Minari

Available at cinemas and on-demand.

Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, is this gentle and charming story of a young Korean family, the Yi’s, set in Regans 1980’s free enterprise driven United States. Jacob (Steven Yeun) has uprooted his family from their Californian home to 50 acres of potential farmland in Arkansas. Wife, Monica (Yeri Han) is less than impressed with the “house on wheels” she finds for her and the children, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim). They are not the American dream family, their relationship is clearly strained by the upheaval, financial pressure and concerns about David’s heart condition. To this they are about to add Soonja (Yuh Jung Youn), Monica’s mum, who is not your usual grandma material.

In all honesty I was not as bowled over by Minari as some, but that’s not to say there isn’t much to enjoy. It’s not the classic rags to riches story, even if it does have some of the ingredients. In reality this is less about a chase for success and more a gentle portrait of life, its ups and in the Yi’s case, its heartwrenching downs.

The storytelling and the cast paint a very engaging picture, with characters who you care about and a family whose story you want to see work. But we also see the difficulties of a family trying to make its way in the world, without losing touch with its Korean roots.

The performances are full of gentle charm, with, as her Oscar would suggest, many a scene stolen by Youn’s grandma. Alongside her is a lovely performance from Will Patton as Paul, a god fearing local, whose helpful and hopeful nature counteracts Jacobs concerns and pressures.

While I wasn’t completely blown away, I do love a slow meandering story about life and Minari’s story is full of charm, very watchable and touching.

Saint Maud

Written and directed by Rose Glass and starring Morfydd Clark. Saint Maud is a psychological drama which explores mental health and religious zeal. Maud (Clark) is a personal care nurse who we find about to start a new placement with Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) a former dancer who is dying and who Maud sees as a soul to redeem.

While it’s sold as a horror it isn’t really, it’s more physiological and with religious core that owes quite a lot to Stephen Kings Carrie. The story is carried brilliantly by Clark who is innocent, lost and disturbing in equal measure, keeping you guessing at both her troubled past and her troubling intentions.

While there is a lot of love from critics and audiences for Saint Maud, it didn’t fully grab me. The story felt disjointed and even though it has a running time of just 85 minutes a little slow.

That said it’s a credit to the director that even with those reservations I was kept involved and intrigued throughout. That was due in no small part to Clarks performance, which keeps you as unsteady as she is unhinged. The performance is magnified by Glass’s directorial decisions with the way the film looked and sounded complimenting Mauds unsettling character perfectly.

While Saint Maud didn’t fully grab me, its excellent central performance and unsettling storytelling meant there was something about it that kept me invested throughout and makes it worth a watch.

Raya and the Last Dragon

At the Cinema and on Disney+.

Directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) daughter of Benja (Dave Dae Kim) is on a quest to find the last dragon(Awkwafina) in her homeland. With the dragons help she hopes to rescue her people from the evil Druun and reunite her lands disperate people and return peace across Kumandra.

This is the first Disney Studios animation of the 2020’s and what a treat it is. It’s not the most original story as we follow Raya, the newest Disney Princess on her adventure. It checks all the Disney story boxes, brave hero with tragic background, betrayal, eclectic mix of supporting characters and a cute and sassy companion who teaches our hero important life lessons. But it also does it with a huge amount of charm, warmth and heart.

The film is built around the relationship of two princesses Raya and her nemesis Nammari (Gemma Chan). But rather than a classic good versus evil, the characters are more two sides of the same coin and certainly neither has time for frilly dresses or love interests. Awkwafina’s Dragon, Sisu, is the perfectly voiced, balance of cute, funny and wise central character that both anchors the story and is a device to pull our feuding princesses together.

The story is grown up, but bowls along and never drags with some brilliant set pieces between Tran and Chan, including fantastically balletic fight scenes. But the thing that will impress most is, even in a world of ever more impressive animation, is how incredible this looks. From the gorgeous landscapes to the stunning character animations, you forget these characters are animated, such is the wonderfully realised detail, it is a constant wonder to look at.

While Raya and the Dragon is not the most original story, it doesn’t matter as there is so much to enjoy, a great voice cast delivering excellent performances, stunning animation, charm and an ending that should melt even the hardest heart. A Disney animation of the quality Mickey and the team will be proud of.

A Quiet Place Part II

Written and directed by John Krasinski and starring his better half, Emily Blunt, is this sequel to the excellent and original 2018 hit.

We pick up the story, where we left the first film, via a minor detour back to day one of the invasion by the sound sensitive, human killing alien attackers, allowing us to meet Cillian Murphy’s Emmet. Evelyn (Blunt) and children Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Regan (Millicent Simmonds) leave their farm and head over to a factory with signs of life where they are reacquainted with Emmet. From here they discover a chance to build on the discovery that sound can be used as a weapon and set off on a dangerous road trip to rescue humanity.

For me, Part II did not quite match the originality of the first, feeling a little more predictable. It is at its best in its opening scenes, introducing us to the events of day one (Including Krasinski’s character Lee). There are some nice nods to the original, as well as plenty of action packed carnage and a prescient tale of a world changing overnight. But its that more obvious story telling that lets this down a touch. Its predecessor was clever with the way it used sound, or lack of, to build the tension and drive the story, while here it relies a little more on jump-scares and action set pieces. Although the more predictable story is perhaps inevitable as Krasinski looks to draw it to a close.

All that said this is by no means a bad film and as a two part story it works extremely well. This time we are more focused on Regan, brilliantly played by Simmonds, who does the bulk of the work, alongside Murphy’s Emmet. Blunt and Jupe play more supporting roles, although their story still delivers plenty to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Even if it lacks some of the ingenuity of the first this is still tense and tightly directed. At just 97 minutes, it tells its story very efficiently, perhaps recognising that their is no need for complexity, detours and exposition.

While Part II doesn’t quite reach the standards of the first, it is still a very decent tense action thriller and as a two part tale it more than delivers.

Cruella

At the Cinema and Disney+ Premier Access.

Directed by Craig Gillespie we get all the Emma’s as Stone and Thompson star in this live action “origins” story of 101 Dalmatians villian Cruella De Vil. Stone is Estella, who we first see as a young girl who “attracts” trouble. When she loses her Mum she finds herself in London lost and alone. It’s there she runs into Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) who grow into a mini crime family. She then gets the chance to work for Thompson’s Duchess, a world renowned fashion designer and Estella’s hero. But when she diacovers Duchesses background she builds a plan to take her empire and all she holds dear.

I didn’t go into this with any expectations and what a fabulous and unexpected joy it was. It’s as though Disney watched The Joker and thought Cruella needs that treatment!

The film has a fantastic energy, with a great feel and sense of 70’s London through its costumes and brilliant soundtrack, up there with Baby Driver for a score that sets a tone. Its plot leans heavily on smart heist films with its intricacies and misdirection and of course you can’t escape a Devil wears Prada vibe.

While the film takes a little time to warm up, once it does it is great fun. It has a surprising dark side. We have no hero character to get behind but rather two deliciously bad female leads. Thompson is fantastic as the Duchess but Stone goes toe to toe with her first as the driven and smart Estella, before her crackingly bad Cruella takes over.

Alongside the two leads, Joel Fry, Mark Strong (John the valet) and John Mcrea (Artie) particularly deliver great support.

Cruella is a fabulous treat, a proper surprising gem with two wonderful leads, a surprisingly dark look and feel, smart script, great soundtrack and wonderful energy and is one of my favourite films of the year so far. The only word of caution, if you’re thinking of cuddly Dalmatians and Disney fluff for the kids, this isn’t that film.

Blue Miracle

New on Netflix.

Written and directed by Julio Quintana. Blue Miracle is based on the true story of a a Mexican orpganage who form a team to enter the Bisbee Cup fishing tournament. The aim for the orphanages owner and father figure Omar (Jimmy Gonzales) is to rescue it, it’s in debt and recently badly damaged by a hurricane. Because of the hurricane a unique opportunity arises to enter the extremely lucrative Bisbee fishing tournament when experienced former champion Captain Wade (Denis Quaid) needs a crew and offers them a chance to join him and win the $250k cash prize and save the orphanage.

This is a classic Disneyesque family underdog story. A film about a group of underdog orphans, a good hearted father figure wanting to save their home and teach them life lessons and a grizzled cynical fisherman, feels a familiar cocktail and likely to play out one way. And it does.

It’s hugely predictable and ticks off familiar underdog story tropes as it goes. We get the downs and ups, the challenges, the lessons, the troubled outsider, the moments where making the right choice is important and of course the cynic with a chance of redemption

But all that doesn’t stop this actually been an enjoyable 95 minutes, with no shortage of charm and a likebale cast that has you cheering them on. Dennis Quaid does his best Harrison Ford impression, Jimmy Gonzales gets the inspirational leader with a past about right and the kids are likeable enough especially Anthony Gonzalez, Nathan Arenas and Isaac Arellanes.

While it’s not going to be troubling next year’s awards season, if you are in the mood for a predictable but enjoyable underdog story with plenty of views of open water, then this will do the job.

Peter Rabbit 2

Directed by Will Gluck is the originally named sequel, Peter Rabbit 2. Most of the original cast return and we find Bea (Rose Byrne) and Thomas Mcgregor (Domhnall Gleeson) married. Since we last saw them they have self published her tales of Peter Rabbit with some success, enough to capture the attention of publisher Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo). As Thomas and Bea head off with rabbits in tow to Gloucester, we find Nigel wants to turn her stories into trashy big budget books and films (as if). While in Gloucester a feeling unloved Peter runs into Barnabus (Lennie James) head of a criminal gang and a friend of Peters dad, who has ambitions to pull of a big heist and sees Peter as part of his plan.

Let’s get it out of the way, I quite enjoyed this, the final act in particular with its cleverly conceived heist and climatic chase is genuinely funny. The gags throughout are pretty rapid fire, even if they don’t all work and the pace relentless.

As with many “family films” it is full of rapid action for the youngsters and “knowing” gags for the adults. It also has quite a lot of fun with many a gag at its own expense, most of which land pretty well, including the ones that setup the fun finale. Although if you have a problem with self referential humour, this may wear pretty thin.

It’s not perfect, James Corden, for me, is still woefully miscast as Peter, “do you think my voice is annoying” he asks more than once, sadly yes it is. Beyond that Byrne and Gleeson are watchable as always and Oyelowo has lots of fun as the bad guy and the well assembled voice cast work well.

The human characters are much less involved this time, with story built around the animals which are beautifully animated.

If what you’re looking for is a traditional telling of Potters much loved stories, don’t go looking here, but if your after a well animated, action packed, humorous bit of family fun, then this may do the trick. Let’s face it, it was good enough for me to overlook James Corden and much better than we had any right to expect.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Available on streaming platforms and at the cinema, hurray!

Directed by Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah is based on the true events surrounding the FBI sanctioned assassination, while he slept, of chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Identified by the FBI as an “agitator”, he is targeted by agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who recruits a young car thief, William O’Neal (LaKieth Stanfield), to infiltrate the panthers and get close to Hampton.

The film itself is not a biopic of Hampton and focuses more on his betrayal by O’Neal. However, it is hard to ignore Hampton as the film gravitates around this fantastic portrayal by Kaluuya. Hampton clearly was very charismatic and this is brought to life with Kaluuya electrifying the screen whenever he is on it. It’s not just the obvious public persona that he shares that draws you in to his Oscar winning performance, it is also the measured and private moments where we learn about his drives and hopes.

LaKeith Stanfield is excellent alongside him, not so obviously “showy”, as O’Neal’s character doesn’t allow for that, instead we get a performance that leaves it purposely unclear to whether he felt any sympathy or admiration for Hampton or was he just looking out for himself and drawn in by the FBI’s inducements.

It is the performances that make this film, with Plemons and Dominique Fishback, as Hamptons girlfriend and activist Deborah Johnson, particularly standing out.

However, as excellent as the performances are and as interesting as the story is, for me the film didn’t quite work. It felt a little baggy and slow paced at times and I felt we never got into fully understanding the characters, their motivations or the context for some of the seemingly disjointed incidents we see portrayed.

Hampton’s story is fascinating he was not just a black rights activist but much more nuanced, recognising that persecution was not limited to race but instead aimed at the poorest in society. The saw him bring together disaffected blacks, latinos and whites in a common cause.

The performances alone and Kaluuya in particular make this worth watching. But it did feel that the storytelling never quite matched the performance quality. That said it was great to be back at the cinema and Kaluuya’s performance will stick with me for some time to come.

The Best of Enimies.

Currently on Netflix.

Robin Bissell writes and directs this film based upon the true events that occurred in Durham, North Carolina, during 1971. After a fire at a local black school it forces the issue of school integration to the top of the agenda. With an all white local council and racism and racial tensions still very much part of Durham life it needed radical change. This came with the setting up of a “charrette” a series of town wide meetings to bring together the community to understand their differences and find solutions. Hosted by Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) he needed co-chairs and selects Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) a local black activist and C.P. Lewis (Sam Rockwell) the president of the local Klu Klux Klan. The film focuses on that process and the development of what would become a life long friendship between Atwater and Lewis.

The true life events behind this story are fascinating. To do this by putting together a black activist and leader of the local Klan as co-chairs feels doomed to fail. What the real story leads to was not only a change in the ingrained views of a white supremacist, but also across both black and white communities the realisation that the poor in society had common enemies which had nothing to do with colour, which feels a most prescient message.

The disappointment here is that this film doesn’t capture that fascination anywhere near well enough. It’s not a terrible film at all and the story itself as well as good performances keep you interested. But the type of film you think you are going to get, is exactly the one you do.

Oddly in a film that is nearly 2 1/4 hours long, it feels it never builds enough on the central characters. We don’t see enough of the life of Atwater, we know she’s a firebrand, but we don’t know what made her who she is. In Lewis we see someone who makes a huge decision that changes his life, but he seems go get there too easily. And as is seemingly often the case in stories like this, it is told very much from the point of the white protagonist and his change.

That’s not to say there aren’t things to like here and it is better these stories are told than not. The performances are good with Rockwell as you’d expect and Henson very watchable and keep you engaged. But the storytelling is very paint by numbers and predictable.

It’s certainly no write off, the story itself and the concept of what was attempted is fascinating and does maintain interest. It just feels that there is a really interesting telling of this story to be done, it just isn’t done here.

Come As You Are.

Available on multiple streaming platforms and Sky Cinema in the UK.

Richard Wongs Come As You Are is based on the real life experience of Asta Philpot a young man with a disability who travelled to Amsterdam for his first sexual experience.

In this remake of earlier Belgian and Dutch versions, we find our three protagonists Scotty (Grant Rosenmey) a 24 yr old quadriplegic, Mo (Ravi Patel) a blind man in his mid 30’s and Matt (Hayden Szeto) who after an accident finds himself wheelchair bound. Scotty is frustrated by his sexual desires and a realisation he can do nothing about it. But, when caught gazing at the girlfriend of another wheelchair bound man, he shares with Scotty the secrets of a brothel over the border in Montreal, designed to cater for “people like them”. This inspires him to plan a road trip, he hires a van with a driver, Sam (Gabourey Sidibe) and ropes in Matt and Mo to join him on his adventure.

What we have here is a funny, warm and charming road trip comedy. It definitely uses many of the classic road trip movie tropes. The comedy is layered and balances well between laughs and some smart and subtle looks at the challenges of disability and trying to live a “normal” life.

All of this built on really good performances by the four main characters as well as good support especially from Janeane Garafalo, Jennifer Jelsema and C.S Lee as the worried parents. All done in a way that never felt condescending or playing for sympathy.

The story also has some really warm and emotional moments that land well. Which included for me a well judged final act.

It would be remiss not to point out something that is potentially problematic in the casting of three able bodied actors in the lead roles. To their credit I felt they did a fine job of portraying the difficulties that came with their individual challenges. But I understand that for some this will feel uncomfortable.

That said, this was the most enjoyable comedy I’ve seen in quite a while. Funny with a warm heart and a set of characters who worked well together and were extremely likeable. With a layered story and a smart audience pleasing, if predictable end.

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