half brother through CB radio (I thought that went out of style 40 years ago).
One night Hutch finds himself the unwilling and innocent bystander for a group of thugs who enter a bus and basically, unleash mayhem. He quite literally snaps and lets loose whatever he has been holding inside himself, wiping out the entire mob of men with barely a weapon in sight. This leads to a series of events in which the father of one of the men (Aleksey Serebyrakov, last seen in 2013’s Leviathan) demands revenge and payment for whoever did this. That, of course, will be easier said than done.
From here on the movie is exactly what you would expect it to be. Ilya Naishuiller directs Nobody with a muscular hand and offers a few moments for the audience to catch their breath. What I enjoyed the most about this movie is that in no way is Hutch invincible. He can certainly kick ass, and I wouldn’t want to be at the receiving end of whatever he may have in store for me, but he also gets hit a lot and in one scene, gets kidnapped, with some grisly results for the kidnappers.
Nobody is a fun movie to enjoy on an evening night and features solid performances by its supporting cast which includes Connie Nielsen, no stranger to action films herself, RZA, and an almost unrecognizable Michael Ironside.
Finally, I have arrived at David Fincher’s incursion into hagiography. If this is what he left Mindhunter — an excellent, deeply disturbing series that is right up his alley — for, I suggest he return to it. Mank will do him no favors, but who am I to pass judgment — I’m sure he made a killing in negotiations and can cut some losses here or there. It’s been lauded by many — not me, sadly — and showered with multiple nominations and awards in major events to include the Academy Awards, and the future will eventually decide whether this was deserved, or the result of a relentless PR stunt to make sure that his work (and his actors) received the attention they should. [Note, I didn’t say “deserved.”]
Eventually, most directors want to make their Citizen Kane. It’s an approach to auteur cinema that ensures he or she will pass through the history books with a movie that will be seen as a pean to cinema and thus, merit its place in movies that you should see before you die or some objective list like that. What not many have attempted is to do something so much in the style of Orson Welles as if to almost follow his filming technique by the book in order to make a movie that seems to be telegraphing at full volume, “This is the seed that created the flower,” or perhaps, “Watch as this real-life story imitates the movie that became the monster that now we know is Citizen Kane.”
Clever approach, to film with low angles, oblique shots, characters bathed in shadows to a point where we can barely see their faces, scenes that foretell scenes in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, and attention to detail that is almost infuriating. [This attention. to detail, mind you, might be commendable to some for its eagle eye approach, but misses the point in others, probably conveniently so, or because when a movie packs so much, there is only so much it can take before it implodes in its own ambitions.]
I wouldn’t have minded all that, but then Fincher and his screenwriters fill the story with so many characters that the movie itself is almost an insurmountable wall of information that has no head, no feet, and is all body. When a movie does this it basically becomes, to me, a Jackson Pollock, Pretty to see with the layers of squiggly lines that tell a chaotic creation, but not much else. So, yes, perhaps this is how life is — a mess of chaotic incidents glued together to form a tapestry so wide you have to stand about 100 feet away from it to capture its intricacy in detail. I, personally, didn’t care who was that character who killed himself, or why Marion Davies was in the story when nothing in Citizen Kane (except that much-maligned reference to Kane’s untalented/exploited/victim wife, Susan Elizabeth Kane) truly references her. The dialogue is excellent — language like that needs to return to movies. It makes characters much more interesting to watch as they conduct their conversations and reveal aspects of either themselves or the narrative. Other than that, Mank is a colossal — but elegant — misfire, an incursion into a time barely remembered, and a story of what can happen when overindulged egos clash.