Throughout the closure of theaters I’ve looked to a lot of different places to see the year’s movies: various streaming services, Netflix DVD delivery, cable broadcasts, various virtual cinema situations, etc. But one thing I have managed to avoid up to this point was “premium” Video On Demand, which is to say studios putting movies direct to VOD at insanely inflated prices on the logic that it’s a new release. I certainly never considered paying the $30 price tag that Disney was trying to get people to pay to see Mulan a couple of months before they started giving it away for free and I also refused to pay the “standard” $20 price tag that they’ve tried to affix to most Hollywood movies when they first emerge which strikes me as a rather obscene price to pay in order to virtually rent pretty much any movie under the sun. For that same price I can buy most blu-rays on first release, it’s more than double the matinee price to see something in theaters (when they’re open) in my area and for that matter it’s about what you’d pay for an entire month of AMC’s Stubs A-List program, which allows you to see numerous movies a month. Were this pricing to become “the norm” it would quickly become prohibitively expensive to see new releases and would likely dramatically affect the number of movies I watch in general. It’s something I adamantly refuse to pay. Except I finally did acquiesce to this highway robbery today in order to watch Emerald Fennell’s socially relevant thriller Promising Young Woman. I didn’t pay the ransom out of a particular excitement to see the movie, in fact there are quite a few movies I was far more excited for which I saw essentially for free from Netflix, but rather because time was kind of running out to see the last of the year’s big releases and I also suspected this would have some plot twists I didn’t want spoiled. But make no mistake I was not happy to be paying this and it kind of put a lot of pressure on the movie to deliver.
The film follows a thirty year old woman named Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) who dropped out of med school after a friend of hers, now deceased, was sexually assaulted by a bunch of other students while drunk largely without consequences. Now Thomas has opted to be something of a vigilante avenger by going to bars alone and pretending to be plastered to see which bro will try to take her home and take advantage of this perceived intoxication, at which point she reveals her sobriety and takes vengeance, sometimes violently sometimes not. One day she encounters an old med school acquaintance named Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham) who casually mentions that the ringleader of that assault is still around and is getting married soon, which sparks an instinct in her to finally get the revenge she’d been yearning for not just against him but against a handful of other accomplices and enablers involved in that shattering event.
Promising Young Woman was written and directed by Emerald Fennell and is her first film in those roles after a not overly distinctive acting career. Let’s start with that script which I found both clever and at times frustrating. The basic premise is of course… provocative. Going in I had kind of expected that the protagonist’s vigilantism would be a bit more murdery than it was, making the film something of a female equivalent to the 1974 film Death Wish, which is a movie I find somewhat repugnant. The actual film is a bit less clear about the extent of her actions, the opening scene seems to pretty strongly imply she kills her victims but for much of the rest of the film she seems to stop short of killing when exacting her revenge. That is probably preferable but there’s a degree of “have your cake and eat it too” to that solution. Ultimately it’s a movie less interested in the morality of revenge and more interested in looking at what kind of society would lead someone to these extremes and in using her revenge quest to explore and tackle various aspects of rape culture. That is a good idea in theory but I must say I felt like the movie was more than a little in on the nose in the way it connected this story to various debates that have been going on in the culture. For example, one of the first men she tries to pull one of her stings on expresses an attitude that because he isn’t a jock-bro that automatically makes him better than the other dude’s she deals with… and in case you haven’t already gotten the picture he rather pointedly calls himself a “nice guy” out loud multiple times in this exchange just so you know this is the chapter of the movie that’s meant to be tied to the Jezebel articles you’ve read about “nice guy” sexism.
From there the revenge quest takes Thomas on something of a tour of cultural hot points: slut-shaming friends, self-serving college administrators, sleazy lawyers, callous bystanders, each one of them more or less acting as a textbook example of the issues the film is trying to highlight. At times one wonders how they had the restraint not to bring up “mansplaining” while they were at it. In many ways the film feels less like a story rooted in a revenge fantasy and more like the revenge fantasy itself… to the point where I wouldn’t have been surprised if at a certain point the main character “snapped out of it” and revealed much of the plot to be a violent day dream rather than something that was literally happening, or perhaps that a certain American Psycho style ambiguity about what is or isn’t really would have emerged. In part that’s because I there are some pretty clear logistical questions left unanswered in the film (How does she pay for all of this? Why don’t her victims try to call and warn some of the other people on the list? How was the thing that happens at the end coordinated?) and on that level the film sort of falls short if looked at as a procedural of sorts.
Despite having said all that, I actually still quite liked this movie, in part because I think it’s made with panache and also because I think its genre provocations make up for its lack of subtlety. Emerald Fennell definitely shoots the film with a lot of confidence despite being a first time director and she assembles a pretty impressive ensemble for the film anchored by Carey Mulligan as the film’s star. The film also has a pretty bold if slightly implausible ending which really ends the movie with something of a bang, which I appreciated. The movie was certainly never boring and as annoyed as I was in the directness with which it addresses these issues, that might kind of be my own fault for reading as many damn think pieces as I do and to certain audiences that don’t spend their days reading about these debates on twitter this will all probably a bit more revelatory and thought provoking. Even when it’s being on-the-nose it still clearly has quite the dark wit and the moments in it that work do tend to work very well.
***1/2 out of Five
[Editor’s note: this review was written in mid-December but held back until the film was released to the wider public]
It’s been a long and winding year since premiered to much praise at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was picked up by A24, a studio that was kicking ass and taking names the last few years but hasn’t quite known what to do over the course of the pandemic. They’ve been holding most of their movies until later when they can really do theatrical runs, which is probably my preferred move but it’s painful nonetheless. In fact I’m still not sure if Minari is on track for a clear release plan, I watched it through a one-week only virtual cinema thing, but you can clearly envision a world where there wasn’t a pandemic and this would have been perfect arthouse counter-programing in the middle of a summer filled with bigger movies like Wonder Woman 1984 and Soul… though I suppose we’re about to be getting them soon as well so maybe destiny was fulfilled just the same.
The film is set in the 1980s and follows a family of Korean immigrants who had moved from the peninsula to California and then to (of all places) Arkansas where the family patriarch Jacob (Steven Yuen) has a dream of starting a farm for Korean produce that he can sell to ethnic markets. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is skeptical about this plan and isn’t thrilled to be living in a manufactured home but has gone along with his dream just the same and while it’s getting off the ground they need to hold down a day job at a chicken plant. They also decide to bring in Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to help around the house with raising the children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) as they adjust to their new surroundings. A local man named Paul (Will Patton) helps with the agriculture and they have some luck, but there are great challenges. Getting fresh water to grow the crops becomes a challenge and the financial troubles test Jacob and Monica’s marriage and all the while and David has a heart murmur that becomes a topic of much anxiety for the entire family.
Minari was directed by a guy named Lee Isaac Chung, who has actually made three scripted features previously but I don’t know that any of them really had much of a life outside the festival circuit. I haven’t seen those earlier films but two of them seem like kind of standard American indies and the other seems to be tied into humanitarian work he’s done in Uganda. With this latest film he appears to be taking a more personal approach to the point of making a film that is openly autobiographical. The names here are changed but Chung did in fact grow up in an Arkansas farm and even if you don’t know that autobiographical fact it’s not hard to intuit that the film, while also showing things not directly witnessed by him, is essentially being told from the perspective of the little boy in this house and is ultimately about his early life. His telling of the story seems rather clear-headed, he does have a certain nostalgia for this town and land and has a certain pride and affection for his parents’ desire to make a good life for themselves in a new country but he’s also more than willing to show their flaws; how his fathers’ dreams of success could make him a rather cold parent and husband at times and the mother isn’t always the strongest advocate for herself or for the kids.
That it is so clearly rooted in Chung’s own memories does have a couple of drawbacks, namely that it kind of gives short shrift to his older sister’s story, which I would have liked to see a bit more of given that she probably had a clearer perspective on these events, but having that personal touch probably adds more than it subtracts. The film is primarily in the Korean language (if I were to hazard a guess I’d say its maybe 20% in English), but make no mistake this is an intensely American story. Movies about the immigrant experience are perhaps inherently going to have a bit of extra power and weight when they’re made in the era of Trump even as that winds down here in late 2020 given his attacks on that American institution. Minari doesn’t exactly break the mold in how these stories are told, in fact this could be read as a pretty traditional take on the pursuit of the “American dream” in many ways but that vague familiarity in many ways grounds it within that tradition. In many ways it’s an interesting movie to watch in relation to this year’s other big Sundance movie The Nest, which also deals with a man who’s maybe in a bit over his head convincing his family to make a move they maybe aren’t comfortable with, but this tells a version of that story that a bit less operatic and a bit more optimistic in the end. It’s keenly observed and thoughtful cinema constructed well and what it lacks in novelty it makes up for with truthfulness.
**** out of Four
I’m a more than a bit of a tightwad and one of the ways that this manifests is that instead of staying subscribed to all the streaming services that I want I instead swap a lot of them out at various points. I stay subscribed to Netflix, Hulu, and now HBO Max pretty consistently but with the second tier services like Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, Apple+, and Shudder I’ve instead opted for a cheapskate approach where I’ll subscribe to each occasionally for one month and just binge up everything they’ve released over the course of a year and then cancel before the next month’s bill is due. One of the services I’ve been doing this for is Disney+, which is all a long way of explaining that I was not in a position to watch when the Mouse House decided to send their latest Pixar film Soul straight to their steaming service almost a month ago and instead used Wonder Woman 1984 as my Christmas Day streaming premiere viewing of choice. I was in the middle of a month’s long Amazon subscription period when that premiered (as you may have been able to intuit from some of my reviews from the time) but I’m in a Disney phase now, and given all the stuff they announced at their latest investor call I have some reason to think I’ll be sticking with that for longer than a month this time and of course one of the first things on my “to watch” list upon re-subscribing was of course that promising new Pixar film which has indeed proven to be one of that studio’s best efforts in a long time.
The film follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a New York pianist who is currently working as a middle school band teacher but still dreams of having a career as a jazz performer and has long tried to “gig” without ever really breaking through much to the frustration of his mother (Phylicia Rashad), who wants to encourage him to just settle down and work as a full time teacher. One day a former student named Lamont (Questlove) calls him and offers him the chance to audition to play in the band of a famous saxophonist named Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), that audition goes alright and he’s told to come back that night and perform with the band in front of an audience. He’s so excited by this that he dashes recklessly through the street and falls down a manhole… seemingly killing him. He then “wakes up” as a disembodied soul going up a sort of stairway towards a shining light, but, having no interest whatsoever in going to “the great beyond” without having his shot to prove himself as a jazz great he jumps off the stairway and into an adventure that will have him going throughout the afterlife and beyond.
The afterlife has been depicted several times throughout film history, usually in comedies like Defending Your Life and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey but sometimes also in more serious works like What Dreams May Come, Jacob’s Ladder, and A Matter of Life and Death, and despite being a staunch atheist who does not even believe in the concept of the afterlife and the soul I am kind of a sucker for people using the limitations of a medium like film to represent what are in fact incredibly abstract concepts like heaven, hell, and purgatory. Animation, and especially computer animation would seem to be a rather ideal medium to tackle that in and in that and Pixar has actually tackled the afterlife (and the afterlife of musicians at that) previously in their 2017 film Coco, which used the Day of the Dead holiday as a take on the afterlife. That was a movie that never quite lived up to its potential for me for reasons I’ve never quite been able to place my finger on. That is ultimately a pretty different movie though, one that’s more about coming to term with the deaths of loved ones than with facing one’s own mortality, what’s more the city of the dead in that felt less like an analogue for heaven and more like a sort of alternate dimension where everyone’s a skeleton.
The afterlife depicted in Soul is a much more sterile and orderly one than the one in Coco. It’s probably more rooted in Christianity than in say, Hinduism, but it doesn’t refer to itself as “heaven” and generally tries to remain somewhat ecumenical if not secular. We get a “stairway to heaven” but an automated one very much of the computer age and the overseers of this afterlife are not angels so much as these rather ethereal and detached bureaucrats who seem to exist on a 2D plain in a 3D world while the deceased and the yet to be born are these disembodied blue souls. The film presents a view of a rather ordered if imperfect universe where souls move into and out of the world almost on an assembly line complete with an auditing process and a training process, but this isn’t necessarily some sort of statement about industrialization so much as it’s establishing conceptual framework to understand this world. Meanwhile a lot of the animation used for the earthly scenes in New York are themselves quite impressive in their realism and you can tell they spent a lot of time in Gotham trying to get every detail of how that city feels, albeit done in something of a sanitized PG way. The characters here are caricatured, but not wildly, it’s generally trying to depict more of a realistic world than something like Up but does not go into uncanny valley motion-capture type territory.
As the film goes it does find ways to return to Earth, at which point it starts to fit a bit into the mold of those 1940s “afterlife comedies” like A Guy Named Joe and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. The film is perhaps notable among Pixar films in that it focuses on an adult human rather than a child or some sort of anthropomorphized animal or object. In fact its protagonist might be a touch old for what they’re doing as Joe Gardner reads as a man in his forties despite being somewhat oblivious about his personality and goals. I have a hunch that in earlier versions of the screenplay he was younger but at some point it was decided that the idea of a film opening with the seeming death of a man in his twenties was a little too depressing to get past. As his soul goes through the afterlife and begins finding his way back to Earth the film actually indulges in quite a bit of comedy, both through some slapstick body-swapping antics and through some light prodding at New York culture. There’s a certain Ratatouille-like cartoon logic at play in the way Gardner interacts with a certain feline sidekick during these sequences which takes a certain leap of logic to accept but I enjoyed it and found the adventure elements here to be much more original and enjoyable than in other Pixar movies like Inside Out which take on formats like that almost as an excuse to drag things out as the characters develop.
I’ve gone on quite a journey with Pixar over the years and I’ve rarely been in lock step with critical consensus about them. In the early days when they were first becoming critical darlings I wasn’t even bothering to watch them and when I did catch up with them I never really felt like they lived up to the hype. But then when the studio stopped being such a cause célèbre and began harming their legacy with questionable sequels and the like I oddly found myself becoming something of a defender of the studio and suggested that some of their films like Finding Dory, Toy Story 4, and Onward were being unfairly undervalued or taken for granted by critics who perhaps thought the bar set by their older films was higher than it really was, and frustratingly enough I also was never quite as into some of the supposed highlights of this period like Inside Out and Coco. With Soul though I think we might finally have a movie that everyone can agree on. It’s hardly a flawless movie, I think the ending is a bit of a copout and at the end of the day I’m not sure it really has anything terribly original to say about death or about following your dreams, but the movie does do a whole lot right. I haven’t even had a chance to get into its canny roster of voice talent or the film’s amazing score by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste. To me this is plainly Pixar’s best work since their 2008 film Wall-E, which has been consistently held up as the studio at its height, so it’s basically a movie that more than achieves what can reasonably be expected of it.
****1/2 out of Five