It had been about fifteen months since movie theaters had shut down because of the pandemic on March 15, 2020. There were even rumors that the AMC movie chain would be filing Chapter 11 and going out of business. Thus, I was anxious to return to the theater experience I had missed for over a year. Meanwhile, a sort of post-pandemic blockbuster release was all set for July 9th and I was raring to go. Black Widow features two of my favorite actors, Scarlett Johansson and Rachel Weisz and the release became the highest grossing pandemic film that weekend coveting a total of $345 million worldwide.
Ever since seeing Age of Ultron back in 2015 with some friends, I was never a fan of the Marvel comics universe of films. I remember, my friends and I walking out of the AMC Kips Bay in Manhattan asking ourselves, "So, what was that movie all about." These productions tend to have a lot of action but very little story and thought-provoking commentary. And after all, great films are about great story-telling. But Black Widow was different. Thank goodness, it didn't begin with the stereotypical action-packed opening scene. Instead, a young Natasha Romanoff and her sister Yelena are whisked away with their parents by plane escaping some sort of capture. We learn later that mom and dad are not their real parents nor are they real sisters but a imposter family of Russian agents on mission. Having completed their mission, the young girls are taken away and put into training to become black widows with Johansson as the grown-up Natasha and Florence Pugh as grown-up Yelena. This film has a story that is at least understandable and engaging. I think one of the best lines is when Yelena reflects on her young life in her phony family and says "But it was real to me!" Pugh's performance was impressive; Johansson's was not bad, confusing at times because I didn't know how to interpret her often beguiling smile/smirk. The fight scene between the two of them was incredible.
Overall, Black Widow is a good film for its genre and worth seeing. In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing it again. I have to thank my friend Brian for letting me tag along with him and his sister for the AMC Prime experience at the Wayne theater opening weekend and for his explanations of the Marvel universe and sequence of films. My son, Jonathan, also filled me in and had me watch Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War at home on Disney Plus. Not exactly, my favorite types of films to watch, not very profound nor thought-provoking. But then I realized, "Hey, it's just entertainment." And the kind we need for a semi-post-pandemic world.
Earlier this year around February, I had heard a lot of intriguing buzz around this film by another Korean director in another Korean language film. I was still quite enamored by Bong Joon-ho's Parasite (2019) and had even recently attended a discussion group about the film sponsored by my university. So (perhaps unfairly), I was looking forward to another masterpiece by another Asian director. Parasite in my opinion is worthy of five stars plus.
Minari is indeed a beautiful and touching film revolving around the hopes, dreams and struggles of a Korean couple trying to make it in heartland America. It contains powerful performances by the main characters Jacob (played by Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri). The grandma Soon-ja (played by Youn Yuh-jung) won the Oscar for best supporting actress at the 93rd Academy Awards on April 25th. The director is Lee Isaac Chung. The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for six academy awards.
The film is set in the 1980s. Jacob and Monica Yi move from California to rural Arkansas to start a new life on land they purchased to grow Korean vegetables. The story line is engaging as subplots revolve around their son David's heart condition, their adjustment to rural America as Korean immigrants, David's relationship to grandma newly arrived from Korea to help out and their struggles to make the farm work. But the heart of the film is the relationship between Jacob and Monica, husband and wife. Director Chung excavates a common but sensitive area of married life: a husband's dream of success and a wife's abandonment of that dream and what that means for the marriage. Thus, Minari contains some of the best and most authentic fight scenes I've ever witnessed on film between a husband and wife. I thought Han Ye-ri as Monica was worthy of an Oscar. Other performances all around were powerful and engaging.
Probably the biggest drawback of the film for me was a sense of ambiguity or the film could have been clearer and more poignant. When the barn catches fire and Monica rushes in to save the produce is that because she now believes in Jacob's dream? When Jacob saves her from the fire, does that now mean he realizes his love for her is the most important thing in his life? When little David runs after grandma at the end when he shouldn't be running because of his heart, we get the turnabout of his affections but it seems to come off a little flat. I noticed too that there is very little development in the parent's relationship to their daughter. She is almost invisible. Either there is just too little development in some parts of the film or it is just too subtle for me (and American audiences). My son remarked at the end, "Dad, why did you make us watch this movie? Nothing good happens in it!"
Nevertheless, Minari is a good to very good film to watch. If I could, I might give it four and a half stars. It includes very strong performances, an engaging story line and a subtle but positive ending. I recommend it.
For a taste, check out the video below.
Wonder Woman 1984
After seeing the first Wonder Woman film in 2017, I was looking forward to watching the sequel released on Christmas Day 2020. I even splurged and subscribed to HBO max just to view it. While not as "wonderful" as the first, 1984 is still worth seeing and thus I gave it four out of five stars. (Warning: a few spoilers below.)
On the positive side, the two best scenes are at the beginning and the end. The opening scene features young Diana in an Olympic type games competition on the Amazonian island of Themyscira. The competition is intense and young Diana (Lilly Aspell) is adorable. Hans Zimmer's score is thrilling. The next best scene is actually not at the end but a few minutes after the credits start rolling. There is a special guest appearance which I will not detail for fear of spoiling it for those who haven't seen the movie yet. So, don't walk out or stop the film when the credits start. You'll be very pleasantly surprised. Some performances are particularly strong including Kristen Wiig as WW's co-protagonist Barbara Minerva (aka Cheetah) and Pedro Pascal as the villain Maxwell Lord. There are a few cute and engaging scenes like the one at the gym where Barbara gaining some of WW's powers starts pumping iron in front of a bunch of shocked men.
Unfortunately, there are also quite a few disappointments with WW84, the main one being that the story line is so outlandish it is even not very believable for a superhero movie. It begins with the core problematic of a dream stone where anyone who makes a wish upon it gets their wish. Unknowingly, WW as Diana Prince wishes her past love Steve Trevor who died in the first film comes back to life. Voilà, he comes back to life but through the body of another man! The villain of the film, Max Lord steals the stone and wishes that he himself would become the stone so that he can grant wishes to other persons whom he tricks into making wishes that benefit himself. Naturally, all this conniving leads to a world that ends up destroying itself through the unintended consequences of everybody's divergent wishes. One of the most "un-believable" scenes is that of a middle-eastern oil magnate who wishes for his ancestor's ancient Bialyian Kingdom to be restored. Next thing you know, a divine wall appears throughout the landscape marking off his ancient territory. Another disappointment is the performances of the two main characters. For some reason, Gal Gadot as WW this time is not as dynamic and charming. Her performance though decent is rather flat and lacks the spark and chemistry with Chris Pine (as Steve Trevor) we saw in WWI. One gets the impression that Gadot was rushed in this film and didn't really have time to enter into her character.
In spite of the disappointments, this film is still worth seeing. The action scenes are well-done and will keep you entertained. And the special guest appearance while the credits roll is a real delight.
Milton's observations on life, faith and the contemporary.