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Movie Review

The film follows Belinda Lane and her quest to find her daughter's killer. Photo from Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

catfish (noun)

cat·fish | \ ˈkat-ˌfish  \

Definition of catfish

1. any of an order (Siluriformes) of chiefly freshwater stout-bodied scaleless bony fishes having long tactile barbels

2. a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

On February 24, 2006, in Riverside, California, twenty-four-year-old Crystal Theobald was fatally shot in the head while riding in a car with her boyfriend, Juan Patlan, and her brother Justin. (Patlan was hit in the abdomen but recovered.) The case would not be fully resolved until January 2020. The investigation revealed that the attack was due to mistaken identity. The shooter, a member of the gang 5150, mistook the car’s occupants for members of MD, a rival gang.

The driving force behind the Netflix documentary is Crystal’s mother, Belinda Lane, and her vow to find her daughter’s killers. Her use of MySpace to collect information is central to Why Did You Kill Me? 

At first, Belinda, who was in the car ahead of her children, identified the shooter from a picture and selects him in a lineup. But it turned out that the boy had a legitimate alibi and was released, making her an unreliable witness. Following this, Lane used MySpace to track down those involved. 

Crystal Theobald was only 24 years old when she was murdered by a 5150 gang member. Photo from Netflix

Lane’s niece, Jamie McIntyre, began with a fake profile — party girl “Rebecca” — selecting a random photo she found on the internet. At that time, MySpace was relatively new as a social media outlet and quite popular, with sixty-six million users. “My typing was acting,” said McIntyre, who spent every day after school until the early hours of the morning on the site.

Through the Rebecca profile, they connected with various 5051 gang members. Lane decided that McIntyre should build another fake MySpace profile for “Angel,” using Crystal’s photo. Eventually, McIntyre became overwhelmed by the experience. “Making someone fall in love with someone who’s dead is not a good feeling inside.” Pretending to be her every day was a double-edged sword. It kept Crystal’s memory alive and close to her; yet it was a constant reminder of what happened. 

When the toll became too much for McIntyre, Lane took over. She created a plan to lure and shoot members of 5150 at “An End of the World Party,” scheduled for June 6, 2006 (6/06/06). “I made a plan to go murder people,” said Lane. But the day before it was to occur, she confronted the driver, William Sotelo, who was infatuated with the non-existent Angel. Lane sent messages beginning with “I know who you are” and “Do you love me?” on to “Then say it,” ending with “then why did you kill me?” Sotelo disappeared and would not resurface for over ten years. Lane gave up the MySpace ruse and released the passwords to the case’s detective, Rick Wheller.

Amid this, the police interrogated William and Manuel Lemus, brothers who had been in the back of Sotelo’s car. They were reluctant to cooperate until members of their gang burned their parents’ home. The pair then turned over the shooter, Julio Heredia. It was not until 2016 that Sotelo, the final perpetrator, was located in Mexico, extradited, tried, and sentenced.

What runs alongside the entire catfishing expedition are revelations about Belinda Lane and her family. Their reluctance to trust Detective Wheeler was rooted in the family’s extensive run-ins with the law. The Lane-Theobold family had “issues back in the day,” including fighting, arrests, and drug issues. Most had been in and out of jail. Belinda admits to being a meth user who became a drug dealer. “I sold a lot. I did a lot of damage out there.”

As she gathered intel through MySpace, Lane did everything she could, including trying to get them deported — calling the FBI and ICE. She contacted members of the Casa Blanca gang, inciting them against 5051. She readily admits that she caused all kinds of violence. As one close friend described her, Belinda was “psycho,” “crazy,” and “insane.” Also, the Lane sons wanted to “handle it their own way.”

Crystal Theobald was only 24 years old when she was murdered by a 5150 gang member. Photo by Netflix

Why Did You Kill Me? feels no different than most shows found on the True Crime Network. Ominous music accompanies quick cuts. Sound effects are heightened — including a heart monitor ceasing its beeping, indicating Crystal’s death. Footage of driving to various areas fleshes out the voiceovers. There is a model of the neighborhood where the killing took place, recreated in miniatures. Throughout, various cast members manipulate the cars in the street. Harrowing footage recovered from the security cameras outside a grocery store shows the wounded and dying Crystal in her brother’s arms. Archival family videos and photos are interspersed.

While we get background about the family, we never know who Crystal was. The facts shared are few: she was married and had won $38,000 on a slot machine. The couple used the winnings to open a heating company. At the time of Crystal’s murder, they were estranged, but no other information on their lives is offered, other than her husband had fallen back into drugs. After being mentioned at the outset, her current boyfriend, Juan Patlan, is conspicuously absent from the film. 

While we know that the family had its plethora of problems, Crystal’s life and challenges are never addressed. 

The gang crises and turf wars are touched upon but also not fully addressed. To give greater depth to the problem and tragic consequences, the creators could have developed this background. No history or explanation is given regarding the origins and presence of the Los Angeles 5150. A nod is given to the investigation into Heredia’s history — revealing drugs, alcohol, and neglect that drove him into gang life. But it does nothing to address the fact that this ruthless, complicated world caused Crystal’s tragic death.

Late in the film, Belinda says, “Justice and revenge. Yes, they are just about the same thing. One means you can stay in the free world, and the other means you can go sit in the defendant’s chair. And that’s a line I almost crossed myself.” Her self-reflection is one of the most powerful moments in the entire documentary. 

Lane’s statement contains the kernel of what the film could have been: something valuable, insightful, and cathartic. As it stands, Why Did You Kill Me? is just one in a long line of sensationalist rubbernecking of today’s violence. Should we marvel at the sleuthing? Delight in the internet as a tool? Find entertainment in Belinda’s eccentricity? There is no call to action, no reflection, and no lesson. Sadly, the result is a simple story of a life senselessly ended.

Why Did You Kill Me? is now streaming on Netflix.

'Nomadland' is TBR News Media's movie reviewer's pick for Best Picture this year.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

On Sunday, April 25, the 93rd Academy Awards will be held at the Dolby Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center. The show will air live on ABC beginning at 8 p.m. Producer Steven Soderbergh has promised this year’s presentation to be completely different. With no live audience, COVID restrictions, and a host of other challenges, he promises an experience like no other Oscars. Okay. Sure. Whatever. But it still comes down to who wins and who loses.

Whether you’ve seen one or most or (the unicorn of movie-watching) all of the nominees, you have an opinion. Often, it’s the negative: “I can’t believe [insert title/actor/director/costume designer here] was nominated! That was the worst [movie/acting/direction/costume design].” “Did you see it?” you will ask. “Well, no. But I heard it was …” 

Heated discussions, office pools, gatherings, and myriad Facebook posts consume the battleground. And, of course, everything comes down to personal taste. (I have a weakness for large manor houses where they iron the newspapers. Thank you, Downton Abbey.) Here is a very personal assessment. And while I don’t know if it will find agreement, hopefully there won’t be too much gnashing of teeth.

It is a tight race for Best Actor in a Leading Role, with five worthy candidates. Riz Ahmed has one of those visceral roles as a drummer losing his hearing in Sound of Metal. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Steven Yeun’s young father in Minari; it is a small, quiet performance of deep nuance with a delicate mix of pain and hope in every moment. Anthony Hopkins hits all the right notes as a contrasting patriarch in The Father. Hopkins presents a devastating look at the torments of dementia. While there are glimpses of kindness — particularly in the final moments — it is a colder performance. Gary Oldman is exceptional in all he does; he is a true chameleon. But he won in 2018 for his Winston Churchill. Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz in Mank, working on Citizen Kane, while engaging, doesn’t compare in gravitas. Chadwick Boseman’s musician Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was extraordinary, building up to one of the finest performed monologues in cinematic history. The award — sadly posthumous — is his — and rightfully so.

Best Actress in a Leading Role offers a range of possibilities. Viola Davis is mesmerizing as Ma Rainey; her performance is jaw-dropping in scope, fire, and nuance, and she is almost unrecognizable. That makes for a winning combination. What might cancel out Davis is Andra Day’s competing performance as another musical icon in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Both Vanessa Kirby and Frances McDormand (always a favorite) give powerful performances that dominated their films — Pieces of a Woman and Nomadland, respectively. Carey Mulligan — also seen giving a completely different performance in The Dig — is both harrowing and enigmatic in her portrait of revenge in Promising Young Woman; while not the kind of role that usually attracts high-profile awards, she could challenge Davis. But McDormand is still in the running with her multi-dimensional turn. This category is truly anyone’s game.

Equally hard to predict is Best Actor in a Supporting Role. While voters love a comedic actor in a serious role, Sacha Baron Cohen (The Trial of the Chicago 7) is the least likely to win. As Sound of Metal didn’t get the viewers, this would also put Paul Raci at the back of the pack. With the remaining three — Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah and Leslie Odom, Jr. in One Night in Miami — it is Kaluuya as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton who will most likely take the trophy. There is always the possibility of a split vote with Stanfield, which could move Odom, Jr. or even Raci’s Viet Nam vet to the front.

As for the Best Actress in a Supporting Role nominees, Amanda Seyfried brings a hint of complexity to Mank’s Marion Davies, but it gets lost in the overall clutter of the film. And while Maria Bakalova has garnered accolades for Borat 2, the movie has divided audiences. Olivia Colman is beautifully measured as the daughter in The Father and, in another season, might have won. The oft-nominated Glenn Close does some of her best work in Hillbilly Elegy; like Oldman, she is unrecognizable. However, the film itself had so much political backlash that unfortunately makes a win very unlikely. I predict Youn Yuh-jung is going to receive the Oscar. Her grandmother in Minari is a wealth of surprises, eschews every expectation, and is the film’s heartbeat.

I am reluctant to pick a winner for Best Director as I have always felt the award is tied to the Best Picture (or perhaps should be). Unlikely are Thomas Vinterberg for Another Round and David Fincher for Mank. Lee Isaac Chung’s work might be too subtle in Minari, lacking in grand strokes. Emerald Fennell has done an exceptional job shaping Promising Young Woman, but I think the award will go to Chloé Zhao for the heartfelt guidance she has given to Nomadland.

Of the eight nominees for Best Picture, The Father is least likely to win. While memorable, its stage roots show. Sound of Metal has not gotten the traction that it needs to move up in the ranks. Mank is probably too much of an insider’s look into the film business. Promising Young Woman’s black comedy edge may be too much for much of its audience. The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah overlap in their portrayal of a time of political turmoil and intersect with portrayals of the murdered Black Panther Hampton. They are both historical and yet very timely, with the latter film being a stronger possibility. But it is the devastating, universal Nomadland (recipient of the Golden Globe for Best Drama) that will most likely take this year’s crown.

And that ends a very narrow, biased, wholly random assessment of a few of the upcoming Academy Award categories. Time — and Sunday night — will tell.

(Oh, and while there are some very fine works nominated for Best Animated Feature, my money is completely on Soul.)

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The first question Anne asks: “What happened?” The Father’s inciting conflict centers on the exit of a home healthcare worker who has quit after being threatened by the man in her charge. When Anne confronts her father, he falsely deflects: “She was stealing.” 

So begins the powerful, twisting course of The Father, as much a suspense thriller as it is a study of dementia. That question of “What happened?” becomes both thesis and driving force for all that follows.

French playwright Florian Zeller makes a sure-handed, sensitive directorial debut with an adaptation of his award-winning play. The Father garnered accolades for its 2014 Paris premiere; international stagings followed in forty-five countries. The Manhattan Theatre Club production received a Tony nomination for Best Play. Its star Frank Langella won the Tony Award for Best Actor.

Imogen Poots, Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

Zeller has co-written the screenplay with Christopher Hampton; Hampton is responsible for the English translation used in the London, Australian, and New York stage productions. Occasionally, the dialogue sounds like elevated text. The screenplay carries a tone found in the works of many language-centric playwrights (Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Simon Gray, etc.). Whether this reflects Zeller’s writing or Hampton’s adaptation is hard to judge. For the most part, the style works in this dream/nightmare world.

Anthony Hopkins plays eighty-year-old retired engineer Anthony (André in the play but renamed here for its star). He lives in his London flat, looked after by his daughter, Anne. But is it his flat or hers? Is she married or has she met someone and is moving to Paris? These are the ever-shifting questions as his reality is never fully grounded. 

Layered onto this is that two different actors of similar appearance play Anne —predominantly Olivia Colman, but also Olivia Williams. Also, two actors appear as her husband Paul: Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss. Laura, a new home healthcare provider who reminds Anthony of his other daughter, Laura, is played by Imogen Poots. Until she isn’t. The apartment itself is never quite the same, changing in the placement of a lamp or a new chair’s appearance. Morning and evening don’t so much blend as occur simultaneously. 

Anthony obsesses his watch’s whereabouts; if a bit on the nose, the point is his loss of time. Sometimes the action suggests several days; other times, it feels that a single day is playing over. The same uncomfortable dinner seems to recur, but always with slightly different details. The plot is simple; the execution is complex as it goes deeper into Anthony’s ever-shifting sense of his world.

Hopkins’ work has bridged the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including stage, screen, and television. He has had an unmatched body of work. Performances include the Academy Awarding-winning turn as The Silence of the Lambs’ insidious Hannibal Lecter, the rigidly oblivious butler Stevens in Remains of the Day, the deeply felt C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, and his monumental King Lear in 2018 (a good parallel reference to The Father). He has delivered indelible performances for over six decades. 

His work in The Father is no less than brilliant. He brings raw depth to Anthony’s frustration and growing paranoia. Flashes of anger followed by clumsy recovery present with a frail honesty: “Everything is fine … the world is turning.” Moments of childlike abandonment — “What’s going to become of me?” — are followed by accusations and berating tirades. Hopkins makes Anthony’s loneliness and desolation palpable. Whether listening to opera or struggling to identify his son-in-law, Hopkins’ eyes are a window to Anthony’s pain.

In a heartbreaking moment, he cannot figure out how to put on a sweater, and then allows Anne to put him in it. In an oasis of clarity, he says, “Thank you for everything.” It offers a glimpse of who he might have been. But what always bubbles below the surface is the question of which is the real Anthony. Is it this kind, appreciative man or the vitriolic and hyper-articulate charmer who wins over Laura with an improvised tap dance? Hopkins, the actor, seamlessly navigates these shifts.

Olivia Colman’s conflicted daughter Anne swallows the constant slights, usually putting his needs before her own. In the threads in which she is married, Anthony’s presence in her home has caused her shaky relationship to crumble. Whether her father’s cruelty is something new or behavior she has endured her whole life is never revealed. But Colman’s repressed hurt and roiling guilt is achingly realized with every glance, hesitation, and sigh. Her breezy avoidance of directly answering his repetitive questions with cheery distraction belies the brittleness underneath. The performance is subtle, and the wounds are real.

While Hopkins dominates, the film’s title is The Father. It is not just about Anthony’s downward spiral, but about the effect on his relationship with his daughter, about her loss in this poignant, relevant story. Hopkins and Colman are equally matched.

Unlike the more meditative Still Alice, The Father’s tension is constant and relentless. The shifting of cast/characters highlights Anthony’s existential dread. Whether this reflects the experience of dementia, we can never know. 

In the end, Anthony asks, “What about me? Who … exactly am I?” While the film arrives at a conclusion that answers this question, there remains a shadow of ambivalence. However, in the doubt and pain, there resonates a breath of love, hope, and care.

Rated PG-13, The Father is now streaming on Amazon Video.

The last Blockbuster Video in existence located in Bend, Oregon

Reviewed (sort of) by Jeffrey Sanzel

You see, there’s this new movie — The Last Blockbuster — and it’s fun, you know (ya know)?

‘Cause, when you watch it, sure, you’re going to (gonna) watch it, but what you’re really going to (gonna — all right, I’ll stop now) do is remember. For a movie about a business that was only around for thirty-five years, it evokes a nostalgia for days-gone-by — for a kinder, gentler time before the world went to streaming-in-a-handbasket, and those crazy kids wouldn’t stay off your lawn. Or something like that.

But seriously. (Kinda …)

Writer-director Kevin Smith

As the various celebrities you might have heard of (and a whole bunch of people you’ve never seen) share their thoughts about Blockbuster, you’ll exclaim, “Right! That’s it! That’s what I did! That’s exactly right!” (And, yes, every sentence you say or think is going to end with an exclamation point.)

As I watched The Last Blockbuster, written by Zeke Kamm and directed by Taylor Morden, I thought of my video watching history. I was twenty when I bought my first VCR — a Goldstar I believe. I had memberships at two mom-and-pop stores (one was actually just several shelves in a pharmacy) where the prices ranged from $1 to $2.  

By the time I was in my early twenties, Blockbuster had replaced most small operations. I alternated between the two in Port Jefferson Station and the one in Rocky Point. It always the time/geography formula:

Let’s see, I’ll be coming from work, but I won’t be going back that way until Monday, so maybe if I swing by the one in Rocky Point before going home, that would make more sense. But, if I don’t rent any new releases, it would be just as easy to go to the one on Route 112, and I can return it when I’m on my way in to work on Monday. 

It became the world’s least significant word problem. “If a man leaves the house at noon, on a Tuesday, with one movie due the following day, but two movies rented three days earlier at $2.99 …”

So … The Last Blockbuster.

The Last Blockbuster, ironically, is now streaming on Netflix. Ironic because services like Netflix, while not directly killing video stores, were one of the final nails in its plastic coffin. The documentary goes to certain lengths to explain that it was the financial meltdown of 2008 that caused Blockbuster’s true downward spiral. But there is no question that streaming services and VOD were detrimental to the traditional setup.

Sandi Harding, manager of the last Blockbuster video store

The movie begins by tracing the history of the business. It follows the rise and the decline of the video rental service, giving insight into the shift from the small operations through the Blockbuster takeover, and the corporate stores versus the franchises. 

It points out that revenue sharing changed the entire face of the video industry. Blockbuster would sell movies to the stores at the lowest costs, and then they would take a percentage of the rental fee. It reduced the store owner’s costs from $100 a movie to a few dollars, enabling the purchase of multiple copies. As small video stores were incapable of competing, Blockbuster created a monopoly. 

At one point, Netflix offered to sell to Blockbuster for a surprisingly low price tag. The film’s hypothetical reenactment depicts this with great whimsy: Muppet-like puppets around a board room table laugh a Netflix rabbit out of the room.

The movie takes some time to find its rhythm. The filmmakers were concerned that the company’s history would not be interesting enough to be presented linearly so they’ve interspersed it with individual remembrances, which muddies the progress. Once they are past that, it flows better.

Comedian Doug Benson

The catalyst for the entire project is The Little Store That Could. At its peak, there were 9,000 Blockbuster stores. Supposedly, there was a time when one was opening every seventeen hours. When the filmmakers began, there were twelve remaining stores. Then there were four, with three of them in Alaska. And then there was one. 

As of 2019, the last existing Blockbuster is in Bend, Oregon, managed by Sandi Harding, the Blockbuster Mother. Much of the film focuses on Sandi, following her around the store and in her home, interacting with customers and her family, and shopping for stock at Target. 

Sandi is beloved, having employed dozens of young people in her community and many of her family members. She is charming, open, and honest. There is something truly noble about her desire to keep the store going — almost a mythic figure on a hero’s quest. We can’t help but root for her. 

Throughout, she is waiting to hear from Dish, the monolith who bought the bankrupt Blockbuster. The film’s only suspense is whether they will allow her to renew for another five years. The Bend store has now become a place of pilgrimage. People come from all over the world to take pictures and buy souvenirs. It is a Grand Canyon of pop culture.

Various men in the video industry offer insight into the business side. Often, there is a sense that they are reluctant witnesses, tight-lipped and uncomfortable, weighing in on both the smart and less savvy choices made by the company, including the infamous eradication of late fees, costing the company two-thirds of its revenue. They make for a strong contrast with the others who are interviewed simply for their love of the place. 

Brian Posehn in a scene from the film.

Writer-director Kevin Smith (Clerks) has only the fondest memories. Comedian Doug Benson is giddy when he finally visits Bend. Others singing the praises are actors Ione Skye, Brian Posehn, Paul Scheer, Samm Levine, and Jamie Kennedy. 

Particularly entertaining are the random musings of Ron Funches, whose free-associating is one of the film’s quirkier delights. Some have direct connections to Blockbuster in their pasts, having worked in local outfits in their teen years; others simply reminisce.

As I watched, I realized that everyone was saying the same thing, which brought me to the realization that what The Last Blockbuster truly celebrates is the universal experience. We are all part of a collective memory because we all had the same experience:

It’s Friday night, and we enter the blue and yellow temple with our significant other or spouse or family or friends. Occasionally, we make a solo visit. We breathe in the smell of stale popcorn and slightly opened soda, the library aroma of media dust, and the unique scent of plastic cases. We walk the perimeter of new releases, looking at each one, staring at the covers, occasionally reading a blurb. 

Oh, look, the one we wanted isn’t in. We go to the register and ask the clerk when it’s due back. It was due back today. So we stand at the counter and hope that it gets returned. After a bit, we roam the aisles, meandering into the older sections, neatly divided by genre. We make stacks of videos (and later DVDs). We negotiate: If we rent that for you, can we get this for me? Finally, we’re ready to check out. The clerk goes through each one to make sure that the tape matches the case.  (Ah, the plastic VHS cases with their brick-like weight and satisfying click as they close with a perfect snap.)

Sometimes we spent more time looking for the movies than we did watching them.

That was the Blockbuster culture. And that was a great part of the joy. “Ah,” we think, “the youth of today will never know this as they scroll through their My List of a hundred movies and a thousand television shows.”

The Last Blockbuster is not a great documentary. For something that doesn’t even run a full ninety minutes, it is often repetitive. But it has an enormous heart and genuine nostalgia. It celebrates the last bastion of a bygone era. So, when you watch it, be kind. (And rewind.)

Photos courtesy of 1091 Pictures

A scene from Minari. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In the opening shot of director-writer Lee Isaac Chung’s engrossing Minari, the Yi family arrives at the Arkansas land that the father Jacob (an extraordinary Steven Yeun) purchased. Jacob drives the truck with the family’s possessions. His wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri, simultaneously heartbreaking and a pillar of strength), follows in their car. A small crack in the windshield is almost indiscernible. But this fissure reflects the slow fracturing of the couple’s relationship.

Minari is a thoughtful film, both delicate and tense. And while the story is intimate, it is not small. It deals with the clash of family responsibility and the desire to follow a dream. 

A scene from the film

Initially, Chung wanted to adapt Willa Cather’s My Antonia, but he discovered the late author’s wishes blocked any screen adaptations. Still wanting to create a tale of rural life, he turned inwards and created a semi-autobiographical work inspired by his upbringing. He begins with a list of eighty childhood memories and guidance from Cather’s words: “Life began for me, when I ceased to admire and began to remember.” From this unusual start, Chung fashioned the wholly personal screenplay for Minari.

Jacob Yi has brought his family from California to Arkansas to start a farm — his own “Garden of Eden.” It is 1983, and 30,000 Korean immigrants were entering the United States annually. Jacob plans to grow Korean produce for sale to stores in Dallas. The Yis take-up residence in a single-wide, fourteen-foot trailer on the plot, and Jacob begins to farm. Monica’s stoicism cracks with their change in life: “It just gets worse and worse.”

In the meantime, Jacob and Monica continue the work they had done in California, sexing chickens in a hatchery. To watch their two children, they bring Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung, brilliantly eschewing any caricature of a grandmother), over from Korea.

While the family has come for a new start, the marriage shows signs of deep trouble. There are disagreements about where to live and how to spend their money; they don’t fully agree on dealing with their son’s heart murmur. They live in a cold distance, with anger always brewing under the brittle surface. Moments of affection are severed by the movement of a hand, the turning of a head, or the shrugging of a shoulder. The children’s stress reflects their parents’ inability to communicate. Soon-ja observes, “You two will fight over anything.” The daughter, Anne (Noel Kate Cho, mature beyond her years), is more parent than child, running interference and caring for her younger brother, David (Alan Kim, real, honest, and very funny).

Two pieces become central to the story. The first is water, the essential element of farming. Its importance in its presence and absence threads through the entire film. The need for water comes full circle, almost as a washing away of mistakes that have come before. The water allows for a fresh beginning.

The second is the connection between David and his grandmother. Forced to share a room, he dislikes her for not being what his idea of a grandparent should be. His concept is the cookie-baking, non-swearing elder of American media. But from her, he draws strength and begins to leave the fear of illness behind. The bond is a real one; there is nothing precious or sentimental. The grandmother takes him to plant the titular minari (a sort of wild celery). For her, minari represents all that is wonderful: it protects and heals; it grows wild and yet nurtures. It is perhaps not the subtlest part of the film, but it perfectly defines the grandmother-grandson link.

Elements of Korean culture — in food, discipline, and family — are carefully woven into the film, present without being “presented.” There is a yearning for their homeland but also the shadow of the Korean War. The parents predominantly speak Korean to each other and the children. The children respond in kind. However, between them, Anne and David speak English. Language is both communication and barrier, constantly floating and shifting. American culture appears in some of the most unlikely places. The obsession with Mountain Dew is both amusing and telling.

A scene from ‘Minari’

The film lives in the beats and the silences. Whether it is a shot of the idyllic verdant landscape or the dark, cramped trailer, life unfolds. While beautifully cinematic, there is no artifice. In an unusual and exquisite performance, Will Patton plays Paul, a Korean War veteran who works side-by-side with Jacob. Paul, who is a bit of a religious fanatic, chatters and blesses. But he is kind, and, even in his eccentricity, Paul is grounded in the established world. 

When the family attends church, the citizens of the nearby town welcome them. They are not a hillbilly send-up, with a reception that is kind if a bit awkward. While Monica was the motivating force to attend, she decides not to return but sends the children each week. The Yis face curiosity, subjected to the occasional peculiar question or comment. But they are not ostracized or mistreated. Chung offers human beings and not archetypes. 

Discussions about religion and heaven, many of them directed towards David, swirl about the characters. But in the end, Minari is about a different kind of belief. With its flawless cast and sensitive writing and direction, the film illustrates the ability to overcoming obstacles. It shows faith in self, growth, and the love of family. In short, Minari is about life.

Rated PG-13, Minari is now streaming on Amazon Video

Photos courtesy of A24

 

Dev Patel stars as David Copperfield in latest adaptation. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
A joyous new vision of a Dickens classic

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” — the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield

After Shakespeare (and perhaps J.K. Rowling), Charles Dickens is the most famous writer in the English language. His major works include Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, and A Christmas Carol, with hundreds of stage, screen, and television adaptations.

Charles Dickens began crafting his autobiography in the late 1840s. But he found the writing too painful and burned what he had written. He then fictionalized many of his personal experiences for what became David Copperfield. It is Dickens’ premiere work told in the first person (and note that David Copperfield’s initials are Charles Dickens’ backward, suggesting a reflection of the author himself).

From left, Tilda Swinton, Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie and Rosalind Eleazar in a scene from the film.
Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The Personal History of David Copperfield was published in monthly installments, serialized from 1849 to 1850, and then brought out in book form. Dickens’ longest work, Copperfield is rich in plot and contains close to one hundred characters. It is an incredible journey, full of adventure, but it is also about mastering one’s fate, growing from passive child to self-aware adult. Young David is acted upon; adult David is a figure who has taken control of his own life.

The cinematic history includes three silent and over a half dozen others. The most notable is the two-part BBC television version (1999) featuring an extraordinary cast, with Danielle Radcliffe as young David, Bob Hoskins as Mr. Micawber, and Maggie Smith as Aunt Betsey. 

The newest incarnation is a unique and slightly madcap adaptation. Directed by Armando Iannucci, from a screenplay by Iannucci and Simon Blackwell, it condenses the epic novel into a brisk, laugh-out-loud, and always heartfelt two hours. The choices are often wild and surprising, but no moment, no matter how peculiar, departs from the vision’s integrity.

The film opens with David Copperfield (a mesmerizing Dev Patel, reinventing the role) reading his book to a packed theatre. But is it David or Charles Dickens? Ultimately, it is both. He states the first two lines and then literally steps into the story, being present at his own birth. 

Baby David’s arrival coincides with the appearance of his late father’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood (impeccably played by Tilda Swinton, swanning through the story like a cross between a tornado and neurotic albatross). She declares herself the child’s godmother, leaving when presented with a boy and not the girl she was demanding. It is a comic rollercoaster of a scene, tumultuous and culminating with Betsey exiting in high dudgeon. And so begins David’s life. 

Young David (Jairaj Varsani, a child performer of exceptional skill) has an idyllic childhood. He is loved by a doting mother (the delicate and sweet Morfydd Clark) and his even more attentive nursemaid Peggotty (genuine warmth and personal proverbs as played by Daisy May Cooper). The peace is shattered by his mother’s remarriage to Edward Murdstone (terrifying in Darren Boyd’s cold-eyed villainy). Murdstone’s abuse of David begins the cycle of flux that he will face for the rest of his life. He gains, then loses, then recovers, only to lose again.

Eschewing the boarding school section, David is banished to the blacking factory, sentenced to work in miserable conditions. This pivotal juncture is taken directly from the darkest chapter of Dickens’ childhood, one he kept secret his entire life. David boards with penurious Micawber (Peter Capaldi, artfully blending the kind and the con) and his ever-growing family. It seems that every time David meets up with the Micawber family, they have added a baby to the ever-expanding brood. 

Dev Patel and Morfydd Clark. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Micawber and his wife (bubbling and bug-eyed Bronagh Gallagher) are hunted and haunted by creditors, much like Dickens’s own father: Both the Micawbers and Dickens’ parents wound up in debtors’ prison. The Micawbers are Dickens’ gentle depiction of his parents, for whom he bore a life-long grudge due to his exile to the blacking factory. Later, Capaldi is pathetically outrageous as Micawber attempts — and fails — to teach a Latin lesson.

Unlike in the novel, the factory sequence shows David’s transition from boy to man. When Murdstone informs him of his mother’s death, David’s reaction is violent, more reminiscent of Nicholas Nickleby beating the schoolmaster than the always put-upon and long-suffering David Copperfield. Iannucci’s vision is self-actualized and capable of independence. 

David walks from London to Dover, seeking sanctuary with his Aunt Betsey. Even under duress, he aids Betsey’s lodger, the eccentric Mr. Dick (heart-breaking and hilarious Hugh Laurie, a man with the delusion that the decapitated King Charles I’s thoughts have been placed in his head). 

In the bosom of his remaining family, David thrives (for a while). There is romance and adventure, complications and resolutions. The film handles them with quick turns, ranging from near-slapstick to deep introspection. The narrative is rich in whimsy but doesn’t avoid the darkness. The characters retain the vivid character traits endowed by Dickens but are enriched with inner lives. 

David’s creativity is highlighted, even as a young child. He spins yarns and draws sketches, heralding the great writer. Like Dickens, he jots down unusual phrases and collects the people in his life, developing them in the mirror.

There is a meta-cinematic quality about the film, often breaking (and literally tearing) the fourth wall to allow the characters to observe or even flow into other scenes. The film’s colors are lush and rich, leaning towards childhood fantasy, but can quickly shift to somber shades. As a child, the seaside town of Yarmouth was a place of storybook magic; when David returns, it is a place of shadows.

In addition to the previously mentioned cast members, note should be made of Rosalind Eleazar, who makes the intolerably insipid Agnes Wickfield a strong, likable foil for the maturing David. Clark, who plays young David’s mother, Clara, doubles beautifully as David’s love interest Dora Spenlow — endearing, exhausting, and empty-headed. Uriah Heep, usually much oilier and damp in his “umble” sycophancy, is more dangerous in Ben Whishaw’s performance. Paul Whitehouse’s Mr. Peggotty is appropriately paternal; Benedict Wong brings tannic notes to the dissipated Mr. Wickfield. 

Whether it is colorblind or color-conscious, casting director Sarah Crowe has perfectly gathered an enormous, multi-racial company, flawless from Dev Patel’s dimensional, delightful David to Scampi, who plays Dora’s dog Jip.

While Iannucci takes liberties with much of the novel, most notably in the latter half’s rushed solution, this Copperfield celebrates the original by transcending it. The film culminates with a catharsis rooted in hope. Perhaps purists would lean towards the more complete and faithful 1999 version, but in the spirit and the sense of joy, the new David Copperfield is wholly satisfying.

Rated PG, the film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Margaret Qualley stars in Joanna Rakoff's memoir

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir My Salinger Year joins The Devil Wears Prada and The Nanny Diaries as veiled paeans to victimhood. In 1996, young Joanna, having just acquired a bachelor’s degree in English, goes to work for a prestigious literary agency. She learns to stand up for herself and moves on, with lessons learned and head held high. 

Sigourney Weaver and Qualley in a scene from the film.

The boss (called the Boss in the book and Margaret in the film) is not a demon on the level of Prada’s Amanda Priestly. Rather, she is an eccentric holdover from an earlier era, maintaining a kingdom locked in the 1950s. Think of her as the Boss from Heck. All employees must use typewriters, with a single computer introduced to track copyright violations. The agency dwells in the world of martini lunches and name-dropping its most prestigious — and mostly dead — clients: Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christine, and, of course, J.D. Salinger. Salinger is the jewel in the agency’s crown. The organization is responsible for all his literary business and for dealing with the thousands of fan letters that have steadily arrived for decades.

The book emphasizes Joanna’s fears, with the earlier part of the work written in a tightly wound, almost neurotic prose, coming out and fits and starts. As she matures, so does the relating of her story.

Turning a book about the love of books, writing, and writers into a film is challenging. To show the passion for the written word in a cinematic setting has myriad pitfalls. The tone is either lost or shifted. What is often simple and honest is forced to take on a more melodramatic tone. 

The film My Salinger Year balances its faith to the source and the need for a more cinematic-friendly narrative. Joanna’s personal life is simplified, focusing on her decision not to return to Berkley to join her long-term boyfriend and to remain in New York. She quickly becomes involved with Don, a wannabe novelist who works part-time in a socialist bookstore. A few years older and a complete narcissist, Don goes from supportive to condescending to emotionally destructive. 

Assistants in the literary world believe that they will be reading brilliant manuscripts and use the contacts and opportunity to fulfill their ambitions. In Joanna’s case, she has had two poems published in The Paris Review and has her heart and sights set on The New Yorker. 

Much to her chagrin, Joanna is relegated to secretary, transcribing Margaret’s letters from Dictaphone tapes. Joanna is also assigned the form letter — dating from 1963 — that is the only approved answer to any mail sent to Salinger. The letter states that Salinger does not correspond. Eventually, Joanna takes it on herself to respond personally, with varying degrees of success and disaster. In the film, a disgruntled high school girl arrives in person to castigate Joanna. In the book, it is all done via post.

Margaret Qualley stars in Joanna Rakoff’s memoir

The main action focuses on Salinger wanting to publish one of his old magazine stories, “Hapsworth,” in a stand-alone volume, printed by a small press in Virginia. Salinger expects his exact specifications to be adhered to, with no surrounding publicity for the tome’s release. The book and the film take two completely divergent paths to this event.

Joanna connects with Salinger during his occasional phone calls, and he encourages her to write every day. And Joanna, who had never read any of Salinger’s works — “What I imagined Salinger to be: insufferably cute, aggressively quirky, precious” — reads and understands their power and value.

Margaret Qualley’s Joanna is fully-realized, finding the humor and the strength in creating a dimensional character. She is never maudlin or self-indulgent and appears to be taking in everything around her. Qualley makes Joanna’s watching watchable. Her falling for Don (appropriately pretentious and self-involved as played by Douglas Booth) is wholly believable. Her actions speak to someone seeking adventure. Her gradual awareness of his cruelty is painful and truthful. 

Sigourney Weaver plays Margaret with the grandeur of someone living in a different era. A cigarette constantly in hand, she can be both deliberately and casually cruel. After a terrible loss, she leans into the brittleness of the boss’s crumbling foundation. Weaver also makes Margaret utterly unpredictable, lending both tension and relief in turn.

Colm Feore has a small but pivotal role as Margaret’s partner, slightly built up from a character only mentioned in the book. His spritely and delicate presence provides contrast to Weaver’s often harsh callousness. 

Almost Dickensian denizens populate the office. Brían F. O’Byrne’s Hugh deals with the contracts but is also the kindest and most interested in Joanna. Yanic Truesdale, as Max, brings the right energy to the partner who wants the agency to move forward. Leni Parker embodies the office manager, Pam, who is completely devoted to the antique ways and the old guard. Théodore Pellerin, as Boy from Winston-Salem, has the right blend of edge and sadness as Joanna’s imaginary confidant. Tim Post, only glimpsed, provides kindness in the voice of J.D. Salinger.

Writer-director Philip Falardeau has mostly succeeded in creating a film that honors the book’s spirit but finds interesting ways to present some of the more introspective moments. Wisely, he allows Joanna to express her thoughts in voiceover or directly to the camera. Also, instead of Joanna reading the letters, he shows the fans in their environments, having them communicate directly with Joanna. The further she goes into the letters, the more present they become. It is a device that has been seen elsewhere but is used effectively and to good purpose.

Where the film is weakest is in a tendency to veer towards the saccharine. It often tries too hard to make a point about the humanity of a character, rather than letting the actions speak for themselves. There is a grating fantasy dance sequence that only confuses. An infuriating bit of business with a fan letter contradicts all the established norms — and flies in everything the book professes. These liberties are annoying but do not eradicate the film’s overall integrity.

My Salinger Year is an engaging if uneven portrait of the ability to transform. Occasionally, its predictability undermines its own spark. But, in the end, it celebrates the love of the written word, brought to life with a strong cast and a creative eye. Rated R, the film is now streaming on demand.

Photos courtesy of IFC Films

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Eddie Murphy is one of America’s most successful performers. He began his career in stand-up comedy, and he followed this with a memorable stint on Saturday Night Live. His film work has included some of the most iconic comedic movies of the 80s: 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, and Coming to America.

Coming to America (1988) starred Murphy as Akeem Joffer, the Crown Prince of the African nation of Zamunda. On his twenty-first birthday, he decides that instead of a prearranged marriage, he will go to America to find a wife. With a coin flip, he chooses New York and selects Queens as the logical place to seek her out. He falls in love with Lisa Macdowell (Shari Headley), the oldest daughter of a fast-food restaurant owner (John Amos). 

In addition to his wide-eyed and well-intentioned if slightly oblivious royal, Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall each played another three supporting roles. The film was funny, raunchy, and a huge hit. While critical response was mixed, it was a financial success. Coming to America was Paramount’s highest-earning film and the third-highest-grossing film in United States box office. Its worldwide total is estimated as high as $350 million. (It is Eddie Murphy’s eighth highest-grossing film.)

Thirty years is a longtime to wait for a sequel: Coming 2 America. It is directed by Craig Brewer, with a screenplay by Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein, and David Sheffield, from a story by Blaustein, Sheffield, and Justin Kanew, based on characters created by Eddie Murphy. Many cooks created a fairly thin broth.

The King (James Earl Jones) is dying, and Akeem will succeed him. By the country’s law, the succession may only pass onto a male heir. Revealed is that while accidentally high, Akeem had a one-night stand with Mary Junson (Leslie Jones) before meeting Lisa (Headley) and fathered a son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler). Akeem and Semmi (Hall) return to New York and bring Lavelle and Mary back to Zamunda. Akeem plans to train Lavelle as the crown prince. Shortly after, Lavelle sends for Mary’s brother, his Uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan). 

Meanwhile, Zamunda faces a threat from its militaristic neighbor Nextdoria, ruled by dictator General Izzi (Wesley Snipes). Izzi is the older brother of Imani (Vanessa Bell Calloway), who Akeem jilted in the first film. Upon discovery that Akeem has a successor, the General wants Lavelle to marry his daughter Bopoto (Teyana Taylor). All of this frustrates Akeem’s capable eldest daughter, Princess Meeka (KiKi Layne), who aspires to run the kingdom. While being trained as a prince, Lavelle falls in love with his no-nonsense royal groomer Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha).

Coming 2 America is a mirror image of the first film — another fish-out-of-water comedy but in reverse. Instead of a prince lost in the modern American chaos, it is an urban American transplant struggling in Africa’s royal wilds. Most humor dwells in low-hanging fruit, trading on vulgar jokes, rehashing some of the funnier bits from the first film, and the occasional meta-jab (for example, a shot at sequels). 

Leslie Jones is saddled with the most obvious lines: When told that what she thinks are black mashed potatoes is caviar, she turns to Lavelle and says, “You have a cousin named Caviar.” The return to the barbershop with Murphy and Hall reprising their roles is a portrait of political incorrectness. This would be fine if used to make a statement of some kind; instead, it is a way to shoehorn the old jokes. Hall’s predatory minister, Reverend Brown, falls into the same category: a retread with no reward. The film even stoops to a circumcision joke.

Worse, the threat of war with Nextoria is hardly benign but a bizarre attempt is made to play it for laughs. But the guns, the soldiers, and the violence are very real.

The movie has a few strong moments. One of the best scenes involves a job interview. Lavelle comes into direct conflict with white privilege, embodied by Mr. Duke (Colin Jost). The scene is genuinely funny—Lavelle uses his “white voice” to attempt to secure a position for which he is qualified but under-educated. The encounter reflects Lavelle’s day-to-day challenges. It helps that Fowler has an easy charm and is genuinely likable. His strut is a thin mask for a good young man who wants to grow into a better adult. He never severs his connection to his Queens roots but is open to what Zamunda has to offer. Fowler owns his hero’s journey.

Eddie Murphy is no longer the innocent but self-actualized prince. However, it hasn’t been replaced with any true self-awareness until far too late in the story. His prince was a master of his fate; his king plays more as a sitcom husband who seems constantly perplexed by everything around him. Is this a function of three decades away from the role? Or from indecision in the writing? Either way, while central to the film, his energy is intermittent, and his presence is almost secondary.

The same problem could be said of Headley’s Lisa, who was so wonderfully strong. Here, she seems lost, neither queen nor commoner. The writers use the simplistic device of getting her drunk so that she may speak her inner voice. 

Hall gives the same reliable performance and has not appeared to have aged at all He, like Fowler, has an inherent likability. He has less to do with seemingly lower stakes, but he makes the most of his screen time.

Both Jones and Morgan have the same material they’ve been given elsewhere but usually better crafted. As they have cornered the particular brand of humor, their laughs come easily but their sources are uninspired. In contrast, Layne and Mbatha play it straight and come out with dignity if no laughs.

Perhaps best of all is Wesley Snipes’ psychotic General. Entering in increasingly outrageous military garb, he seems to be having a grand time chewing the scenery and taking Izzi to the extreme. It is a departure from his usual portrayals, and he makes him both hilarious and dangerous.

John Amos and Louie Anderson return in their roles from the first film, but it feels like they’re trotted out more for the nostalgia than for what they can add to the story. There is a wide range of cameos, including Morgan Freeman, En Vogue, Salt-N-Pepa, and Gladys Knight. Murphy’s daughter, Bella, plays the middle princess.

Visually, the film is striking. Ruth E. Carter’s extraordinary costumes match Jefferson Sage’s rich production design. Fatima Robinson’s choreography is joyously athletic. 

The film tries to make some feminist statements, but it gets wobbly when entering this territory. Throughout, it vaguely hints around it but doesn’t fully address the idea until the end when it also introduces the idea of finding one’s destiny. The writers want to cover all their bases and give short shrift to the value of both concepts.

Sadly, Coming 2 America is a sequel that so many wanted, and so few will find satisfying.

Rated PG-13, the movie is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video

Photos courtesy of Amazon Studios

 

Henry Golding in a scene from 'Monsoon'. Photo courtesy of Dat Vu

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Writer-director Hong Khaou made his feature film debut with the critically acclaimed drama Lilting. It is the story of a mother’s grief after her son’s untimely passing, along with her attempts to communicate with her son’s lover, even though they don’t speak the same language. His beautiful sophomore outing, Monsoon, focuses on a different kind of loss and addresses the barrier not just of language but also of culture.

The film opens with a bird’s eye view of traffic, with cars and motorbikes flowing in and around each other, paying no heed to lights or lines. This world is a strangely organized chaos into which Kit (Crazy Rich Asian’s Henry Golding) steps. 

Parker Sawyers and Henry Golding in a scene from the film.

Kit has traveled to Vietnam, having left at the age of six. His family had escaped and sought refuge in England after the Vietnam War, and now he has returned to scatter his parents’ ashes. The plot is simple, but his burden runs deep: Thirty years later, he realizes that he no longer feels a part of his home country. He is incapable of speaking his native language and does not recognize so much of the changing landscape.

Along the way, he reconnects with a childhood friend, Lee (David Tran), whose happiness to see him is muted by wariness. Lee reveals that Kit’s mother had lent Lee’s family money to set up a small business. Lee is afraid that Kit will ask for a repayment of what Lee perceived as a loan. While trying to find his bearings, Kit’s one-night internet hookup with an American entrepreneur, Lewis (Parker Sawyers), turns into a romance. 

Kit decides that he doesn’t want to bury his parents’ ashes in the Saigon family home because it seems on the verge of being torn down. So, he ventures to Hanoi, his parents’ birthplace. He takes the thirty-eight-hour train trip to see if it would be a more appropriate resting place. On the train, he briefly encounters a traveling Frenchman, Stephane (Edouard Leo), who mistakes him for a native. Once again, Kit feels that he is a man out-of-place. (Whether or not they hook up is left open-ended.) 

The film consistently shows and does not tell with moments of tempered joy. Lee brings Kit to the location of the pond where they used to play. Long gone, now it is the site of a half-finished building, with stacks of bricks and scaffolding. And yet, there is a faint glint of happiness in Kit’s eyes as he remembers the bridge that spanned the pond. It is a small moment and shows a modicum of hope.

A scene from the film.

He strikes up a friendship with Linh (Molly Harris), a curator/guide who gives Hanoi’s art tours. She brings him to her family home, where he partakes in the scenting of lotus tea, her family’s business for generations. It is a scene of great charm and simplicity and one that gives Kit another opportunity of belonging.

Monsoon is an intimate movie. It is about inward reflection and searches for identity. Much of the film watches Kit try to take in the new Vietnam to understand his roots. Across from his upscale hotel are barely livable shacks. Great wealth lives side-by-side with crushing poverty. Kit stands in the center of this whirling metropolis — in the eye of the storm. He feels the pulsing of the city in all its relentless intensity. The story is more episodic than linear, a series of experiences where Kit tries to bring past and present together. 

For much of the film, the dialogue is minimal; the narrative relies upon Kit’s reactions. It is a quiet film but not told in silence. There is the constant cityscape of noise and traffic that underscores almost every moment.

Monsoon only touches on the Vietnam War, but it is always looming. Lee speaks of it and its devastating aftermath but does so in hushed and tacit tones. Lewis shares his father’s eighteen months in the War and twenty confirmed kills. Years later, he committed suicide. Whether these two things are related is never made clear.

Sawyers makes Lewis likable and slightly enigmatic. His ability to convey his understanding of Kit enriches their relationship. Tran is a bit stiff as Lee, but this could be intentional; he never seems at ease, making his interactions with Kit appropriately uncomfortable. Harris is delightfully outgoing, and her engaging brightness gives energy to her brief scenes.

But the film is entirely Kit’s, and Golding is remarkable. He looks; he walks; he touches; he stops; he explores. Golding makes each moment count. His Kit is complicated, often incredibly warm, and almost absent at the same time. He conveys Kit’s sense of being more tourist than someone returning home, with his refrain, “I hardly recognize this country anymore.” 

Monsoon is not so much a movie of plot or even character. It is more a study of what it is to have lost your roots and the desire to find them again. It is a film of observation and alienation. But it is also a story in which there is a deep and satisfying sense of awakening. While there is no full closure and much is left unanswered, there is a sense that Kit has taken his first steps towards understanding his journey. And, with Monsoon, it is a journey worth taking.

Not rated, Monsoon is currently streaming on demand.

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Kyle Allen and Kathryn Newton in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The premise of a time loop has long been a staple of science fiction novels and movies. The most notable example is the 1993 fantasy Groundhog Day, in which a narcissistic television reporter (Bill Murray) is trapped in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where he repeats February 2. Rightfully, it has become a classic comedy, relying on Murray’s performance of edge-to-awakening and a first-rate script by director Harold Ramis, collaborating with Danny Rubin. 

Based on the Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill, the less memorable Edge of Tomorrow (2014; marketed appropriately as Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow on home media) utilized a similar structure. Here, Tom Cruise is a military officer learning how to defeat alien invaders. 

Both Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow are referenced in The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, a light comedy-drama, with Lev Grossman’s screenplay, based on his well-crafted short story. 

The film follows high school senior Mark (Kyle Allen) already well into his live-repeat of a summer day in Lexington, Massachusetts. His day follows the same sequence of waking up just after his mother pulls away from the house and continues with his interaction with his sister (Cleo Fraser) and slightly lost father (Josh Hamilton). 

The breakfast scene shows Mark anticipating everything from the popping of the toaster to speaking simultaneously with his sister as she snidely calls him a loser to his knowing all of the answers to his father’s crossword puzzle. Mark then wanders the town, slightly shifting a range of moments in the world but not growing much from his experiences. His isolation has the feel of the last man on earth. No matter what he tries, every day resets at midnight, as if he is snatched by “some cosmic nanny.”

Mark’s universe shifts with the introduction of Margaret (Kathryn Newton), whom he encounters at the local pool. Quickly, she admits to being locked in the same pattern. What ensues is his pursuit of this mystery figure and their burgeoning friendship. Beginning with Margaret sharing with him an eagle swooping over a lake and capturing a fish, they embark on a quest to search out “tiny perfect” moments. The map they create of these events becomes pivotal in the resolution. 

Once they commit to the undertaking, there is a montage — a perfectly executed ride by a skate rat; angel wings on a truck lining up perfectly with a man sitting on a bench; an older woman’s victory dance after a perfect hand of cards; a girl creating an enormous soap bubble; a traffic stop to allow a turtle to cross the road; a cloud in the shape of a question mark. While this is happening, Margaret takes the odd phone call and rushes off without an explanation. 

They have a date “on the moon,” which culminates with a bicycle ride through the school hallways. (The score indicates much of the film’s emotion, either smart or a cheat, depending on which way you look at it.) The closer they become, the more she pulls away. This conflict is the heart of the story, which resolves near the end. 

Tension rises between them as he falls for her. In turn, he wants their odd existence to mean something. She is inexplicably hesitant and pulls away. With this, he accepts that his problem is a lack of awareness of the struggle of the people around him; his downward spiral into loneliness sets him on a new and more positive course.

The film finds standard but entertaining ways to harness the gimmick. They give away money to random strangers. They stuff themselves with ice cream and junk food. A wonderful sequence is the near misses involving a beach ball and a girl at the pool. Another running joke shows Mark stopping a man (cameo by author Grossman) from being the victim of bird droppings. 

A major change from the short story’s first-person narrative is the introduction of Mark’s sidekick, the video game playing Henry (Jermaine Harris). As there is no voiceover, this gives Mark a chance to public his thoughts. While a facile solution, it works because of Harris’s command of Henry’s understated patter and dubious puzzlement over Mark’s strange musings. Henry being locked on the same level of the alien-themed video game adds another layer (and a nod towards Edge of Tomorrow and the overall thematic metaphor) to the story. 

For the most part, the film is a two-hander, relying on the charm of its leads. Allen has a bland, all-American charm that works for Mark. His realizations are believable, and his shift from passive to active drives the last third of the film. Newton manages not to overplay Margaret’s quirkiness. She is off-beat but grounded, with a playful veneer masking the pain underneath. She makes a line like “I’ll call you tomorrow … today … tomorrow,” both humorous and melancholy. They have good chemistry, which makes them sharing this existential problem convincing and saves the growing romance from becoming saccharine. 

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is a sweet if predictable diversion. The idea of fixing what we can and accepting what we cannot is certainly not an original concept. Nor is the idea that growth comes from facing challenges. But in its telling, the film is a pleasant if obvious look at how we move forward. 

Rated PG-13, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is now streaming on Amazon Prime.