Book Review: Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner


Author: Michelle Zauner
Title: Crying in H-Mart
Publication Info: Knopf (2021) 
Summary/Review: Michelle Zauner, a musician who records under the name Japanese Breakfast,  writes this memoir of her life growing up mixed race in Oregon and her tempestuous relationship with her mother.  Zauner’s mother was an immigrant from South Korea while her father was a white American.  She discusses how she felt like an outsider in both communities.

The core of the book relates to her mother’s cancer diagnosis, slow decline, and death.  Zauner reflects on how this period drew her closer to her mother and see her in a different way.  Food is central to the narrative as Zauner finds learning how to cook traditional Korean recipes as a way to connect to her Korean identity. It’s a beautifully written and heartbreaking book that I recommend highly.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Aparajito (1956)


Title: Aparajito
Release Date: 11 October 1956
Director: Satyajit Ray
Production Company: Epic Films
Summary/Review:

Picking up where Pather Panchali left off, Aparajito is the second installment of Ray’s Apu Trilogy.  Set in the 1920s, the Roy family now lives in the holy city of Benares (modern day Varanasi) and continue to struggle with poverty.  The central character Apurba “Apu” Roy ages from a child (Pinaki Sengupta) to teenager (Smaran Ghosal) over the course of the film.  The central story is that Apu’s success in school earns him a scholarship that takes him away from his mother Sarbajaya ( Karuna Banerjee) and the strain that puts on their relationship. This could be melodramatic but the neorealistic style of the film steeps it in everyday lived experience.  The sharp B&W cinematography captures everything in gorgeous detail.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: On Happiness Road (2017)


Title: On Happiness Road
Release Date: October 15, 2017
Director: Sung Hsin-yin
Production Company: Happiness Road Productions
Summary/Review:

Chi (Gwei Lun-mei) returns home to Taiwan from America for the funeral of her grandmother (Giwas Gigo).  While there she imagines conversations with her grandmother and reflects upon her childhood (voiced by Bella Wu in flashbacks).  The non-linear structure is also punctuated by Chi’s youthful daydreams which are beautifully animated.  In addition to being a story about life and family, Chi’s story parallels the growth and changes of Taiwan (significantly Chi is born on the same day that Chiang Kai-shek died).  This is a thoughtful and beautifully made film about self-identity and nostalgia that I found very relatable even though I live half-the-world away.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Anina (2013)


Title: Anina
Release Date: 19 April 2013
Director: Alfredo Soderguit
Production Company: Rain Dogs Cine | Palermo Estudio | Antorcha Films
Summary/Review:

Anina Yatay Salas (Federica Lacaño) is a young school child who is teased for having three palindromes in her name.  One day at recess, Anina ends up fighting with another girl, Yisel (Lucía Parrilla).  The principal (Cristina Morán) gives them a unique punishment that teaches them a lesson in compassion.

This is a wonderful film full of heartwarming moments.  It basically captures the feel of a child’s everyday life along with vividly portrayed daydreams and nightmares.  The animation style is unique but simple, reminiscent at times of the work of Studio Ghibli or Cartoon Saloon.  Could make for a good family movie to watch with young children.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Field of Dreams (1989)


Title: Field of Dreams
Release Date: May 5, 1989
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Production Company: Gordon Company
Summary/Review:

One of my favorite authors when I was a teenager was W.P. Kinsella. I was excited when I learned that his novel Shoeless Joe was getting adapted into a movie.  But when I finally saw the movie, I was disappointed.  There were a lot of changes from the book to movie, and on screen the story just seemed to ooze with cheesiness.  Over the years, Field of Dreams has become regarded as a classic baseball movie to the extent that Major League Baseball has started hosting an annual regular season baseball game in an Iowa corn field. I figured Father’s Day was a good opportunity to revisit Field of Dreams and watch it with my kids for the first time.

The basic story is that aging hippie and baseball fan Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) having married Iowa native Annie (Amy Madigan), has acquired a farm that they live on with their young daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann). Hearing voices in the corn field, Ray comes to a realization that he must build a baseball field on his farm. As a result, the deceased but not ghostly former baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) appears, and is soon followed by other former baseball stars.  Other messages prompt Ray to go to Boston to take the reclusive counterculture author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) to a Red Sox game, and then to a small town in Minnesota to find “Moonlight” Graham (Burt Lancaster), a baseball player who played only one half-inning in the 1920s.  As all this happens, the Kinsella’s farm is failing and faces foreclosure at the hands of Annie’s brother Mark (Timothy Busfield).

The movie still oozes cheese.  There are changes from the book (including removing two significant characters) that effectively change the story.  There’s also a move away from the book’s magical realism to more of a Reagan-era nostalgia for baseball as something emblematic of America.  My wife noted that James Earl Jones’ famous speech about baseball has elements that feel eerily close to MAGA ideology.  While baseball is upheld as being something that was from a time when America was “good,” all of the former ballplayers who emerge from the corn come from a time when baseball was segregated.  That being said there’s a scene in the movie I’d totally forgotten where Annie takes on a group of conservatives who are trying ban books at the public schools which felt unfortunately relevant to our times.  Even then though, the feel of the movie is still steeped in a toothless nostalgia, this time for for 1960s.

With all that being said, the biggest change from the book to the movie is also the best, and I think improves upon the book.  In Shoeless Joe, Ray takes the real life author J.D. Salinger to Fenway Park.  The filmmakers knew that they couldn’t depict the notoriously reclusive Salinger on screen and instead created the fictional 60s icon Terrence Mann, who is more than just a substitute for Salinger but a character with a well-developed history of his own.  It’s surprising that in 1989, Hollywood cast a Black actor in the role originally written as white character, doubly so since in 2022 there are people who still lose their minds when a Black actor is cast as a character originally written as white.  Jones is great for the part and his performance brings a lot of energy and authority to the movie right at a time when it needs a jolt.

I probably sound like I’m hating on the movie, it is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, but I’m just a harsh judge since I love the book so much.  It is a bit slow-going, but then again so is baseball.  I love baseball, and I’m not immune to the magic of ballplayers emerging from a corn field or an impassioned speech about baseball’s role as America’s pastime.  For all it’s flaws, Field of Dreams is one of the best baseball movies ever made.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Children of Heaven (1997)


Title: Children of Heaven
Release Date: February 1997
Director: Majid Majidi
Production Company:The Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children & Young Adults
Summary/Review:

Ali (Amir Farrokh Hashemian) and Zahra (Bahare Seddiqi) are a brother and sister in a poor family of Tehran.  Ali picks up Zahra’s shoes from the cobbler but misplaces them on the way home.  Knowing that their father (Reza Naji) won’t have money to buy new shoes, they come up with a plan to share Ali’s canvas sneakers.  Apparently, Zahra only goes to school in the morning and Ali in the afternoon but the time they have to change the shoes cuts things close.

The movie is sweet in following the adventures of ordinary children sharing a pair of shoes, but something heartbreaking happens every few minutes. It’s a good reminder of the little ways that poverty can interfere with a child’s education contrary to the “No Excuses Charter School” ideology that places all the burden on the child to have the “grit” to learn.  But I digress.  This movie reminds me a lot of Bicycle Thieves although not quite to that level of tragedy.  Ali and Zahra are also absolutely adorable.

Rating:  ****

Movie Review: Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)


Title: Everything Everywhere All at Once
Release Date: March 25, 2022
Director: Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
Production Company: AGBO | Ley Line Entertainment | IAC Films | Year of the Rat
Summary/Review:

I haven’t seen a ton of Michelle Yeoh’s work but I’m always impressed by her and I’m pleased to see her in this movie that is already being hailed as one of the best of the year.  It feels particularly groundbreaking to have a science fiction/action/comedy blockbuster center on a middle-aged Chinese immigrant woman who’s basically having a mid-life crisis.  Evelyn (Yeoh) is seeing her marriage to Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, most famous as the child star of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) crumble, her relationship with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) strained, and her relationship with her father Gong Gong (James Hong), recently arrived from China, was never particularly good in the first place.  On top of this, the family laundromat business is failing and under an audit by the IRS.

When the family go to meet with IRS inspector Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis, who I didn’t even recognize until I saw her name in the credits), strange things begin to happen.  Evelyn learns that she is a significant figure in the multiverse and has to use the talents from the parallel universe versions of herself to fight a grave threat to all of existence.  I don’t want to give away many details of this movie, but it is a story that works on many levels: a family drama, an absurdist comedy, an existentialist debate, and a martial arts action film.  Somehow this is a movie where the lowbrow humor of fight involving butt plugs can exist side by side with a scene in which a couple of rocks can make me want to cry.

I’m not going to say anything more, but I believe Everything Everywhere All At Once has earned all the praise it is getting and if you haven’t seen it, make plans to see it now!

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel


Author: Laurie Frankel
Title: This is How It Always Is
Publication Info: New York : Flatiron Books, [2017] 
Summary/Review:

Rosie (a doctor) and Penn (a novelist) are a loving couple who have five children, all boys.  At the age of 5, their youngest child Claude expresses a preference for wearing dresses and eventually takes the name Poppy.  The narrative explores how even parents with the best intentions struggle with raising a transgender child.  The central conflict is whether Poppy’s transgender identity should be publicly known or kept secret. The family tries both with some bad outcomes to either approach and ultimately no “right way” is found.  The book can be overly didactic at times, but I did enjoy a lot of Frankel’s writing flourishes

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013)


Title: The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
Release Date: 16 October 2013
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Production Company: Cross Creek Pictures | Epithète Films | Filmarto | France 2 Cinéma | Gaumont | Orange Cinéma Séries | Tapioca Films
Summary/Review:

French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is responsible for three of my favorite films of all time: Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, and Amélie.  And yet, I only recently became aware of this most recent release of Jeunet’s from 2013, for which the loathsome Harvey Weinstein is partially to blame.  This is Jeunet’s first film set in the United States and in the English language, and as such his whimsical approach to filmmaking suddenly feels a lot like a lot like Wes Anderson.

The titular T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) is a ten-year-old science and engineering prodigy living on a ranch in rural Montana.  His mother, Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter) is a devoted entomologist while his father, Tecumseh Elijah Spivet (Callum Keith Rennie), is a laconic cowboy “born 100 years too late.”  T.S. siblings are older sister Gracie Spivet (Niamh Wilson), a wannabe actor who mocks her family’s obsessions, and brother Layton (Jakob Davies), who is like their father in miniature.  We learn early on that Layton was killed in an accident while using a firearm and the way each family member deals with their grief is a key part of the movie.

T.S. wins an award from the Smithsonian Institute for inventing a perpetual motion device and feeling that his family wouldn’t understand, decides to travel on his own to Washington, D.C. to receive the award.  The better part of the film documents his journey by freight train and hitchhiking.  Jeunet’s direction captures the beautiful landscapes of the American West and feels as if it’s a peculiarly French understanding of American mythology.

While the movie has it’s share of adventures and quirkiness, it is overall a sad movie dealing with very heavy grief.  When T.S. is sad or scared we really feel it, and when he’s injured part way through the film he continues to suffer the injury for the rest of the story.  Unfortunately, Catlett doesn’t seem to be an experienced enough actor when it comes to delivering dialogue and when he talks like a detached scientist it feels artificial. I really wanted to love this film, and there are a lot of elements that are great, but overall it feels like it missed the mark.  But and A for effort, I guess.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021)


Title: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Release Date: April 23, 2021
Director: Mike Rianda
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Sony Pictures Animation | Lord Miller Productions | One Cool Films
Summary/Review:

Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is a misfit kid who finds her passion in filmmaking and is excited to begin attending film school in California.  She’s often in conflict with her overprotective father Rick (Danny McBride) who doesn’t understand her artistic and technological interests.  In order to promote family bonding, Rick decides to take the whole family – including mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) and dinosaur obsessed little brother Aaron (Mike Rianda) – on a cross-country drive to college.  While they’re en route, the Apple/Facebook-style company PAL introduces robot assistants who immediately rebel against humanity.  Only the Mitchell’s avoid capture and it’s up to them to fight the robot menace and come together as a family.

Overall, this movie feels very familiar (it’s the same basic plot of Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg-Nick Frost’s Cornetto trilogy) and has a lot of gags similar to other recent animated family adventures.  The Mitchells have a funny car and a funny dog.  And there’s deadpan dialogue like the PAL tech CEO saying ““It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent AI as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing.”  Despite the lack of originality the movie is very sweet and has some good, funny bits.  The animation is fluid and for added effects, other types of animation are overlaid on the computer animation.  Extra points for LGBTQ+ representation in the movie’s protagonist by having Katie be gay without that being a controversy in her family or playing into a romantic storyline. This is a good, fun movie suitable for the whole family.

Rating: ***