Minari

David with his dad Jacob out in the fields

 

Minari is an old-school film of the sort you used to see at Sundance a lot, gentle character driven dramas full of people who were essentially decent. The sort of film Robert Redford used to direct, like Ordinary People or The Milagro Bean Field War or A River Runs Through It (which starred Brad Pitt, an exec producer here). It did well there, winning both the Grand Jury and Audience awards.

In the dying days of the Donald Trump administration it asks and answers the question: who built America? The answer is immigrants, though that message is never uttered out loud. Instead we follow a Korean family who’ve moved out from the city to make a go of life on a farm growing the specialist vegetables they hope other Korean immigrants will want to buy.

It’s his dream, not hers. Though it’s not much more than a big market garden really, this Arkansas plot means everything to Jacob (Steven Yeun). His wife Monica (Yeri Han) would rather be back in the city rather than living in a trailer with her husband and two children. To make ends meet Jacob and Monica also work in a chicken-sexing facility. The female chicks go on to become egg layers, the males are “discarded”. Cut grimly to a chimney stack belching smoke.

It’s details like this that make Minari a real film rather than a pro-this-or-that screed. When Jacob takes on a neighbour to help on the farm, Paul turns out to be an extremely zealous Christian, the sort given to praying in tongues and occasionally carrying his own crucifix down the road. The other locals think he’s nuts. Jacob quietly does too, but Paul is a good worker and a decent guy and knows about vegetables and Will Patton plays him as an individual rather than a type, in a performance reminding us how good he is when he’s not playing cutout characters.

In fact it’s the Americans in this film who are the “other” rather than the Korean immigrants, a symptom of how successfully writer/director Lee Isaac Chung has embedded us with this struggling family.

Minari is the Korean name for water celery, which Monica’s mother Soonja aka Grandma brings with her when she arrives to take up residence. Whereas Jacob is all about the US – he sits at the table to eat his dinner, Grandma is old-country, preferring to squat. Monica fits neatly between the two of them. Wary of going forwards, probably incapable of going back.

 

The family group shot
Together: Jacob and family

 

As Grandma, Youn Yuh-jung is the standout in this film. It’s a gift of a role, standing in a long line of comedy grandmas, but Youn makes it more than you’d see on the page – this Grandma has history. If you’ve seen the South Korean drama The Housemaid, you’ll have seen Youn doing this before.

Special mention also to the exceptional Alan S Kim, as David the six-year-old whose battles for territorial control include him switching grandma’s Korean broth for a bowl of his own warm piss – what a great little sparring duo they make. Poor Noel Cho, as daughter Anne, trails along in their wake, sweet and accomplished though she obviously is.

Here’s a film that includes the theft of water by night, a kid with a heart condition, an exorcism and someone having a stroke, all of them invitations to melodrama and all of them roundly ignored. The film moves on at its own gentle pace, sure of where it’s going.

There are no big speeches, no message moments and – apart from one scene that comes across as engineered compared to the organic flow of the rest of it – no moments of high drama. Staying on the farm through the bad times is held up as being just as honourable as packing it all in and going back to the city, where steady nose-to-grindstone jobs will at least give the kids a known future.

Instead of triumph against adversity, we see the trials and tribulations of daily life. Arguments, disasters, and even the occasional small win. Everyday heroism on a believable human scale. The old-school Sundance movie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Ammonite

Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet

 

After a few years of doing mostly voice work, Kate Winslet has been coaxed back into a leading role in Ammonite, the follow-up to Francis Lee’s powerful breakthrough debut as a director, God’s Own Country.

The 2017 movie told the story of forbidden love between two men on the wild and windy moors of Yorkshire. It’s tempting to see Ammonite as a remake – forbidden love on the wild and windy shores of Dorset – but is there more going on here than that?

Winslet plays real-life 18th-century fossil-hunter Mary Anning – a huge Wikipedia page on her awaits if you know nothing about her. To boil it down: she lived in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England and dug fossils, many of them ammonites, from out of the cliffs of what is now known as the Jurassic Coast, thus helping to change the perception of prehistoric life at a time when science in England was almost entirely controlled by the Church of England and its male professors.

Back to the film. As well as being a skilfull investigator, Mary is a curt no-nonsense woman, the sort who takes a piss on the beach, rubs her hands together to dry them off and then reaches into her bag to pull out a Cornish pasty.

Into her life comes Charlotte Murchison (Saiorse Ronan), a fragile petal with a largely unfeeling and controlling husband (James McArdle). Abandoned after another of her nervous episodes – though Mr Murchison has clearly also had enough of his wife’s demands for affection – Charlotte is left with the icily indifferent Mary. A classic romantic thaw follows as Charlotte rolls from one crisis to another and Mary nurses her back to health, introducing her to the joys of fossil-hunting on the way. If that sounds like an innuendo to you, read on.

Eventually, Charlotte launches lustily into a physical relationship with Mary. She did also seem keen to have sex with her husband and so the story could be interpreted as being one of Mary “turning” Charlotte, especially as Mary has form, a previous downlow fling with local big noise, the appropriately named Mrs Philpot (Fiona Shaw). Writer/director Lee isn’t going in that direction though. This is a story of human affection pure and simple. It’s not a campaigning film either. There is no injustice meted out to the lovers, no exposure to ridicule or disgrace, or anything of the sort. Like God’s Own Country, Ammonite is “post gay”.

 

Kate Winslet
Dour Mary is about to have her world rocked

 

There are two returning actors from that film. Gemma Jones again plays the silent, stern and possibly knowing mother. Good at the Dickensian face is Jones. And there’s also a role for Alec Secareanu. In God’s Own Country he was the studly foreigner rolling lustily in the mud with Yorkshire farmer Josh O’Connor; here he’s the studly doctor with an eye for Mary. Rolling in the mud is this time around is very unlikely.

Lee is more interested in the injustice done to women in a man’s world than to people in same-sex relationships. His opening shot is of a cleaning woman being shooed out of the way by a passing man in a museum specialising in fossils, and even in his close concern with the way women were expected to dress he shows how their lives were being constrained by restricted choices. Pulling on a pair of boots, as Mary does to go fossil-hunting, is a political statement.

Lyme Regis was the setting for The French Lieutenant’s Woman – one half of which was a love story between a fossil-hunter (Jeremy Irons in the 1981 film) and a troubled woman (Meryl Streep). It’s also the setting for a good chunk of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, a story about a woman past her peak getting a second chance at love. Though it makes no difference to the enjoyment or appreciation of Ammonite to know those things, they hover in the background.

It’s been a while since Winslet had a role this meaty. And how good she is at suggesting that emotions are roiling beneath Mary’s bluff, wind-coarsened exterior. Ronan, by contrast, has the less rewarding role as the largely passive Charlotte.

Stéphane Fontaine is the DP and in one brilliant and technically complex sequence set on the crowded waterfront in London’s docks, he gets a chance to show what he can do – he was the DP on Elle and Jackie so is quite a signing. It’s quite a different sequence from the rest of the film, but suggests the direction Lee might be thinking of heading in the future, the big film – that could only be a good thing.

But for the most part Fontaine is limited to lighting interiors and depicting the gloomy salt-scoured beaches of England’s south coast in winter. More of the beaches, actually, would have been a bonus, because there’s a tendency towards tastefulness (I blame Jane Austen and costume drama more generally) that slightly bedevils this film.

In the realm of music it’s called Difficult Third Album Syndrome. The first (God’s Own Country) is a hit so this, the second, is pretty much a repeat of that. After that comes the big test, because no one’s going to buy the same material yet again. Francis Lee has wrung the changes just enough to make Ammonite a satisfying film in its own right, but if you’ve seen God’s Own Country you might find some of the grooves familiar. His third time out is going to be interesting.

 

 

 

Ammonite – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

The Holiday

Jude Law and Cameron Diaz in The Holiday

 

The rom-com has traditionally featured an alpha couple and a beta couple. This allowed the alpha couple do the serious mooning about, while the beta couple handled the comedy and dispensed sound, often snarky, advice. However, since Richard Curtis’s successful if frequently painful Love, Actually, there’s been an attempt to get more people in on the act. Which brings us to one of those transatlantic rom-coms with a couple of Hollywood stars and a couple of Brits, each side playing to the other’s stereotyped view of what an American/Brit is. The Brits are a journalist at the tweedy Daily Telegraph (Kate Winslet) and a book editor (Jude Law); meanwhile, from California, USA, we have an editor of film trailers (Cameron Diaz) and a composer of movie music (Jack Black). The back-of-a-napkin plot drops Diaz into chocolate-boxy England, where she quickly meets-cute with Jude Law, and Winslet into you-guys Hollywood, where she hooks up with Jack Black.

The Holiday is written and directed by Nancy Meyers, who with her husband Charles Shyer has been knocking out this sort of thing going back to 1980’s Private Benjamin. However, she’s on her own this time out and seems to be in nostalgic mood. Which might explain the presence of Eli Wallach, as an old Hollywood screenwriter Winslet strikes up a friendship with when she’s not making lukewarm eyes at Black. Wallach’s presence is initially mystifying, until the penny drops (nudged by clips of black and white movies, plus Wallach’s homilies) and it becomes apparent that, in among the love stuff, Meyers is making a point about old Hollywood versus new. How much better the old Hollywood was, because it was writer driven. And how The Holiday fits right in with that old Hollywood tradition. The first point (old was better) is debatable. The second (it was writer driven) is nonsense. The third (this is an old school film) is hooey – you couldn’t get more new Hollywood than this, the way it cannibalises old ideas and pays lip service to writing.

However, the performances. Well, Diaz’s gift for delivering energy doesn’t desert her, and Jude Law rises to the occasion, making their flirting and fornication – hey, new Hollywood – fun, funny, sexy and tender. Winslet and Black fare less well, their chemistry just not there, and perhaps they’re bridling slightly at the realisation that they are, in fact, the beta couple. Ultimately, the film’s minuses overwhelm its several pluses, the misinterpretation by Meyers of what exactly old Hollywood was about having led her to write characters who are all entirely without blemish – in fact you can watch The Holiday and imagine an indie film somewhere which features more credible versions of Cameron and Jack and Kate and Jude – drunk and sex-addicted, in therapy or rehab. Or you can watch The Philadelphia Story and see what Meyers thought she was heading.

 

The Holiday – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Flushed Away

Roddy the Rat holds on tight in Flushed Away

 

 

Aardman, the animation house that gave us Wallace and Gromit, announced the ending of their collaboration with DreamWorks (Shrek) just as Flushed Away was released. And watching it, you can understand why. High on sentimentality and laden with backstory, it’s a DreamWorks movie with Aardman touches, rather than what Aardman probably hoped for – an Aardman movie with DreamWorks muscle behind it. A good movie that could have been a great one, in other words, though the good stuff makes it worthwhile. The over-complicated story tells the tale of Roddy St James, a privileged London pet rat (voiced by Hugh Jackman) who gets “flushed away” down the toilet and into the sewers, where he meets Rita (Kate Winslet), an attractive scavenger rat. And before you can say “mismatched buddies” or “unlikely lovers” the pair of them are being pursued by heavies (Andy Serkis, Bill Nighy) working for subterranean gangster The Toad (Ian McKellen). It’s around this point that Roddy calls for the help of his laidback French mercenary cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno) and his team of crack ninjas to help him. Was this before or after they returned to Roddy’s gilded cage in Kensington, for some time-wasting to-and-fro between Roddy, Rita and Sid (a low-rent sewer rat voiced by Shane Richie)? I don’t remember.

As with Aardman’s Chicken Run and all their Wallace and Gromit output, film parody and film reference provide texture and a little something for adults to enjoy. And as well as an eclectic, well chosen soundtrack taking in Billy Idol, Elgar and Tom Jones, it’s got a perky script with salty highs – “I’ve got a bum like a Japanese flag” someone says at one point – which seems to have survived the rewrites that Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’s original draft went through, presumably to inject the sort of brassy heroism and “follow your dream” ethos that Clement and La Frenais have not built a career on.

The stop-motion claymation is out too, replaced by bright, clean CG, that does pay lip service to the quirkiness of the original, and doesn’t disgrace itself in its big set pieces, particularly the finale when the final of the World Cup between England and Germany (another plot strand) threatens to wipe out all life in the sewers.

Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman do what they can with characters that aren’t all that memorable, symptomatic of the film itself – it’s minor characters such as McKellen’s Toad and Reno’s Frog who delight, vocal asides that amuse, throwaway details that enthral. When the best of Aardman is allowed to come through, in other words.

 

Flushed Away – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Little Children

Kate Winslet in Little Children

A tale of American white-picket suburbia, disturbia perhaps, from director Todd Field, opening out a touch from In the Bedroom, whose focus was all there in the title. Our heroine, a Madame Bovary figure called Sarah (Kate Winslet), scandalises the harpies at the school gate by striking up a relationship with the only hot male on the school run (Patrick Wilson). Back home Sarah’s husband (Gregg Edelman) is big on internet porn, something Sarah doesn’t know till she catches him masturbating with a pair of panties on his face. But he’s small on most other things and so we sympathise with Sarah as she seeks solace in the arms of the hunky Brad. Brad, meanwhile, is also seeking comfort, away from judgment, because he’s screwed up his bar exams and his wife (Jennifer Connelly) is more successful than he is, though no less attractive. It’s a bitch eat dog sort of world.

Pretty, orderly lifestyles with discontent roiling underneath is a standard trope of the high-minded American film, whether it’s Robert Altman (Short Cuts), David Lynch (Blue Velvet) or Todd Solondz (Happiness). It’s the territory Field is working in too, possibly too self-consciously. Emblematic of the bad stuff is a paedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) newly released to the world, against whom the suburbanites are figuratively pulling the wagons into a circle and preparing to let loose all they’ve got, in a passive-aggressive don’t-mess-my-decor kind of way. In fact, as Field repeatedly shows us in long, leisurely panoramas taken in by the cool camera of Antonio Calvache, defence is the big pre-occupation, whether it’s against unsavoury predators or any loss in status, real or implied, with children a pivot – the proof of the suburban family’s moral perfection being its reproduction intact.

Field is having a visual stab at the Great American Novel with this adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s story – who in Election turned over a stone in a high school to also find wriggly things lurking – and there’s always the suspicion that maybe the entire thing should have stayed as a novel, undeniably well done though Little Children is.

Winslet offers another of her versions of the reined-in neurotic she always seems to be at awards ceremonies and Patrick Wilson, never one to be accused of having range, gets away with it as the largely symbolic hunkaspunk. Meanwhile, symptomatic of what’s not working is Jennifer Connelly’s barely-there bleeding-heart documentarian and the regular reappearance of a flat, low, menacing voiceover, maybe half a nod to Desperate Housewives, of which this is some sort of distant relative, half a nod to the fact that Field is having trouble getting his story out any other way.

As for the wonderfully unsavoury Jackie Earle Haley as the paedophile, he’s caviar rather than the main course, though the scene where he arrives at the swimming pool and slowly lowers himself into the shallow end with the children, that on its own makes the film worth stopping by for.




Little Children – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate




© Steve Morrissey 2006




Holy Smoke

Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel in Holy Smoke

 

 

A maker of thoughtful films, some hugely successful (The Piano), some not (In the Cut), Jane Campion here takes a small film – about a cultbuster (Harvey Keitel) and his intensely focused efforts to deprogram a naive Oz girl (Winslet) who’s been got at in India – and produces a sly, dry comedy of trans-Pacific manners. Being set in Australia really helps it, those highly personal, dialogue-heavy interchanges between the two main players being balanced against huge backdrops (does it come any bigger than the Outback?). Keitel is a presence it’s hard to miss too, of course, but he’s offset by deliberately ripe caricatures by some of Oz’s finest, the meat in the sandwich being the brooding, voluptuous presence of Kate Winslet, who around this time seemed to take her clothes off in every film she was in. Can Harvey resist her? Could anybody?

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Holy Smoke – at Amazon