Review: Promising Young Woman (Fennell, 2020)

Starring: Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham

Grade: A-

It’s one thing to set out to make a movie dripping in political and cultural relevancy, another to make a highly stylized exploitation satire, and another to have the audacity to combine them. Writer/Director Emerald Fennell did just that, and so much more. Promising Young Woman flawlessly juggles drastically opposing tones to make a fun and accessible movie that earns the cliché’d movie of our times moniker. 

Years after the brutal sexual assault of best friend Nina, Cassie (Mulligan) dedicates her nights to teaching men of the same ilk a lesson. By pretending to be blackout drunk at nightclubs, she allows predators to take her home, only to shame and terrify them when they try to take advantage of her. Meanwhile, Cassie’s budding romantic relationship with nice guy Ryan (Burnham) is rattled when Nina’s abuser comes back into her world, setting off the ultimate revenge plot that puts her already deteriorating social life at risk. 

Fennell’s extraordinary ability to make this movie genuinely enjoyable despite the horrifically dark subject matter is astonishing. By taking the general framework of a rape-revenge exploitation story of something like The Last House on the Left (Craven, 1972) or I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978), and stripping it of the male-gaze that treats women victimhood as a prop, she creates a modern perspective that allows the exploitation aesthetics to work in her favor. 

The style doubles down on the presented themes, the colorful veneer of panache not unlike the self-proclaimed nice guys Cassie encounters throughout the film — all wolves in sheep’s clothing. The casting of legitimately charming and innocuous actors as predatory abusers is beyond brilliant, an unobscured reflection of real life. As is the use of professions, locations, and the deconstruction of character relationships. They’re both at once surprising and sadly not at all. Fennell is a master of playing with our expectations to make her point viscerally felt.

Operating within this hyper stylization allows the film to get away with questionable and absurd beats that wouldn’t work without: an abundance of religious allegory, shifts between melodrama and comedy, and contradictory motivations. Without the framework it doesn’t hold up, but this is a world unto itself outside of reality.

Even Carey Mulligan, who is always amazing, surpasses the high bar of her past work to be the best she’s ever been. Like the film itself, she has to juggle being entirely sympathetic and rightfully malicious, all without being characterized as a “psychopath” that so many refer to her as. The authority of her presence in every scene is unmistakable, not unlike Fennell’s command of the film itself. 

This being Emerald Fennell’s feature length debut is invigorating. Her voice is desperately needed in the movie landscape today, especially in niche corners of smart genre-breaking filmmaking that is an unfortunate ultra-serious boys club. Promising Young Woman is an awesome start to a hopefully long and just-as-great directorial career. 

Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Sorkin, 2020)

Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Grade: D

The best case scenario for anyone watching Aaron Sorkin’s latest is that maybe, maybe, someone will be introduced to progressive American political ideology through this Hollywood bastardization of very-relevant history. Too many times, we’re given a bloated and easy-to-swallow history lesson via cinema, and Sorkin’s lifeless The Trial of the Chicago 7 is no different. 

Here, we witness a very carefully manicured depiction of the real life trial against a group of unrelated progressives who protested the 1968 Democratic National Convention, all wrongly accused of inciting a riot. Leading the pack is Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale (Abdul-Mateen II) and liberal activist Tom Hayden (Redmayne), as well as revolutionaries Abbie Hoffman (Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Strong). Prosecution lies in the hands of the made-to-be sympathetic Richard Schultz (Gordon-Levitt), while the trial itself is judged by cartoonishly evil Judge Julias Hoffman (Frank Langella). 

It’s clear from the start that the leftists in defense are facing injustice at every turn, with as much subtlety as a cop’s baton splitting open a skull. Sorkin has somehow managed to take a truly interesting and important story and stuff it into the pristine script format of his wishes — the who, what, where, when, why made with the same sheen as an Instagram filter made to iron out any wrinkles. The true events, what really happened, clearly don’t matter, and are bent and shaped to fit exactly how a story beat should hit or when a character arc can reach its appropriate pit stops. With every frame, beat, and musical cue, we’re told what and how to feel, leaving nothing to organically rise from the narrative or its characters.

That’s not to say that this film isn’t competently made, it’s the exact opposite — it’s unrelentingly sterile. Everything looks fine, the performances are fine, it’s all just fine. It’s less a movie and more of a guidebook for budding filmmakers on how to approach cinematic language like lighting, editing, and shot distance. It’s easy to imagine a begrudged professor one day asking their students, “How do we know Tom is the hero in this scene”, with someone correctly answering, “Because the camera is looking up toward him from below and he takes up the whole frame”. If Sorkin made this movie as his final project to pass Filmmaking 101, he succeeded. 

These people and the events that took place deserve so much more than the aesthetics of a generic Made-For-TV movie. No one needs snappy dialogue or obvious music to tell us that police shouldn’t be beating unarmed protestors, or that American law is twisted into whatever pretzel the powers that be will use to dismantle anything that criticizes a Capitalist status quo. However, it’s made abundantly clear who the intended audience is based on the outrageous and braindead gotcha finale.

Wealthy white liberals who hated Donald Trump more because he was an unpresidential asshole, rather than his openly fascist policy, will adore The Trial of the Chicago 7. It’s all in the same ballpark as someone retweeting a Republican politician’s old tweet that contradicts a new tweet, as if the hypocrisy alone is enough to sway death cult conservatives to their side (it won’t, they don’t care). It’s all treated as some sort of game that’s being watched from the stands, the spectators being people who will never actually be directly affected or face consequences from the game itself. It’s less life or death, more of the I’m right, you’re wrong sport. What happened with the trial, the protestors, the message of anti-racism, anti-capitalism, anti-war — it’s all life or death, and should be treated as such.

Review: Another Round (Vinterberg, 2020)

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, and Lars Ranthe

Grade: A-

Dogme 95 alumnus Thomas Vinterberg returns with Another Round, a multifaceted and immersive drama unique to the director’s keen sensibilities. When four middle-aged men who work in education reflect on their lives, they come to the conclusion that they’ve reached a stale and monotonous existence. Martin (Mikkelsen), a history teacher lacking enthusiasm, Tommy (Larsen), a depressed soccer coach, and exhausted professors Nikolaj (Millang) and Peter (Ranthe) discuss Norwegian physicist Skårderud’s theory that humans were born lacking a blood alcohol content volume of at least 0.05%, and decide to try and maintain that level as a social experiment. While there are immediate positive results that come along with alcohol’s tendency to relax and raise a drinker’s spirits, there are inevitable consequences that await the four colleagues on their search for existential meaning. 

Vinterberg is extraordinary in presenting multiple threads that tie directly into alcohol abuse with subtle and meticulous observation. The men have a clear affinity for masculine tropes, the great men of history who, with the help of alcohol, made their stamp on the modern world while inebriated. There’s a significant emphasis given to men like Hemingway and Churchill, allowing our protagonists to feed their romanticized alcoholism as a scapegoat to avoid any internal criticism. Paired with an unwavering awareness of Danish nationalism, alcohol as a way of life, or as the way of life, solidifies their shield against condemnation.

While it would have been easy to traverse the narrative through a downward spiral lens like Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky, 2000), there is nothing preachy whatsoever about Another Round. This isn’t an After School Special fixed on convincing audiences of the dangers of drinking. Instead, alcohol is the instrument in which we can wholly understand these characters from an unfiltered and unprejudiced perspective. While there are undoubtedly negative repercussions from their experiment, there are also moments of pure and unabashed joy. 

The lack of obtuse or bombastic set pieces reflecting alcoholism’s negative ramifications allows the film to breathe and stand taller than its peers of addiction-focused cinema. While it’s far from a meditative slow burn, having every turn come from organic character beats instead of blatant heavy handed episodes adds to the film’s themes and overall naturalism. A lesser filmmaker would be tempted to seek surface level melodrama, but here, the moral ambiguities of the human condition are placed in the driver’s seat. 

The spectrum of alcohol consumption in everyday life, to celebrate or to grieve, to party or to wallow, relies on the consumer and their needs. Is alcohol necessary to live or does it add to a fulfilled life? Vinterberg never pretends to have the answer. It’s both and neither. It just is.

Review: Godzilla vs Kong (2021, Wingard)

Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, and Brian Tyree Henry

Grade: C-

At the point of this writing, Legendary Studios’ MonsterVerse is officially finished. Three previous installments have led to the ultimate mashup battle movie, the big boys Godzilla and King Kong entering the octagon for a last man standing bloodbath. Godzilla vs Kong has always been meant as the final destination in the series, and it arrives with a theatrical whimper and widespread streaming access. The two previous Godzilla franchise entries, the obnoxiously self-serious Godzilla (Edwards, 2014) and the kinda-sorta better Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Dougherty, 2019) are our lead ins here, as well as the instantly forgettable Kong: Skull Island (Vogt-Roberts, 2017). Does this live up to the massive expectations of big monsters beating each other to a pulp? Kind of, sure, maybe?

After Godzilla attacks a Florida outpost for the mysterious global tech company Apex Cybernetics, scientist Ilene Andrews (Hall) hires fringe Hollow Earth theorist Nathan Lind (Skarsgård) to help lead King Kong to the center of the earth to explore a mysterious power source that could solve the giant monster problem once and for all. Meanwhile, Madison Russell (Brown), daughter of a deputy director for a big monster specialty group, enlists the help of conspiracy theorist podcaster and Apex Cybernetics employee Bernie Hayes (Henry) to investigate the recent Godzilla attack. 

It wouldn’t be surprising if it were revealed that the script had been written in one drug-fueled sitting with no draft rewrites. There’s never weight given to anything, especially considering the monumental death toll that takes place repeatedly fight after fight that’s only met with silly quips from the characters. Everything exists solely as a MacGuffin to get the monsters going. Thankfully, it’s all for the better.

This movie is ridiculously stupid, but finally self-aware enough to accept how ridiculously stupid it is. Long-gone are the unnecessarily meditative deity espousing nonsense from the previous Godzilla entries, as well as boring characters with even more boring plot beats, as if any audience in the world could care when the point is supposed to be big monster smash stuff eyeball fodder. Godzilla vs Kong is incomprehensibly fast paced, with questionable character motivations, and objectively goofy visuals and set pieces. It’s refreshingly dumb, so transparently ludicrous that the opening of the film is reminiscent of Shrek. We get a King Kong day-in-the-life montage where he scratches his ass after sleeping in and taking a shower from a waterfall, all set to Bobby Vinton’s “Over the Mountain, Across the Sea” — Can I get a “Hell yeah, brother”? 

It would be easy to label this as fun, forgettable, harmless trash if it weren’t for the film’s hellbent postulation that every protagonist is a fringe conspiracy theorist who’s always right and given ultimate validity. Why are we talking about Hollow Earth, something people actually believe, in an enormous big budget blockbuster that will be seen by millions? Pseudoscience is not only legitimized, but celebrated. At one point, Bernie joins in on making fun of Madison’s friend Josh because he admits to drinking tap water with fluoride. Going so far as to say, “Theory is it makes you docile. Easy to manipulate.” For the rest of the film, they jokingly refer to Josh as “Tap Water”. What business is it to have this kind of kind of discourse in a big dumb action movie, especially considering how the spread of misinformation led to literal capital insurrection in America only three months ago

Even with a great cast fleshing out these shallow dingdong characters, it’s still a question of as to why we need to focus on humans in these movies in the first place. It seems almost impossible to have an enormous creature feature with actually interesting human leads, but if the answer to this is a bunch of conspiracy-touting morons, who knows what’s worse. Maybe the only way we’ll ever get a legitimately great big monster movie is with no people at all. 

Review: The Empty Man (Prior, 2020)

Starring: James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, and Stephen Root

Grade: B-

There’s nothing more fun than a mystery that revels in its own ambiguity. Recent Neo-Noirs like PTA’s Inherent Vice and the severely under appreciated Under the Silver Lake from David Robert Mitchell have joined the canon of films where, without clear cut answers, fans can argue and theorize about the unexplained forever. David Prior’s The Empty Man, a horror mystery-thriller loosely based off of a Boom! Studios comic book of the same name, comes exceedingly close to joining the party, but disappointingly falls short in favor of its self-perceived brilliance. 

Ex-cop James (Dale) is our hero, a depressed loner suffering from grief by the passing of his wife and child some time ago. When the teenage daughter of his close-friend Nora (Ireland) goes missing, he makes it a personal mission to find her, despite an ongoing investigation by active police. His first clue: the daughter’s mysterious obsession with “The Empty Man”, a folktale creature akin to “Bloody Mary” which, when summoned through ritual, consumes the conjurer until death. What unfolds is a horrific through-the-rabbit-hole odyssey of cults, surreal dreamscapes, and meditations on the nature of existence.

This movie is special among its peers solely by its enormous ambition. It clocks in at two and a half hours, features a 20+ minute prologue that could act as its own short film, and comfortably takes its time to allow the atmosphere to choke an audience rather than rely on cheap scares. Its backing by a major studio (more on that later) and mostly-enigmatic narrative are refreshing and unparalleled. This is a film made for an adult audience, more specifically, one that enjoys these types of movies: it’s very bold in its execution. 

The central mystery and what comes of it is genuinely gripping, often moving toward unexpected places in even more unexpected ways. While the gloomy aesthetics and obvious influences are ever-present, the fearlessness of the narrative and its engrossing implementation allows forgiveness. However, in the Third Act, right when it matters the most — right when you think it’s possible for The Empty Man to run in the same circles of conversation as Perfect Blue or Mulholland Dr., it shits the bed. 

Almost all of what makes the film interesting is given a late in the game exposition dump that spoon-feeds the viewer as though they couldn’t pick up on all of the clues laid before it. It’s so blatantly transparent in its masturbatory deluge: What made the movie interesting and cool is now telling you why it’s interesting and cool — and nothing is less cool than that. It’s such a misstep that, while there are still things left to ponder as the credits roll, it makes you think the film is less brilliant and more a shrugged who cares, it’s cool! contemplation.

Despite this massive letdown, The Empty Man is still very much worth watching. The film was made by 20th Century Fox before the Disney acquisition, and it’s clear the house of mouse had zero clue what to do with it, thus giving it a theatrical release in October ’20 during a global pandemic with no fanfare. Horror fans won’t let it die, and it’s finding a second life online through word of mouth. While it’s far from the masterpiece it thinks itself as, the bone chilling set pieces alone are worth the look. 

Review: The Dark and the Wicked (Bertino, 2020)

Starring: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., and Julie Oliver-Touchstone

Rating: C-

Being on the cusp of greatness, having all the tools to succeed and coming short, is painfully frustrating. Especially in consideration of a genre movie, where right out of the gate you’re going to be under the scrutiny of comparisons to your peers. Horror is really hard to nail down, for every Ari Aster original you get a handful of unwatchable duds. Fans of the genre obviously don’t want this, but it’s something they have to endure to finally get to the good stuff. Rarely do you see a movie have everything it needs to break into that tier of fan-acknowledged canon, yet drop the ball when it counts the most.

Call The Dark and the Wicked an outlier, then — A movie that has every opportunity to be great and turns the offer down on several occasions. When siblings Louise (Ireland) and Michael Straker (Abbott Jr.) return to their Texas family farm to see their father on his deathbed, things somehow take a turn for the worse. Their mother Virginia (Oliver-Touchstone), who has been single-handedly keeping the farm afloat, is emotionally and socially checked out, and to make things worse, evidence of an other-worldly presence begins to make itself known. For the Strakers, their family bond is put to the test through a gauntlet of evil escapades. 

So many of the scares that pepper the film are, to an extent, genuinely creepy. Everything from spooky unexpected visitors to gore-hound gristle surpass many sub-genres to make it a unique experience. However, they come at the expense of being shallow and contrived for the sake of terror. The worst aspect of this is the general set-up of the narrative offers a lot more in terms of making these scares more meaningful. 

Much of the fear in the film is derived from the themes it so rarely wants to actually explore. It’s easy to see how the scares connect to grief, fear of familial loss, and abandonment, but the movie treats these topics as though they’re dissected by simply being present. Not every horror film needs to take itself seriously or even attempt to go beyond the merits of itself, but it’s evident The Dark and the Wicked is trying for greater things. 

Everything about the tone and atmosphere suggests it’s trying to be a film, something to be evaluated on an intellectual level, but it doesn’t trust itself enough to go beyond the immediate. Too many times does it settle for the bare minimum, which is a shame because the subject matter is ripe for the picking. Consequently, The Dark and the Wicked lands somewhere between your everyday schlock and art-house horror: too vapid for the cerebral, and too slow for the thrill-seeker. 

Review: Zack Snyder’s Justice League (Snyder, 2021)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, and Henry Cavill

Rating: D+

Ask and ye shall receive, I guess. Here we are, a half-decade in the making of Zack Snyder fans around the world begging to see the director’s intended vision for Justice League. Originally released in 2017 with Joss Whedon at the helm due to a personal family tragedy in Snyder’s life took him from production, the film was nothing short of a disaster. Snyder’s dark DC Comics universe, originating with both Man of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, was retooled to fit Whedon’s quippy Whedonisms. To put it kindly, it didn’t work. What was clearly intended to be a trilogy by one filmmaker’s authorship was stripped away, but now we finally have it: Zack Snyder’s Justice League, coming in at four hours, everything the fans (and only the fans) could ever want.

And it’s still not great. A bloated Frankenstein’s monster made up of what comes across as deleted scenes and extended cuts that either add nothing to the very-thin overall core narrative or give padded exposition to make what didn’t make much sense in 2017 fully realized. It’s a representation of what this movie always was supposed to be, Warner Bros. trying to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe by rushing ahead with a big blockbuster cross-over movie akin to The Avengers (hence Whedon being hired to take over in the first place). 

This movie always had the impossible balancing act of telling too many stories at once: a light origin story for Cyborg, Aquaman, and The Flash, setting up a big bad antagonist, dealing with the trauma of Superman’s death, and Batman forming the Justice League not unlike The Seven Samurai. Even extending the runtime to four hours, which definitely allows these plots to unfold at a much better pace than the incomprehensible 2017 version, it’s still too much content. For the first few hours, scenes are presented with no clear intentional order, as to merely just give fans what they want — more, more, and more.

The story takes place immediately after the events of Batman V Superman, with the latter’s death and the affect it has on the world. It’s brought to Batman’s attention that Steppenwolf, a buffed up lackey for ultimate DC villain Darkseid, is attempting to bring his boss to Earth for a genocide by assimilation. It’s up to the Dark Knight to travel the world and form a Justice League to keep both Steppenwolf and Darkseid from destroying humanity. A generic who-could-possibly-care monument of high stakes that we’ve been given repeatedly in comic book adaptations. 

If Warner Bros. had been patient and had set these characters up in their own individual movies instead of green lighting the ultimate team-up beforehand, then this movie could have possibly earned the big moments it’s constantly striving for. Instead, we’re fed scenes of individual character growth all the while waiting for them to earn the ranks of being the equivalent of a Wonder Woman, a Batman, or a Superman. 

This is of no fault to the great cast, who do everything to earn their paycheck and immortality of playing these iconic characters for the screen. Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen, whom without this movie would be entirely devoid of any joy whatsoever, keeps things light through pure charisma. Fisher shines as Victor Stone, enduring a heart wrenching origin story riddled with familial loss. Momoa bros out with genuine enthusiasm as Arthur the Aquaman, Affleck makes a great latter years Bat, and Cavill is the embodiment of Superman’s simultaneous wholesomeness and strength. Gal Gadot, once again, kills it as Wonder Woman. In a set piece early on, she saves a group of kids from a terrorist attack. A little girl asks her, “Can I be you when I grow up?” To which Wonder Woman replies, “When you grow up, you can be anything you want to be.” Which is sweet, but who is it for?

Remember, this is Zack Snyder’s take on this whimsical universe. The film itself is intentionally rated R by the MPAA. No kid will (or should) be watching this viciously violent comic book movie, even though these characters are intended for younger audiences. All of the typical complaints that attach themselves to Snyder’s filmography are amped up here: gratuitous violence, one-note characters, thin plotting, and a mise-en-scène that looks as though it was intended to double as a series of wallpapers for a junior high student’s 8K gaming monitor. At one point, Batman tells the Joker in a dream sequence, “I’m going to fucking kill you.” What’s meant to send chills can only produce audible groans. It all comes across as bleak, trite, and very boring.

But nevertheless, the customer is always right. There is an audience for this. An audience who wants to see superheroes beat the shit out of an endless horde of formless CGI creatures while saying “fuck you” and posing like Jesus Christ. The fans clamoring for the “Snyder Cut” knew exactly what they were going to get, and get it, they did. Considering the future of Warner Bros. upcoming slate of DC adaptations, it looks as though this will be the closing chapter to his unique universe, for better or worse. We can all take a deep breath and move on. 

Review: Servant – Season 2 (Apple TV+, 2021)

Starring: Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, Nell Tiger Free, Rupert Grint

Rating: A-

What can make or break the family are the high stakes in the second season of M. Night Shamylan’s Servant, a constantly dread-filled drama littered with cults, possible super powers, grotesque meal planning and gallons upon gallons of red wine. 

Picking up immediately after season one, magical nanny Leanne (Free) and the baby who may or may not be the resurrection of Jericho have gone missing. Jericho’s dad Sean (Kebbell), with the help of pompous alcoholic brother-in-law Julian (Grint), are on the ersatz-mission to find them both, all for maintaining the facade for Jericho’s mother Dorothy (Ambrose) that her son had never died in the first place, as to save her from mental distress.

It’s a lot. But a good a lot. Everything that made season one magical, the ambiguous mystery of what’s really going on, has been fine tuned to near perfection. There really isn’t anything else quite like Servant, but it’s fair to compare it to a show like The Leftovers or even Twin Peaks — What makes it great is the compassionate embrace of uncertainty and the absurd. The world of Servant makes sense only on its own terms. The characters and narrative are much like the house where most, if not all, the story of Servant takes place — An Overlook Hotel of ever-changing architecture, bending to the whims of mood and theme, where new doors appear to rooms that reveal more and more of who, and what, they are. 

The way certain secondary characters interweave themselves into the family’s drama is borderline illogical, but serves the greater purpose of conveying the series’ ultimate thesis of familial bonds and navigating trauma. It may not make sense, but rarely in life do our own traumas make much sense, either. Sometimes, the family we’re born into never really feels like family to begin with, and it’s up to us to form those relationships ourselves. For the characters of Servant, that family could be a cult, an upper-class metropolitan household, or a game of make believe where pretending tragedy never struck a loved one is the only safety net to keep things from falling apart.

While the performances from the entire cast are again enough to tune in week after week, it’s Rupert Grint’s Julian that steals the show. Less a generic comedic relief and more a complicated bombastic smartass, his presence is a much-needed foil to the overall morose tone of the series. Highlights include an impromptu review of a fast food chicken sandwich, a cocaine fueled game of charades, and quotation of a Guns N’ Roses lyric with religious fervor. 

With a finalized deal to concluded this series after four seasons, the second season finale has landed us right in the middle of the overall narrative. While there are hints of expanding the scope of Servant to include more outside agitators which could possibly disrupt what makes the insular structure of the show work so well, the handling of the series so far suggests it’s in good hands for the remainder of its run. 

Review: Judas and the Black Messiah (King, 2020)

Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons

Rating: B

The Black Panther Party is inarguably one of the most important political groups to form during 20th century America, so I don’t blame anyone walking into this film scared that they will be portrayed poorly and flat out inaccurately (the Hollywood conservative wet dream of Forrest Gump comes to mind). Thankfully, Judas and the Black Messiah shows the peerless organization for what it is: a revolutionary collective of individuals fighting the oppressive capitalist state’s blatantly racist system with mutual aid, education, and solidarity. A system still as prevalent as ever today, making this film essential viewing with consideration of the vicious murders of unarmed Black Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others by the police. 

LaKeith Stanfield plays Bill O’Neil, a low level crook who’s taken in by Hoover’s FBI to go under cover at the Black Panther Chicago chapter. Influenced by both extortion and a little cash, Bill takes the bait and quickly joins the ranks of the revolutionary group as an informant. Leader and extraordinary figurehead Fred Hampton, played with endless charisma by Daniel Kaluuya, keeps Bill within a tight circle as they bring marginalized groups of Chicago together with inspired speeches and action of legitimate solidarity. 

O’Neil’s conflict as he grows closer to Hampton while maintaining his relationship to FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Plemons) makes every sequential scene grow with anxiety and despair. We know how this is going to end, and the bumps along the way make it harder to watch. Seeing Stanfield, a great actor, play Bill, a not-so-great “actor” in situations to prove himself to his comrades, is legitimately thrilling, and watching Kaluuya channel Hampton’s natural leadership to perfection is inspired. 

The film, however, can only find fault in that it has too much trust in its audience. The two hour runtime could’ve afforded an extra half-hour or more to add weight to both Hampton and the Black Panthers in general. It presupposes the audience is already familiar with Fred and his group (as we should), but we’re given very little to see them in action. When we do, the results are mixed. There’s an undeniably goofy sequence in which Fred and the Panthers crash a confederate flag draped all-white community meeting, and in less than five minutes, he has the crowd clapping along to Fred’s speech of working class solidarity to the Black Panther movement. The message itself is no doubt great, but the pacing in which this otherwise confrontational group can be swooned is a bit much. 

If anything deserves an epic-scaled runtime, it’s this important true story of America’s past and present efforts to dismantle class and race consciousness. We deserve more of Kaluuya’s masterful leadership, more of Stanfield’s viscerally felt conflict, and more Black revolutionary storytelling. Would this have worked better as a longform HBO Max miniseries? Maybe, but what we got is still worth writing home about. 

Review: Minari (Chung, 2020)

Starring: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Youn Yuh-jung

Grade: A

Watching Minari feels like a miracle. This movie is so quiet, so delicate, and yet so profound, it’s as though we don’t deserve it in this haunted brink-of-extinction timeline of rotating despair. Our collective cynicism makes scoffing at narratives about family and faith easy, while stepping into culturally sensitive subjects with trepidation. This story of a Korean family starting a farm in Reagan-era Arkansas on the insistence of masculine stubbornness is so achingly human, it could win over the most critical viewer who typically brushes off any affirmation of sentiment.

After ten years of working in a California hatchery, Korean immigrants Jacob (Yeun) convinces his wife Monica (Han) decide to move to Arkansas to fulfill his dream of starting a farm on his own terms. Their adolescent children, David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho) make up their family unit, living all together in a dilapidated mobile home on their five acre property. With little help besides the devout Christian farmer Paul (Will Patton), Jacob begins the process of growing Korean vegetables on the land, hitting roadblock after roadblock, while Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-jung) comes to stay with them. 

The family dynamic of generational divide anchors Minari – Soonja speaks no English, Jacob and Monica some, and David and Anne are fluently bilingual. The disconnect of Soonja and David is the most prominent, at one point David heartbreakingly argues that he does’t want to share a room with his grandmother because she “smells like Korea”. Her traditions frighten him, her literal foreignness highlighting his first-generational experience from such a young age that pits Americans against the “other”, for him, his own family. 

So how can someone be at once Korean and American? The otherizing by the white populace of Minari cuts deep. From the patronizing fetishizing of churchgoers describing Monica as “adorable” to a young boy nonchalantly asking David why his face is flat, the family is always the investigative focus of white Arkansasan eyes. 

Thus the growing of Korean-native vegetables in American soil. The trials of tribulations that Jacob puts his family through to make it work, the strain it puts on his family despite his unmoving stubbornness, this tactile conflict of person and earth and where we put our roots. All of it so subtly and beautifully handled by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung. It’s no wonder he has stated this film is semi auto-biographical, the film moves like a dream, like a personal memory gently blowing through the grass, like that of the family farm.

When David reluctantly follows his grandmother to a nearby creek, she plants minari seeds close to the water, claiming that their resilience allows them to grow anywhere. A poetic detail that mirrors the strength of their family, American immigrants, and people as a whole.