Tag Archives: Drama

Minari

[3 stars]

There is something very sweet and true about Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s latest tale. It has also been massively lauded out on the circuit. I can’t say, however, that I was as enthralled, though I wasn’t unimpressed.

Minari is a tale of an immigrant family. And there is a lot going on in Steven Yeun (Sorry to Bother You) and Yeri Han’s transplanted unit. While both of these actors deliver on their tightly wound and fraying relationship, it is Alan Kim, as their son, and Yuh-jung Youn (Sense8) who you’ll remember best. And I say that even with Will Patton’s (The November Man) truly off-beat, affable, bible-thumping intensity filling in the background. But unlike, say, The Farewell, it never quite acquires a full shape.

The experience of the Ye family is provided at an historical distance. We’re dropped into Arkansas of the early 1980s. Mind you, other than the clothes, cars, and some background news you probably can’t tell what era it is, and perhaps that is part of the point. But I wish it had been a bit more contemporary. It isn’t that bad things happen from a community point of view; this story is focused on the internal struggles of the family rather than society. In fact, the neighbors are relatively accepting and open to their new residents. And the Ye’s are not breaking any ground by arriving either. Because of all that I question the choice of era as it only serves to distance us from the events and provides no useful frame to the story.

That said, it is a beautiful and subtle film about the relationships. A father attempting to achieve his dreams at all costs. A mother trying to support her family and protect those around her. A grandmother overflowing with sass and love. And two children trying to figure out where they fit in the family and trying to buffer their parents. All relatable and all delivered with amusing and, sometimes, painful honesty.

There is a lot to be said for Minari and it should be seen. Compared to the rest of the field out there, I do think it is being more than a little over-hyped. Go into it with a moderated expectation for an insightful look at a family struggling to survive the challenges that come at them, and those that they bring with them.

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The Father

[4.5 stars]

Let’s talk about POV. Like the recent Bliss, Florian Zeller’s freshman outing relies heavily on character point of view and editing to provide the necessary information for navigating the story. By watching very carefully, you can tease apart most of the truth. Most of it. Unlike Bliss, Zeller’s adaptation of his play, with help from Christopher Hampton (Adore), the truth can still elude you; but that’s ok. Unlike previous stories, like Still Alice, the film tries to recreate what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s from the inside rather than primarily from outside. How they go about that is something you just need to experience, but to say you’ve got unreliable narrator is an understatement. But the threads are (mostly) there for the watcher to stay relatively grounded. Honestly, I’m still discussing it with people trying to pull it all apart.

Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes) delivers a wonderfully mercurial performance as his character is buffeted by his confusion and frustration. But while he is the primary POV, his daughter provides a second, which is another way Zeller helps you along. Olivia Colman (The Favourite) delivers a heart-wrenching performance as she navigates her father’s illness, giving us glimpses into the emotional and physical realities and a small touch of what must have been their past.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally capable and storied. Olivia Williams (Maps to the Stars), Mark Gatiss (Locked Down), Rufus Sewell (The Pale Horse), and Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment) perform a wonderfully seamless dance filling out the story.

This is also a movie where the production designer Peter Francis (Rocketman) and editor Yorgos Lamprinos have had huge impact on the story-telling and need to be called out. Pay attention to the details in the sets and how the sequences are put together. Truly amazing work all around.

My only issue with the film comes near the end where it felt a little forced and rushed. It isn’t necessarily an untrue depiction, but my gut is that the events could have remained while the dialogue could have been a little more finessed. That minor criticism aside, The Father has already garnered a lot of nominations and wins, with more sure to come. This is one movie who’s odd ride is worth every moment you spend with it, and it’s a wonderful class in perspective and humility.

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Nomadland

[3 stars]

Nomadland asks two fairly simple questions: What is home? What is family? The answers, as we all know, aren’t that simple. Director and writer Chloé Zhao tackles the concepts in a quiet, but compelling exhibition that is primarily populated by real Nomads. The result has garnered a mountain of praise and awards notice.

Holding the various talking head segments together is Frances McDormand (Isle of Dogs), whose journey into the nomad life is told with barely an initial explanation. With David Strathairn (Fast Color) as a catalyst, we watch McDormand struggle inwardly until near the end when details are expressed. Though, to be fair, most of those are already understood by the audience, just not by her character.

For all its lauds, and its craft at pulling you along, Nomadland isn’t as good a film as I was expecting. I think McDormand has had better and more challenging roles. Strathairn is a somewhat unfinished and empty character. The stories and ideas we hear are interesting, but they feel like a documentary invaded the story-telling. Somehow it does come together, but it is best to watch this with no expectations, despite the hype that has been building around it over the last year. You’ll find it satisfying, but for a two hour narrative I think Zhao could have been more focused in her script.

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Staged (series 2)

[3 stars]

Staged is back and picks up from where the first series left off. David Tennant (Deadwater Fell) and Michael Sheen (Admission) return but are bit more…well, more this round. Further into the pandemic, and with their project being ripped from them, they’ve gone a bit intense.

The story is again loaded with guest spots. I won’t spoil them here, but some are a riot, though none quite as unexpected and funny as Dame Judy Dench’s appearance last round. These are all a bit more confrontational. Tennant and Sheen have no shame in allowing themselves to be the butt of jokes and pointed observation. It is part of their charm.

Staged continues to focus on the oddity of home isolation, but also explores the friendship of the two men more deeply. It is all very tangential to the machinations and arguments, but it is clear that neither character could do well without the other in their lives. And it provides a soft cushion for all of us to observe our own growing intensity as the pandemic passes the one year mark. For a dark laugh, including some serious belly laughs, check out the second installment of this short form series. With luck, we won’t need a third as we’ll all be back out in the world before Simon Evans can write it.

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Judas and the Black Messiah

[3.5 stars]

The Black Panthers are a complicated subject. Not just for their own actions and politics but also because of the reason they even existed and the response at the local, state, and federal levels. Director and co-writer Shaka King tackles the subject through the particular thread of Fred Hampton’s life and assassination. And even though the story was done with Hampton’s family and the Panther’s blessing, he does so with honesty and minimal bias. I can’t imagine that was an easy feat.

Interestingly, Hampton, Bobby Seale, Malcom X and the Black Panthers have been in the zeitgeist lately, showing up directly or tangentially in One Night in Miami, Small Axe, and Trial of the Chicago 7, as well as thematically in many other films. And, though unplanned, it’s important to notice that this film is releasing about a month after insurrectionists, led by white supremacists and incited by the president, stormed the Capital. Certainly puts an unexpected patina on it all.

The story, is told primarily through the eyes of Bill O’Neal, given oily life by LaKeith Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). He drives the action that ultimately sweeps up Daniel Kaluuya’s (Widows) Hampton. Kaluuya himself slips into Hampton’s story comfortably and seamlessly, though perhaps not quite as poetically as the original. And Dominique Fishback (Project Power) provides a nuanced performance with grounded and conflicted emotions through which we watch Hampton.

In the background, pulling strings and guiding outcomes, Martin Sheen (Grace and Frankie) as Hoover and Jesse Plemons (Vice) make you squirm. Sheen for his sheer, vile hubris. But Plemons is more subtle and complex. The subtlety derives from the decisions he makes while internally sacrificing as he bends to pressure; doing so even as the implications of his actions become more apparent…he accepts all the choices despite those realizations.

This film is a tale of tragedy, but tempered with hope. It is also our history (and not a small part of our present, like it or not). The full scope of that history, and the truth of those involved, has yet to be widely told. This movie is a start and it is one you should see for the performances and the information.

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The Way Back

[3 stars]

Everything you need to know about this story is in the title, though that meaning is certainly multi-layered. And while sports may drive this tale of redemption, it isn’t the point. But, to its credit, Brad Ingelsby’s (Out of the Furnace) script slowly gives up its secrets and resolutions in ways that feel satisfying and gripping. And Ben Affleck (The Town) delivers a performance that is quietly painful and raw without ever becoming so weighty as to be unwatchable.

While Affleck is the absolutely center of this story, director Gavin O’Connor (The Accountant) marshalled a number of nuanced performances around him to blunt the tight focus. Among them, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar (Blindspotting), and Michaela Watkins (How to be a Latin Lover) stand out for their complex impact, though there are many others as well.

I have to admit, I wasn’t overly enthused about sitting down for this one. Affleck is a hit and miss actor for me. Basketball is not something I spend any time caring about. The world feels depressing enough these days without having to journey through someone else’s darkness. But all of those concerns lifted very quickly as the story unspooled. The performances are all very good and the story isn’t a disaster, though it is certainly upsetting at times. But it also feels very honest and assailable, keeping it from ever being crushed under its own weight. It’s definitely one of Affleck’s better performances and a number of the younger actors have some good screen time as well.

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The Little Things

[3.5 stars]

This dark little mystery is brought to you via a triumvirate of talent. Led by Denzel Washington (Equalizer 2) and backed up by Rami Malek (Papillon) and Jared Leto (Blade Runner 2049), this is a steadily paced tale of justice and redemption. While there are numerous smaller roles, the movie is really these three. Washington provides the quiet, intense gravitas while Malek brings the youthful intensity and Leto…well, Leto brings the crazy.

John Lee Hancock wrote and directed this tale of a serial killer stalking 1990’s LA. And while it is quite clever, you can get rather far ahead if you try. Fortunately, that doesn’t really matter as confirmation feels just as good as surprise because of how the story unfolds. It isn’t so much a police procedural as it is one of introspection and personal demons.

Enjoy the ride of this one, and be prepared to contemplate the outcomes and revelations. It is a story that is very much of its time, but not necessarily an antidote for any of the issues. But it isn’t about corruption so much as a drive for doing the right thing to the exclusion of all else, and the cost of failing that mission.

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It’s a Sin

[4 stars]

Russell T. Davies (Years and Years) is Britain’s Ryan Murphy (The Prom). Though, to be fair, Davies was there first and Murphy is really our answer to him. Both men have embraced their pasts and are willing to discuss life in all its aspects with the world. They both do it with love and wonder, never forgetting the challenges. And they both have wicked senses of humor.

It’s a Sin chronicles the lives of several young people starting in 1981. But while the story can’t avoid having AIDS as part of the story, it tackles t in a different way than most. It remains powerfully honest and empowering and, weirdly, positive despite many of the events. It is about characters embracing who they are and enjoying life and each other. It’s also the first show I can remember to use the original name for AIDS (GRID, for those who forgot BTW).

Primarily the story is through the eyes of Olly Alexander (God Help the Girl) and Lydia West (Dracula). Both have wonderful moments, growth, and, as it turns out, serious chops for singing together. The core ensemble is wonderfully supported by newcomers Omari Douglas and Callum Scott Howells, both of whom deliver performances far beyond what you’d expect for actors so early in their careers.

In addition to the main cast, there are a slew of guest actors across the five episodes. Perhaps the most fun is Neil Patrick Harris (Beastly), who helps set up a couple of the storylines. However, Keeley Hawes (Summer of Rockets) and Shaun Dooley (Doctor Who) also have some great moments, Hawes in particular.

Peter Hoar directed all five episodes, helping all of the actors navigate complex changes and precarious moments. The final episode especially is a triumph of his efforts. He also managed to put together a brilliant soundtrack, capturing each period beautifully and evocatively. My only gripe is a minor one…I wish the final credits had ended with “La!” to really drive home the sense of family and life. But that’s an exceedingly minor comment.

Why, you might ask, do we need yet another tale of coming out in the 80s? Well, because the challenge of the act is still relevant today and because the horror of the AIDS pandemic has yet to be fully understood by those who weren’t there for it and by those who still wish to deny it or, worse, be glad for it. With the COVID pandemic still in full swing, it’s also probably much more relatable to a greater audience than ever before. Also, sadly, the world is still far too often a hateful place. The reminder that it should be driven more by love isn’t a story that goes out of style or out of date.

But, while all of that is undeniably brought out by the story of these people, that isn’t what this series focuses on. It’s a Sin is ultimately triumphant, ultimately positive, because of the way the survivors respond.

The Nest

[3 stars]

Sean Durkin’s (Martha Marcy May Marlene) latest pondering on human relationships and identity uses the go-go 80’s as its backdrop. Jude Law is the quintessential 80s trader chasing his sense of fulfillment and dragging long suffering (and occasionally insufferable) Carrie Coon (Widows) in his wake along with their kids.

There is a quiet intensity to this story, with layers slowly peeling back as it unwinds. But there isn’t much to like in any of these characters. Certainly there is empathy for their kids, but the adults are all, well, all those people you disliked in the 80s that brought the financial world to its knees in the first of several crashes to follow. In other words, it feels like we’re being asked to understand some really rather shallow and reprehensible people and feel sympathy of some sort. Sorry, no.

Even the ending of this story, which does bring the characters to the brink of change, never quite feels like it’s completed or paid off. It ends on a moment of potential…and that may be enough for some folks, but not me in this case. While it felt earned, it didn’t feel complete or satisfying. The children, in particular, are left in pain and without real support. So, up to you on this one. The performances are solid and the flow is good, pulling you along despite the low key of it all.

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Equinox

[3 stars]

Dark. Moody. Danish.

There have been many shows from this area of Europe of late. Most are straight-up mysteries. Some are supernaturalish hybrids, like this offering. Led with intensity by Danica Curcic (The Bridge (Bron/Broen)), this is a tale of inevitability as well as mystery. It is less about surprise and more about trying to identify what is real and what is just a symptom of something else.

There are some familiar faces around Curcic. Lars Brygmann (Dicte) and Alexandre Willaume (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) are among those. Neither really gets to cut loose, but both do manage to creep you out. And there is also a nicely nuanced performance by Hanne Hedelund as Curcic’s mother.

The six-episode arc will keep you intrigued. The craft of the show as it bounces between past and present, fantasy and reality is a bit awkward and confused at times, but it generally works and is sometimes purposefully vague. The story is, however, complete in the one go, though they may decide to come back to it. They certainly didn’t answer all questions to my satisfaction. And it’s no Dark, or Les Revenants. While the story is somewhat layered and complex, it won’t make your brain bleed.

Ultimately, this is nice distraction from the standard. It delivers fairly on its promise and it’s reasonably well executed. I realize this isn’t screaming praise…I think I wanted a bit more from it given the setup and potential. But that was more a problem with expectation than delivery.

Equinox Poster