Once upon a time, at least in my world, quadruple features weren't uncommon. I'm sure that watching four movies in a row might, to some, sound exhausting, if not excruciating. But it was usually a pretty painless process: I'd hit the cineplex for a mid-to-late-morning screening, stay for a 12:45 show, catch another around 2:30, view my final flick at 4:30-ish, and be home in time for dinner at a reasonable hour. Easy peasy … depending, of course, on the films' collective quality. Sometimes those eight hours would pass by in a breeze. Sometimes I'd feel every last one of the day's 480 minutes.
That was pre-pandemic. Now, given the longer breaks between showtimes (for cleaning and sanitizing, I'd presume), the absences of morning and late-night screenings, and fewer movies enjoying theatrical release than usual, it's virtually impossible to catch four new titles in a single day, grateful though I am that the Davenport cineplex is open at all. In fact, the last quadruple feature I attended took place, believe it or not, on Valentine's Weekend last year, back when our debuting choices included a Will Ferrell/Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy, a romance with Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield, and Sonic the Hedgehog. Man, those were the days, huh?
Yet guess what! This past Friday was positively teeming with area premieres, which means it's time to again play “Notes on a Quadruple Feature” … even though my screenings were spread out over three days … and I didn't technically see them all at the cineplex … .
Hey, it's COVID! I'm doing my best here!
Friday, February 12, 3:35 p.m.-ish: The completist in me is so delighted to be catching four new movies – three of them recently nominated for Golden Globe and/or Screen Actors Guild Awards – that I don't even mind that the collective titles are tackling subjects such as murder, suicide, imprisonment, torture, spousal abuse, a debilitating stroke, and temperatures even colder than the ones we're currently facing. Okay: I mind a little. (Where's that hyperactive blue hedgehog when you really need him?) So I decide to start my weekend screenings with Minari, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung's dramatic memoir about his Korean-American family's struggles as novice farmers in rural Arkansas. I figure it'll at least look warm.
Happily, it is warm, and not only because of the geographic climate. Set during the 1980s, Chung's film finds Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), a formerly successful chicken sexer in California, relocating his clan – wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and grade-schoolers Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim) – to the Arkansas Ozarks to forge a career farming Korean vegetables for Korean immigrants. Beginning with their residence, which turns out to be a trailer propped up on cinder blocks that's miles away from the nearest neighbor, the Yis don't exactly enjoy the glorious American Dream existence Jacob promised, with the man's farming skills iffy at best and matters complicated by the arrival of Monica's cantankerous mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), whom David instantly dislikes. Yet in a wonderful surprise that's also a considerable relief, the overtly hostile racism that movies have trained us to expect never surfaces after the Yis begin interacting with the locals. True, a few white children are initially, unconsciously insensitive. (One little boy asks David why his face is “so flat.”) But they're not cruel about it, and the adults are friendly and welcoming and more than willing to lend the Yis a hand – particularly Paul (Will Patton), a chatty, slightly unbalanced Korean War veteran who becomes Jacob's farming assistant and occasionally speaks in tongues.
In essence, then, what we're given in Minari are all the makings of a generational dramedy that would run on NBC for five or six seasons and score a bunch of Emmys, with longtime character actor Patton probably winning a couple for the most endearingly eccentric, Will Patton-y role he's played in decades. And there are certainly elements of Chung's loving reminiscence that make this TV-pilot-that-isn't play as too adorable (David's and Soon-ja's relationship is pure sitcom), or undernourished (Anne spends the entire movie oddly sidelined), or even, despite the Yis' ethnicity, conventional. While terrible things do happen, even the most significant crises are countered by hopefulness, and a few subplots – such as the heart murmur that continually threatens David's well-being – are resolved with a blitheness that's nearly inseparable from contrivance.
Yet the movie works. It's filled with beautifully observed insight regarding farming practices and the economic hardships of the lower-middle-class in rural America, and the details that Chung includes – Jacob plowing his field while smoking a cigarette, Soon-ja relishing a TV boxing match – suggest a filmmaker fully engaged with his memories and what they mean to him. The acting, too, is superb, with Yeun and Han subtly delineating their spouses' widening divide and Youn walking off with her scenes as stealthily as Soon-ja nicks a $100 bill from the church collection plate. As for Kim, the seven-year-old is a world-class cutie-pie … except maybe when David is mischievously peeing into a glass as a substitute for his grandma's Mountain Dew. Effortlessly touching and culturally fascinating as it is, I likely would've watched a Minari series for at least a few seasons. But a mere two hours in the Yis' company is pretty great, too.
7:30-ish: Even though it's also playing at Davenport's cineplex and I'm happy to give the venue my money whenever I can, I choose to instead catch director/co-writer Shaka King's Judas & the Black Messiah on HBO Max, mostly because, despite my generous leanings, I'm really a cheapskate at heart. Yet while the experience is no doubt even more gripping on the big screen, I had no problem loving King's movie on a good-sized television; this real-life dramatic thriller is like the best of Spike Lee's Malcolm X and Martin Scorsese's The Departed rolled into one singular, wildly arresting package. Busted by the FBI for impersonating a bureau agent and stealing a car, Chicago criminal Bill O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is given a choice: six years in prison, or serving as an informant on, and infiltrator to, the practices of Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). An easy decision for O'Neal, but one made significantly more complicated once Hampton's impassioned speeches and community-minded activism begin to enlighten the informant's political consciousness. Given the ferocious yet human-scaled power of Kaluuya's performance, who wouldn't be enlightened? The actor may not be remotely credible as the 21-year-old that Hampton was in the film's 1969 setting, but that's the only aspect of Kaluuya's portrayal that's even a tiny bit unconvincing. Between the Get Out star's blistering oratory, sly sense of command, and tender rapport with Hampton's girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), Kaluuya is better here than he's ever been before, and he's been awfully good before.
Considering the tragic fate that awaited Hampton (and O'Neal, too, for that matter), it feels somewhat disrespectful to talk about how much fun Judas & the Black Messiah is. I'm hardly going to blame King, however, for making a supremely entertaining movie out of such loaded and weighty material. And without minimizing the inherent seriousness, his film boasts numerous sequences that seem familiar yet play out in freshly intense, affecting ways: O'Neal being forced, at gunpoint, to hot-wire a car as proof of his allegiance to the movement; O'Neal's FBI handler (a perfectly cast Jesse Plemons) insinuating that the informant's FBI tenure might never end; an execution witnessed only in Johnson's stricken expression. (Though given less to do, the beguilingly naturalistic Fishback is in every way Kaluuya's performance equal.) Marvelously shot, in a rich color palette, by Sean Bobbitt, and cannily edited by Kristan Sprague, Judas & the Black Messiah has only one significant failing in my view, as Stanfield tends to visibly telegraph O'Neal's discomfort and anguish in moments that, in the real world, would likely have made the man's motives suspect, and would perhaps have gotten him killed. These ill-advised bits, however, barely leave a dent in Stanfield's crafty, moving, ultimately haunting portrayal, or in a film so perversely witty that it casts Martin Sheen – with his sensible, deeply reassuring President Josiah Bartlett cadences – as a prosthetic-nosed-monster version of J. Edgar Hoover. Now that's perverse.
Saturday, February 13, 12:45 p.m.-ish: In director Kevin Macdonald's new legal drama, we learn that guards at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, during the Bush administration, used to supply their prisoners with books but would tear out the final chapters in advance. If you're a bibliophile, such punishment might strike you as unimaginably cruel. Hang tight, though, because the cruelty in The Mauritanian – a title I've now twice typed out as The Mandalorian – goes way beyond the defiling of literature.
Telling of the 14 years in which suspected terrorist recruiter Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim) was imprisoned at Guantanamo without ever being officially charged with a crime, Macdonald's film doesn't skimp on the unbearable conditions of Salahi's internment that involved savage beatings, sleep deprivation, water torture, sexual humiliation, and far more. These scenes are grueling to watch, to be sure. And I might have hated them more had they not at least been interrupting so many turgid and repetitive sequences in which Salahi's case is methodically prepared by defense attorneys Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley and belittled by prosecutor Benedict Cumberbatch, the latter speaking in one of his customarily shaky Southern accents. The story of Salahi's harrowing ordeal is infuriating and heartbreaking. As presented, though, in a strictly by-the-numbers screenplay by M.B. Green, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, it's a long, not-terribly-involving slog, and beyond Foster's always-welcome professionalism, our only respite from the alternating tedium and ugliness is Rahim's impressively physical, occasionally lyrical performance. Equipping his Salahi with nobility of purpose, streaks of sardonic humor, and a wicked way with a soccer ball, Rahim is the best reason to sit through The Mauritanian's 130 minutes of dogged do-goodery – although I think there are even better arguments for not sitting through them.
Sunday, February 14, 12:50 p.m.-ish: Happy Valentine's Day! And what better way to celebrate the romantic holiday than with a tale of two married 19th-century women whose illicit love affair, if discovered by their spouses, will lead to unimaginably brutal consequences? Yes, over three days filled with cinematic anguish and anxiety, director Mona Fastvold's The World to Come may be suffused with more sheer dread than any of my three previous weekend screenings; you may root for Katherine Waterston's and Vanessa Kirby's farm wives, but all it takes is one suspicious and/or threatening glance from Casey Affleck's and Christopher Abbott's husbands to know that happy endings, without question, are not in store. Yet I'd be lying if I said that the movie didn't grip me, and not always in uncomfortable ways.
With its screenplay by Jim Shepard, who wrote the book the film is based on, and Ron Hansen, who mined similarly foreboding territory as the author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Fastvold's film boasts a kind of haggard poetry, the succinct melodiousness of Waterston's narration, and the characters' conversation, at intriguing odds with the grimness of the 1856 setting. (Having now seen and heard the terrifying, deadly winter storm dramatized here, it'll be days before I again bitch about February weather in the Quad Cities. Well – hours, at least.) And even though Waterston feels too vital and modernized for her mid-century housewife, there's no denying the romantic ardor she shares alongside the excellent, low-voiced Kirby, nor the debilitating sadness of Affleck, nor the nightmarish stillness of Abbott, who can make your skin crawl with one perfectly calibrated cock of his head. (At one point, he mentions having purposely held his dog in the face of a windstorm until the poor creature froze to death, and you think: Yup. Sounds about right.) My nerves were on edge all throughout The World to Come, but I didn't resent the fraught time spent. There's enough light, hope, and beauty amidst the suffering to make Fastvold's achievement rewarding, even if I was grateful not to have spent even more time with the fear and the cold – and with Christopher Abbott – than was absolutely necessary.
2:40-ish: If I stick around the cineplex for 80 more minutes, I can complete my downbeat weekend by also catching Land, in which Robin Wright's character endures Rocky Mountains isolation after the death of her child. I instead head home and re-watch a couple episodes of Schitt's Creek as a chaser. I can't imagine anyone blaming me.