MINARI: 4 STARS
A nomination for a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film should give “Minari”, now available in premium digital and on-demand, the boost it deserves in finding large audiences. Both intimate and moving, it’s an authentic coming of age story about the resilience of the human spirit.
Drawing on his own personal experiences, director Lee Isaac Chung crafted a story about the Yi family, Korean mother and father, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), and their US-born children. Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim). Dreaming of a better life, they leave California to start a food business in rural Arkansas. By purchasing land, he plans to cultivate Korean produce for sale in the tri-state area.
It’s difficult. Water is scarce, especially after Jacob refused the services of a local dowser in favor of trying to find his own source. To make ends meet, Jacob and Monica work at a local hatchery, but the long hours, associated with David’s heart disease, cause problems at home. To ease the tension, Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) comes from Korea to lend a hand.
She’s a handful, not a “real grandmother,” David says. But his curses, his love of wrestling and life bring a much needed spark to Yi’s new trailer home. Better yet, his antics help David go from being a shy little boy, whose mother pampers him, to being a fun-loving child.
“Minari”, in English and Korean with subtitles, is a carefully watched film. The expression on Monica’s face when she sees her new home for the first time is subtle but devastating. Grandma’s easy laugh is contagious and David’s reactions to his grandmother: “They don’t swear! They are not wearing men’s underwear! – are funny in a melancholy way. Even the eccentric religious beliefs of farm worker Paul (Will Patton) are treated with compassion and are never ridiculed, even when Jacob fails to understand why he would rather drag a giant cross down the road than accept a ride.
These moments build as the story unfolds, bringing empathy with them. And while the film confronts the racism encountered by the Yi in their new community, the story does not seek conflict. It comes from within the family and their struggles, not from outside circumstances.
“Minari” is a true family drama, with a hint of “The Grapes of Wrath” for good measure.
THE LAST VERMEER: 3 STARS
Mixture of fact and fiction, real and unreal, “The Last Vermeer” with Guy Pearce and Claes Bang, now on VOD, is a cat and mouse game with an ambitious goal.
Set just after WWII, the story involves Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), a Jewish member of the Dutch Resistance who spent the war years working underground. Now he’s working with the Allied Reconstruction Corps, tracking money from big art auctions that may have funded espionage.
His investigation introduces him to artist Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), a painter and art dealer who admits to making millions of dollars selling art to the Nazis. Of particular interest is Christ and the Adulterous Woman, a masterpiece by Johannes Vermeer which he sold to Hermann Göring for 1.6 million guilders. “Which proves that pigs taste good or too much money,” says van Meegeren.
The Dutch government considers him a war criminal. “He’s an honorary Nazi,” said a bureaucrat. “Let him sway with the others. But there is a twist; van Meegeren claims the paintings were fakes, fakes he painted to defraud the Nazis. “I believe that every fascist deserves to be swindled,” says van Meegeren. A subsequent lawsuit not only puts van Meegeren on trial for collaborating with the enemy during the war, but also the very idea of what makes good art great.
“The Last Vermeer” is a beautifully rhythmic historical drama, brought to life by a flamboyant performance by Pearce. He is a bon vivant, quick with a line and a theatrical character who gives himself to histrionic outbursts. “I am an artist”, says van Meegeren, “not a Nazi spy”. Pearce is clearly having fun – more than anyone in the movie – but he reigned just enough to keep van Meegeren from becoming a caricature. It’s the spark that keeps our interest in an otherwise well-done but sometimes lethargic film.
The most interesting are the questions posed by the counterfeits of van Meegeren. If they are good enough to fool the experts and please the eye, why can’t they be considered on their own merits? Was the painter, who was inspired by a true artist considered the greatest forger of all time, touched by genius or simply an opportunist who squandered his talents to deceive the Nazis? The film does not hesitate to provide answers but gives food for thought.
SINNERS: 1 1/2 STARS
“This story is not about truth or love,” says Aubrey Miller (Brenna Llewellyn) in “The Sinners”, now available on VOD, “this story is about sin.” In fact, it’s a story that feels like a time machine with movies like “Cruel Intentions”, “The Craft” and “Mean Girls”.
Set in a small evangelical town, “The Sinners” is the story of a group of girls who rebel by forming a clique to personify the seven deadly sins, pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and laziness. At the head is the daughter of local pastor Grace Carver (Kaitlyn Bernard) who represents lust. When she learns that Aubrey, who embodies pride, spoke to Pastor Carver about the name of the girl gang The Sins, then, as if that wasn’t enough, had the temerity to write about their transgressions in her journal, she turns around. “We have been betrayed,” she said to other sinners. “We have a rat among us and action must be taken.”
Before Aubrey arrives at a group meeting for what she thinks is a Bible study class, Grace (who at this point is wearing Halloween devil horns) tells the gang, “We’re going. unleash us tonight and push her past her breaking point. It is time for us to take our sins to the next level.
When the gang decides to scare him by setting up a kidnapping, things take a turn for the worse and Aubrey disappears into the woods. As the investigation into her disappearance intensifies, strange things happen, revealing the dark underbelly of the small town. Are sinners really sinners, or are they victims?
It’s a fairly easy plot to follow, but if you get lost director Courtney Paige “helpful” provides a roadmap in the form of a narrative, I guess it’s meant to give a “Memento” vibe, but just tells us things that most of us already know. Add to that the repetitive procedural nature of the story and you end up with a film that could have explored the hot button between faith and more earthly concerns, but instead chose atmosphere over fear.
Stresses Holly Amber Church who provides a moody score, but beyond that, “The Sinners” commits the cardinal cinematic sin of not attracting the attention of the public.
THE EVE: 4 STARS
“The Vigil”, the debut film by novelist-turned-director Keith Thomas and now available on VOD, is a low fi film with high fi horror.
When we first meet Yakov (Dave Davis), he’s part of a support group for Orthodox Jews adjusting to life outside of Brooklyn, New York’s Hasidic community. Still adjusting to his new life, he is unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. When his friend Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) approaches him with a job offer, he has no choice but to accept. For one night, he will act as Shomer, a guardian in Jewish tradition, and watch over the corpse of Holocaust survivor Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen) until the time of burial.
Arrived at the house for the night, he is greeted by Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen) who warns him to leave. After Reb explains that she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, Yakov begins his solemn duty, looking after Mr. Litvak.
Soon, as the lights begin to flash, Yakov thinks he sees something rushing to the ground. But real terror awaits him when he discovers a video detailing the ancient demon, the Mazzik, who became attached to Mr. Litvak when he left Buchenwald.
“The Vigil” is a horror film that trades in the supernatural as well as the psychological. The Shocks were born from director Thomas’ effective use of the fear of jumps and things bumping into the night, but the real terror here is intangible.
It is the revitalization of memories, as Mr Litvak says in the video, “looking back” on the anti-Semitic horrors that have shaped their entire lives. We learn of the fate of Mrs. Livak’s father in the Kiev pogroms of 1919, Mr. Livak’s treatment at Nazi hands, and the recent violence that caused Yakov to abandon his faith. They are, as Ms. Litvak puts it, “shattered by memories,” the inevitable weight they carry.
“The Vigil” brings horror out of the corners of the mind and perhaps offers a path for Yakov’s catharsis and his return to his faith, but not before presenting a deeply disturbing story