Monday, April 05, 2021

MINARI


MINARI is a rightly critically acclaimed family drama from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung. He tells a highly personal story of a family of Korean-American immigrants struggling to make a living on a farm in 1980s Arkansas. The film is never sentimental but full of genuine heart. It is suffused with quietly powerful performances and complemented by a score and photography that give a feeling of melancholy but also hope. 

The movie stars Steven Yeun (OKJA) as Daniel, the paterfamilias who moves his nonplussed family to a scrappy farm and a new home that's basically a mobile home set up on bricks. His wife Monica (Yeri Han) tries to make the best of it and resigns herself to her miserable job checking the sex of baby chicks and perennially worried that her young son David's heart condition will worsen. For most of this film most of what she utters are warnings to David not to run. Big sister Anne (Noel Cho) is a similarly protective presence. 

The mood of the film takes a turn when grandma turns up from Korea laden with the comforts of home - chilli, Korean vegetables, and Minari seeds.  The most emotion we get from Monica is when she almost breaks down in tears at the prospect of being able to cook proper Korean food. Meanwhile grandma plants the seeds of her stubborn Koeran plant down by the river. 

For much of the film we watch Daniel act as a kind of force of nature, willing the farm into existence. He is sceptical of the local yokels who say he should trust to divination to find a source of water for irrigation: he sees himself as a man of science. But Daniel slowly learns to come to a kind of mutual dependence and respect with his fellow Arkansas farm-workers, as represented by a marvellous Will Patton (ARMAGEDDON) as Paul.

Ultimately this is a story of accommodation and reconciliation. The acts of racism are essentially ignorant rather than malicious. Paul thinks it's okay to introduce himself to Daniel by speaking about the Korean War without thinking how Daniel's family might have suffered during it. A little kid at Church asks David why his face is so flat before asking to play with him.  In this depiction of casual but not necessarily malevolent racism - in the role of the grandmother as a link to the old country - at the mother's exasperation and nervousness - at the sheer joy to have some chilli! - this film resonated with me as a second generation Indian immigrant. It feels as if Lee Isaac Chung has captured something very special, authentic and rarely told that is of real value. 

What is even more impressive is that he has achieved this is on such a small budget and quick shooting schedule and yet has managed to create such a beautiful evocative landscape. Credit is due to DP Lachlan Milne and especially composer Emile Mosseri (KAJILLIONAIRE).

My final comment is merely to note with sadness that this film has been placed in the ghetto of Foreign Language picture by the Academy, as if to say that multilingual tales of life of in America are somehow less valid or other.  In fact, they are a vital and important part of any country's story and should be seen as part of the mainstream narrative. 

MINARI has a rating of PG-13 and a running time of 113 minutes. The film played Sundance 2020. It is currently on release on streaming services.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

KISS ME BEFORE IT BLOWS UP - BFI Flare 2021


Writer-director Shirel Peleg's debut feature KISS ME BEFORE IT BLOWS UP is a hilarious and spiky romantic comedy about the unlikeliest of lesbian lovers.  Maria (Luise Wolfram) is a reserved German botanist whose earnest parents are all for peace and love and are liable to start crying at their inherited guilt over the Holocaust. Meanwhile Shira (Moran Rosenblatt - FAUDA) is an extrovert Israeli with a similarly supportive but stridently opinionated large family. The events of the film take place over a week or so in Israel as Maria is introduced to her fiancee's family, and soon her parents arrive too.

One of the joys of this film is that both families are completely supportive of their daughters being gay and wanting to marry. The issues come from the prejudices they carry outside of homophobia - whether the Israeli grandma holocaust survivor (Rivka Michaeli) who wants her daughter to marry an Israeli - but at the same time hides her relationship with an Arab man - to the American Jewish father (John Carroll Lynch - ZODIAC) who has the zeal of the convert and wants Maria to convert to Judaism so his grandchild will be Jewish - or the German parents aghast at the fact that their soon to be daughter-in-law's little sister is in the Israeli army, because they believe in peace and the two-state solution.

What I love about this film is that it never shies away from the real prejudices and obstacles facing a young couple who are deeply in love. The truism is that when you marry you also marry the family and no matter how far Shira tries to shelter Maria from the complications they are always going to be there - captured for posterity by her aspiring film-maker kid brother. The question is whether Maria is willing to accept it all because truly, they are meant for each other.

There were occasions when the script was a little too on the nose - a final scene on the Green Line comes to mind - but overall this is a really tightly scripted, brave, hilarious film that makes you laugh but also softens your heart with a really convincing depiction of love - whether between Shira and Maria - or between Shira and her siblings - or the crazy extended family. I had a really good time with it and can't wait to see what Shirel Peleg does next.

KISS ME BEFORE IT BLOWS UP has a running time of 101 minutes. It is not yet rated. The film opened in Germany last year and played BFI Flare 2021.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

TOVE - BFI Flare 2012


TOVE is a beautifully filmed, fascinating biopic about Tove Jannsen, the creator of the Moomins. We first meet Tove as young woman in bombed out post-war Helsinki, stifled by her famous sculptor farmer, so much so that she moves into a flat with no water or heat. Like her graphic artist mother, Tove has a talent for caricatures and cartoons, but has internalised her father's disdain for anything other than fine art. Nonetheless, she has courage enough to publish anti-Hitler cartoons, and to live her life in search of happiness and without concern for convention. Accordingly, when we meet her she is beginning what would be a lifelong friendship and a fairly long affair with a married Member of Parliament. And when she meets the talented theatre director Vivica Bandler, she doesn't hesitate to express her love for her too.  What follows is a passionate love affair but also one carried out in post-war Finland where the risk associated with it and the pressure to marry leave both Tove and Vivica ultimately unable to live together. But - by the end of the film - a Tove empowered by her financial independence and success and increasing self-confidence - does find her lifelong love.  Though it's testament to her talent for friendship that she remans  close to both Vivica and her Arno, the politician.

Alma Poysti is deeply affecting as Tove Jannsen in a performance that is brave and vulnerable and joyous by turns.  A good example of the power of the writing and performance is a scene late in the film where she starts dancing to a Benny Goodman dance number - it seems riotous and joyous but then turns almost violent and angry before ending in tears and an extreme close-up. I also very much admired how much the film-makers had done on such a low budget with sumptuously shot interiors and a fantastic swing infused score. 

TOVE has a running time of 100 minutes. The filmed played Toronto 2020 and BFI Flare 2021. It opened in Finland last year but does not yet have a commercial release date in the UK or USA.

SWEETHEART - BFI Flare 2021


SWEETHEART is the absolutely adorable and heartwarming debut feature from writer-director Marley Morrison. It stars Nell Barlow as AJ - a newly out lesbian teenager who dresses like Liam Gallagher's little sister; is acting out because she's confused by her parents separation; and is chronically shy around pretty women. At the start of the film she comes off as a spoiled smart-arse but we soon realise that all that self-conscious woke angst hides a really smart and sensitive girl. In fact, all of the main characters in this film are basically kind and earnest and just dealing with a lot of shit.

Principle among them is AJ's mum Tina, who is trying to be supportive of her middle-daughter coming out, but is worried about her getting into trouble at school and feels unappreciated for keeping the family together.  Jo Hartley (THIS IS ENGLAND) is so credible and sympathetic in this role.  Tina is backed up by peacemaking elder sister Lucy (Sophia Di Martino - YESTERDAY) and her wonderfully lovely partner Steve (Samuel Anderson).  All of them feel free to call out AJ on the worst of her pretentious nonsense, but also ultimately just want her to be happy. You really feel the warmth and support coming through even if the mum and sister don't always have the right language to express how they feel.

The action of the film takes place over a week at a beautiful English seaside holiday park, with the family living together in a chalet. Much of the plot is driven by AJ's tentative relationship with the park's young lifeguard Isla, played by Ella Rae-Smith.  This is so relatable - whether or not you're gay: we all know what it's like the first time someone touches your hand and you get butterflies - or the first time you make out with someone you care about. And the way in which Morrison observes how teenagers are around each other is wonderfully authentic and funny.  We've all been at parties where some dickhead boy is chatting shit! In these scenes, we're rooting for AJ - we want her to put the boy in his place - our stomachs fill with butterflies when Isla makes her move.  We're absolutely invested in AJ's story and that speaks to Nell Barlow's unaffected deeply sympathetic performance. 

Kudos also to DP Emily Almond Barr for capturing that clear crisp English seaside light and to the production designers for infusing the park with pastels and neons. I also loved Toydrum's score and use of indie 80s-synth infused music. 

SWEETHEART has a running time of 94 minutes. It is not yet rated. It played Glasgow and BFI Flare 2021 and does not yet have a commercial release date.

SUBLET - BFI Flare 2021


SUBLET is a quietly stunning film from Israeli writer-director Eytan Fox about the unlikely and transformative brief affair between an older American writer and a young Israeli film-maker.  

The entire film takes place over five days in Tel Aviv, where the somewhat haphazard but charming Tower (Niv Nissim) sublets his apartment to the New York Times travel writer Michael (John Benjamin Hickey).  For the first hour of its brief running time we think we have a certain perception of Michael as a rather timid man, dealing with the bombshell that his husband back in New York has approached a surrogacy agency without his knowledge or consent. But there are hints that his relationship toward parenting are more complex, and this opens up beautifully in the final third of the film. By contrast, Tomer seems to live entirely in the open - openly gay, sex-positive, unabashed to admit his lack of funds, even making films that are provocative and challenging but without subtlety or sub-text. Tomer is also a little lost, and again, in a pivotal late scene with his mum we realise that he too might be looking for something from Michael that is beyond a lover, and perhaps paternal. 

This quiet, drily funny film says so much without words and rests on the superb performances from Hickey (unsurprising - he is one of our finest stage actors) - but also in a debut performance from Niv Nissim.  The performances are complemented by incredible framing and lensing from DP Daniel Miller that lifts this film into something beyond just a beautifully performed romantic dramedy.

Most of all I love that the film resists cliche or lack of realism in its denouement. Rarely has an airport hug been so loaded with emotion, meaning and transformation - rarely has a shyly broadening smile on a young man on a bike been so full of promise. 

I feel I have taken both of these characters to my heart. I would love to see a follow up film five years ahead. This level of engagement and empathy speaks to the profound power of this film.

SUBLET has a running time of 89 minutes and is not yet rated. It also does not yet have a commercial release date. It played Tribeca 2020 and BFI Flare 2021. It will be released in the USA in June 2021.

JUMP, DARLING - BFI Flare 2021


JUMP, DARLING is a beautifully shot, deeply moving, darkly funny relationship drama about the unlikely friendship between a grandmother and her grandson. The grandma is played by acting icon Cloris Leachman, who sadly passed away earlier this year. She brings all of her steely dry humour to this role as a feisty 80-something woman called Margaret who clearly needs someone to care for her, but is resisting moving into an old age home. The grandson, Russell (Thomas Duplessie), is licking his wounds after a break-up and decides to stay with his grandma while tentatively dipping his toe back into the drag performance world.  

What I love about this film is its nuanced depiction of really tough topics with sensitivity but also humour.  To start off with Russell, he's clearly struggling with owning his choice to be a drag performer rather than a mainstream actor, and this ambiguity is partly forced by his boyfriend's contempt for his profession. Is he performing as a drag queen, OR is his narrative that he's just doing this while he tries to become a mainstream actor the real performance? 

We chart Russell's growing confidence via a scene where he uses a powerful drag performance to effectively shame the closeted guy he is currently sleeping with.  Again, the question of who is really performing is raised: is it Russell as a drag queen, or the gay guy pretending to be straight?

And in the final, most powerful and moving scene of the film, we see Russell respond to an almost aggressive interrogation by an elder in the drag scene - and admit he does drag because it's his vocation. That acceptance is something truly beautiful and powerful, especially becuase in both their stories we see the price he is going to have to pay - not least rejection by some in mainstream society.

There's a similarly impressive and nuanced approach to the theme of suicide and suicidal ideation.  The grandmother and grandson are both dealing with memories of the grandfather committing suicide and imagine themselves in his shoes in dreamy unnerving scenes.  One senses that the grandmother both fears the memory and works it into her nightmarish vision of what it would be to move into a nursing home. For Russell it feels more like an exploration. 

I'm not going to lie. Like many people I booked this film because of the legendary Cloris Leachman - and she is wonderful here.  But it's Thomas Duplessie who really impresses in a performance that is by turns vulnerable, powerful, bitchy, flamboyant, contained.  I also absolutely loved the music choices for the pivotal drag lip sync scenes and the neon-lit dance scenes shot by DP Viktor Cahoj. This really is a film that in its look, sound, style and performances punches way above its weight as a low-budget debut feature. 

JUMP, DARLING has a running time of 90 minutes and is not yet rated. It played the Toronto Inside Out Festival and is currently playing BFI Flare. It does not yet have a commerical release date.