TOP PICK OF THE WEEK
**** Director Lee Isaac Chung's breakout film ponders American dreams by way of a pasture. Ask the father of the Yi family—Korean immigrants settling in rural 1980s Arkansas—and his new farm plot is rich with promise: Jacob (Steven Yeun) has purchased a literal slice of America, all set for cultivation. Or will the pasture suck dry the family's labor, its savings, its cultural identity, its wellspring of love? By contrast, Jacob's wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), misses Los Angeles where the Yi family had Korean neighbors; hell, any neighbors. Despite its miscategorization by the Golden Globes as a "Foreign Language" film, Minari is quintessentially American, neither a strict cultural study nor an assimilation drama. Chung deftly centers his loosely autobiographical story on family mechanics, hews to the setting's specifics, and allows Minari simply to unfold. Scenes of 7-year-old David punished with Korean stress positions and learning the card game Go-Stop happen right beside American experiments in Mountain Dew and chewing tobacco. When cultural conflicts do arise, they're organic and spark unexpectedly hilarious trash talk between little David and his nonconformist grandma Soonja. Fully deserving of its nearly full year of acclaim since Sundance 2020, Minari is the rare immigrant story to seek meaning almost entirely beyond immigration itself. PG-13. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Living Room, On Demand, Virtual Cinema.
**** Filmmaker Chloé Zhao's work has always sought to uplift voices that have been pushed to the margins. Her previous features, The Rider (2017) and Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), both focused on Native American reservation culture, and she now sets her sights on documenting the lives of older Americans who travel in campers across the country in search of employment. The result is an awe-inspiring, dexterous hybrid of impromptu documentary and scripted drama, of nature and nurture, of ethos and pathos. Nomadland is anchored by multi-Oscar winner Frances McDormand, here playing Fern, a widow who lost her job at a gypsum plant in Empire, Nev., two years after the Great Recession officially came to an end. With nothing left to lose, Fern decides to sell her belongings, buy a van and hit the road in search of work. Along the way, she meets a litany of real-life nomads, most playing semi-fictionalized versions of themselves. These characters ground the film in a sober reality, reminding us it's possible to live and thrive in a community outside of traditional society. Though the story is technically manipulated for narrative purposes, it never once feels manipulative, emotionally or otherwise. It feels human. It is human. And it's the best film of the year. R. MIA VICINO. Hulu.
*** What if gal pals Romy and Michele partied at a pastel-painted hotel in Vista Del Mar, Fla., instead of their high school reunion? What if Austin Powers was written by and starred Bridesmaids screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo? And what if these two distinctly separate ideas combined into one whimsically absurd feel-good comedy? Barb and Star are middle-aged best friends who do everything together. So when they both lose their mundane jobs and their uptight friend group (led by a hilarious Vanessa Bayer), the pair decide to take a rejuvenating Florida vacation. Of course, they fall for the same ridiculously handsome stranger (Jamie Dornan), but little do they know he's a secret agent working under the sinister Dr. Lady (also played by Wiig), tasked with unleashing a deadly swarm of genetically modified mosquitoes against the denizens of Vista Del Mar. What follows is a whirlwind of friendship, romance, espionage and random musical numbers—in a standout solo performance, Dornan gets to shed his steely, stiff star persona and get loosey-goosey in the sand, singing about the agony of love. Though Barb & Star hits some overly familiar beats, it maintains enough originality for several laugh-out-loud moments. It's about time we got more risk-taking studio comedies like this one. PG-13. MIA VICINO. Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu.
*** Malcolm (John David Washington) makes movies, Marie (Zendaya) is his lover/muse and they make mincemeat of each other in this slick anti-romance directed by Sam Levinson. Last summer, Levinson filmed Washington and Zendaya raging at each other inside a glass-walled house in Carmel, Calif., betting their charisma would infuse its sterile interior with life. That wager bloomed into Malcolm & Marie, which begins with the couple returning home after the premiere of Malcolm's new movie about addiction. The audience was enraptured, but Malcolm failed to thank Marie in a speech (his film is partly based on her life). She retaliates with scorching mind games that torment and delight her pompous paramour, making you wonder whether their relationship is a toxic mess or an idyllic union between two people who crave conflict. Levinson lets the camera dance through Malcolm and Marie's home, capturing their tantrums with gloriously vivid black-and-white cinematography. He goes heavy on style and light on soulfulness, but who cares? The pleasure of watching godly thespians play characters who make war over everything from film to cigarettes to mac 'n' cheese is too savory to ignore. Levinson will never stand as tall as the cinematic giants he namechecks (Malcolm is a big William Wyler fan), but he has made a beautiful-looking movie about two very entertaining assholes. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Netflix.
*** Hospice requires a special kind of caretaker. After all, the patient's destination is set; they just need a shepherd for a difficult journey. Rose Glass' new A24 horror movie is unreliably narrated by a young caretaker who elevates shepherd status to a calling. Maud (Morfydd Clark) excels at managing meds and stretching atrophying legs, but she also believes she can save the soul of her dying patient (Jennifer Ehle). Clark carries this frosty death march, seldom masking Maud's earnest pursuit of "goodness" behind performative zealotry. With a dose of First Reformed and a dash of Black Swan, Saint Maud trades in stiff-lipped body horror where the real suffering is miles beneath the skin, but rest assured, the skin still takes a beating. Though the script is too withdrawn to maximize Maud's recited prayers or the bland side characters in her life, Glass proves herself an immediate visual and tonal talent. Honestly, the whole English town of Coney Island appears to need palliative care, rotting in a scheme of yellows and browns that contrast with the vibrant gothicism of Maud's inner vision. It's neither the most nuanced nor involving example of religious fervor as movie horror, but Saint Maud delivers—souls and all. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Amazon Prime, Philo, Sling TV.
*** Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci playing a loving couple on an RV trip in the English countryside is exactly as tender and intimate as it sounds. Their palpable chemistry is bolstered by Firth's frosty naturalism and Tucci's balmy theatricality; good thing, too, because this romantic drama's scant plot is almost completely dependent on the casting of actors up to the task. The tale itself is one that's (tragically) familiar: A long-term relationship is tested by early onset dementia. However, writer-director Harry Macqueen finds room to break new ground by making the couple in question gay. An overabundance of art has been made that revolves around LGBTQ suffering, though it's usually derived from homophobia. While that's most certainly a worthy topic to explore, sometimes it's refreshing to see gay people allowed to have other conflicts, too. Here, the characters' sexuality is almost never an issue—their family is openly supportive of their relationship. Instead, the tension revolves around regular, old-fashioned trauma. The couple is given space to deal with their own very real crises without the simultaneous weight of bigotry crushing them. While Supernova's melodrama would have doubtlessly been more compelling as a stage play, at least its meaningful story is much more publicly accessible in film form. R. MIA VICINO. On Demand.
** In an understated yet painful exchange that opens Days of the Bagnold Summer, single mother Sue Bagnold (Monica Dolan) tells son Daniel (Earl Cave) that plans for the sullen teenage metalhead to visit his father's new family in Florida have been canceled. Instead, he'll be spending the next six weeks moping around the house with "boring old Mom." Alas, so do we. While their affection for each other seeps through in often startling rude exchanges, Sue's fitful efforts to rouse the boy from determined misanthropy largely serve as a halfhearted distraction from either a lingering resentment toward her remarried ex or sadness at the prospect of a life alone. You'd expect the elongated trudge through a peculiarly British celebration of awkward silences to get old quickly, but Simon Bird's directorial debut rages against the bleakness thanks to zippy rhythms and sumptuous visuals. Bagnold Summer bounces around like a teen rom-com while also resembling a Wes Anderson flashback or an iPod commercial. Or, more to the point, it has all of the aesthetics of a Belle and Sebastian video—the Scottish indie pop band's mostly original soundtrack serves as a counterpoint to the leads' songs of quiet despair. The film is based on Joff Winterhart's 2012 graphic novel of the same name, and its overarching affection for the source material may best explain where it went wrong. More effective adaptations of seemingly unfilmable comics—Ghost World, notably—replicated the atmosphere of meaningful scenes, allowing familiar characters to drift outside the panels. Excessive loyalty to even the most beloved text isn't always the right decision. After all, if forced to tell what happened during a profoundly uneventful summer vacation, why not just make something up? NR. JAY HORTON. On Demand, Virtual Cinema.