Have you been back to a movie theater yet?
I went back July 9th for the opening night of Cate Shortland's Black Widow, the latest Marvel/Disney extravaganza. It was my
first time in a theater in nearly eighteen months. I went with two friends who are fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and through whom I have learned what little I know
I have always regarded going to a movie theater as a two-hour vacation, a suspension of one's daily cares, a special experience even if the
movie itself is bad. Perhaps I expected too much of my return. The cavernous lobby of the multiplex was nearly empty, and the theater itself, with 250 seats, had an
audience of maybe twenty. Nearly all the sixteen theaters were showing Black Widow. That, I surmised, was a cheaper technique of social distancing than setting
up plexiglass barriers or roping off seats.
The previews were what I remembered, only more so. My friends expressed interest in the trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the
Ten Rings, the next Marvel film scheduled for release. But we were underwhelmed by the previews for Jungle Cruise, Disney's latest attempt to cash in on its
existing theme park rides, a' la Pirates of the Caribbean; Old, M. Night Shyamalan's latest attempt to recapture the lightning he snared with The Sixth Sense; and Joe Bell, Hollywood's
latest attempt to contrive Oscar bait from a socially conscious sentimental weeper. There were several other previews which I do not remember, because they were not
In other words, what I mostly felt was emptiness. "(M)oviegoing post-covid feels like 'Cinema 2: Same Movie, Same Theater,' as stale as
yesterday's popcorn," wrote Caetlin Benson-Allott, a film professor at Georgetown University, in the Washington Post about her own return to theaters. I share
Benson-Allott's concern about Hollywood's lack of imagination, its reflexive reach for the formulas that worked in the past. Even the movies that aren't sequels seem like
sequels. "(T)hey're selling cinema on the promise of familiarity, as a never-never land where nothing has really changed and there's no global catastrophe to reckon
with—except for the fictional one on screen, of course," she wrote.
This is not intended as a criticism of Black Widow, which is a good entry in the Marvel series, though not as enthralling as Black Panther.
According to publicity, the film is a bridge between Avengers: Civil Wars (which I didn't see) and Avengers: Infinity War (which I did).
Black Widow begins with an idyllic scene in suburban Ohio, circa 1995, in which two young sisters are playing in their backyard.
Within a few minutes, the idyll is blown to hell. It turns out the sisters are really Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova, the surrogate children of Russian sleeper agents
Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). The four fugitives make a daring airplane escape, dodging the anti-aircraft weaponry of American
lawmen. In a few hours they have landed at the top-secret base of General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Alexei and Melina are reassigned; Natasha and Yelena are sent to the
Red Room, where orphaned Russian girls are trained to become elite assassins known as "Black Widows."
This sets the stage for the main action twenty-odd years later, with the
grown Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) reuniting for a caper involving a car chase, an assassination attempt, a prison break,
an avalanche, and the antidote to the mind-control drug Dreykov uses to make Black Widows obedient to his will. The action scenes are all
spectacular in a quotidian, been-there-done-that way; where the movie really comes to life is in the fraught but loving relationship between
Natasha and Yelena, and their brief reunion with Alexei and Melina. It turns out, to their complete surprise, that they were a family after all, or at
least as much of one as any of them ever knew.
As always with a Marvel film, the characters are more interesting than in
the usual fantasy-action flick, and so are the performances. Johansson clearly relishes the chance to expand on the character of Natasha, and she
brings back welcome memories of the late Diana Rigg as another, more distant Avenger, Emma Peel. Pugh is even better, reaffirming the charm
and sassiness she brought to the role of Amy in Greta Gerwig's Little Women.
The final scene of Black Widow sets up a new adventure for Pugh, but the box office for Black Widow—falling 67 percent in its second week—raises
questions as to whether the Marvel franchise will remain the cash cow it has been for many years. Some commentators have blamed Disney's
decision to release the film simultaneously on Disney Plus; one of them is Johansson, who has sued Disney because her compensation for the film is
based on a percentage of gross receipts. Others think the Marvel Universe may be losing its appeal to filmgoers. I have no idea about the second
factor, but the first seems to be part of the problem, combined with the alienating chill of theaters as they are now. An empty, echoing hall is no
place to see a movie, even one as obviously designed for the big screen as Black Widow.
But are our living rooms a permanently satisfactory alternative? I have
gotten used to seeing new films in mine, and a small, intimate film such as Lee Isaac Chung's Minari is not harmed by the lack of a theater. I saw Minarion DVD from Netflix, but it is also available on streaming platforms
including Amazon Prime, Vudu and Google Play.
Minari takes its title from the name of a plant, commonly eaten as a
vegetable in Korea and other Asian countries, which grows freely when planted near a river or creek. It makes a fitting metaphor for the film's
protagonists—Korean immigrants who transplant themselves from California to an Arkansas farm in the 1980s.
Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun, one of Minari's executive producers) has a dream
of growing Korean vegetables in Arkansas for immigrant customers. This dream is not shared by Monica (Han Ye-ri). Monica bridles when she sees
the family's new house, a double-wide trailer. "This isn't what you promised," she tells Jacob, the first of many tense scenes between them.
Their children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim) listen to their parents' fights in silence.
Jacob and Monica work boring jobs sexing chicks at a chicken processing
plant. In his spare time, Jacob plows and irrigates his fields with the help of Paul (Will Patton), an eccentric, fanatically religious neighbor. Monica,
desperately lonely, does her best to keep house and raise the children. To add to the family's burdens, David has a heart condition.
Feeling overwhelmed, Jacob and Monica invite Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung),
Monica's mother, to join them in Arkansas. David—who has the idea that his grandmother is the reason for his parents fighting—is hostile to
Soon-ja. "You're not a real grandma!" he tells her. "They bake cookies, they don't swear, and they don't wear men's underwear!" At one point
David pulls a prank on Soon-ja that is best described as a watered-down variation on the revenge Octavia Spencer wreaks on Bryce Dallas Howard in The Help.
Soon-ja, however, is patient with David, and eventually wins him over. She
also plants the minari seeds she brought from Korea, the symbol of her family's new home.
The Yi family encounters little in the way of overt prejudice from their new
neighbors; their battles are with themselves, each other, and the elements. The family suffers some near-tragedies, but also some surprising strokes of good fortune.
Minariis an impressive addition to the list of films about the immigrant experience. While Minari belongs in that pantheon, it reminds me most of The Yearling, Clarence Brown's 1946 film based on Marjorie Kinnan
Rawlings' novel about a farm family in backwoods Florida. The Yearling and Minari share an episodic structure, a rural setting, the theme of a
family in crisis, and a gentle poignancy that in the end is uplifting.
Minari's excellence lies in Chung's lovingly crafted screenplay; in its
technical credits, especially Lachlan Milne's cinematography and Emile Mosseri's music; and, above all, in its ensemble cast. Youn Yuh-jung
deservedly became the first Korean actor to win an Academy Award, but all the others, including the children, are just as fine.
Black Widow and Minari, then, have nothing in common other than that
they are movies whose release was affected by the madness of the pandemic. One movie was more severely affected by that madness. I look
forward to the time when going to a movie theater will resume some semblance of pre-pandemic normality. With the surge of the delta variant,
I wonder when that will be, or even when I will enter a theater again.