Microhabitat (So-gong-nyeo)


Cleanliness is next to godliness.

(2017) Dramedy (CGV Arthouse) Esom, Jae-hong Ahn, Duk-moon Choi, Jin-ah Kang, Sung-wook Lee, Gook-hee Kim, Jae-hwa Kim. Directed by Jeon Go-Woon

The economics for those living on the bottom rung of the working class are fairly bleak. As inflation brings the price of goods and services up, the pay for workers isn’t keeping pace. The results are that we are working longer and harder for less. This is true pretty much on a global scale.

In Seoul, Miso (Esom) is a 31-year-old housecleaner who lives in a tiny one-room unheated apartment in a dodgy part of Seoul. She seems ok with her lot, so long as she has the three things that make her life bearable; cigarettes, whiskey and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn), an aspiring manhwa artist. However, new taxes bring the price of cigarettes up to a level that makes her right, meticulously managed finances even tighter. On top of that when her apologetic landlord is forced to raise her rent, rather than give up smoking and drinking, Miso chooses rather to be temporarily homeless.

It is winter and Seoul can be a very cold place in winter. Miso must rely on her friends to put her up, but each one has their own lifestyle and their own set of circumstances. Once all somewhat bohemian college students (some of whom were bandmates of Miso back in the day), they have all exchanged their ideals for conformity and in some cases, creature comfort. Each apartment she visits has its own habitat and the dweller within their own needs. Miso tries to meet those needs as best she can. She is unfailingly cheerful and even as she listens to her friends rant about their problems never feels compelled to judge. Neither do her friends feel compelled to ask Miso about her circumstances.

In many ways Microhabitat feels like it takes its cues from American independent films with the sometimes eccentric characters, the low-key comedy and the subtle message delivered in the slice of life presented for consumption. If this film had been made in America, Greta Gerwig would undoubtedly have been cast as Miso and the movie would have been set in New York. The difference here to an American version is the Korean traditional values, some of which aren’t all that alien to American audiences; the marginalization of unmarried women (particularly at Miso’s age), the rendering to near-invisibility of those working service jobs, the importance placed on wealth and productivity. Well, maybe the American film would have been set in SoHo and have the Miso character hanging out in bars where indie rockers played desultory sets for young hipsters. None of that happens in this film.

But of course there is no American version – yet – and judging Microhabitat on its own merits is not really very hard. Miso is a somewhat difficult character to get a real handle on because writer-director Jeon Go-Woon has the character play things close to the emotional vest. Yes, Miso is cheerful and helpful and maybe a little bit stubborn but we rarely see anything resembling despair except near the end when her boyfriend, tired of living hand to mouth, decides to accept a job in Saudi Arabia that will take him away from Seoul for two years. Other than those moments, Miso is always accepting, always polite, always giving. She’s not a saint – saints don’t smoke as much as Miso – and she may not have really grown up since college in some ways but she has grown in ways her friends who have essentially “sold out” could never understand.

In a time when most people are just one paycheck away from economic disaster it can be a bit painful to watch the realities of Miso’s financial situation; for some, they may strike a little too close to home. The tone is on the bittersweet side and the comedy fairly subtle but I have to admit that the ending was really charming and did a lot to elevate the movie. While it possesses a few bad habits common in American indie films, Microhabitat is nevertheless charming throughout largely because Esom makes Miso such a delightful character that everyone will want to spend time with.

REASONS TO GO: The tone overall is bittersweet but the ending is a bit of a grace note.
REASONS TO STAY: The economic hardships can be difficult to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Go-Woon is part of a Seoul-based collective of independent female directors called Gwanghwamun Cinema; this is her feature debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Liverleaf

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The Pursuit of Happyness


The ties that bind.

The ties that bind.

(2006) True Life Drama (Columbia) Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fischer, Kevin West, George Cheung, Domenic Bove, Joyful Raven, Scott Klace, Maurice Sherbanee, Victor Raider-Wexler, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Erin Cahill, Stu Klitsner, Ming Lo, David Fine, Karen Kahn. Directed by Gabriele Muccino

It’s a tough old world out there. It takes perseverance and ability to make it and even if you have then if you don’t catch a few breaks – or worse, catch a few bad ones – you still might not make it anyway. Most of us are just one or two bad decisions away from the streets.

Chris Gardner (W. Smith) is one of those guys with the ability and work ethic to go far. He even has an excess of charm. What he also has is a cloud of bad luck following him around. His wife Linda (Newton) is burned out, working too hard and getting too little in return. Their son Christopher (J. Smith) is what keeps Chris going.

Chris is having a real hard time selling bone density scanners to the medical professionals of San Francisco, who are able to get more recent and less expensive models from reputable medical supply dealers. Dejected, Chris struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. When Linda leaves, it’s a catastrophe. Suddenly he can’t afford the rent and he and his son are thrown into the street. Eating at soup kitchens and lining up for beds in one of the city’s shelters, he looks for some way of getting out of his situation which isn’t helped when he’s hit by a car and his scanner is stolen.

However, Chris spies some brokers for Dean Witter coming out of work and they appear to be happy. He chats with one of them and discovers that they have an internship program for people trying to start in the industry from the ground floor. The trouble is – it’s unpaid and most of the people in the program will not be retained with paid jobs. However, Chris knows he can do this. It’s just a matter of surviving until the paychecks start coming.

While Will Smith had already had an Oscar nomination by the time he made this (for which he would receive his second nomination), in many ways this is the movie that convinced many that Smith wasn’t just a charismatic personality but a serious actor who could, with the right material, give a compelling unforgettable performance. This was certainly the right material.

Based on a true story, the movie brings out elements that are right in his wheelhouse; a kind of street smarts, unflagging charm and the ability to express frustration and anger in a way that doesn’t make him seem unlikable or make audiences uncomfortable. Chris Gardner was a man trapped in a situation that was nearly impossible; he had few prospects and nothing but his own drive, determination and chutzpah to carry him through. And if any star in Hollywood carries those qualities, it’s Will Smith.

Casting his own son in the role of Gardner’s son made a lot of sense and Jaden’s performance here is unforced and doesn’t make you want to grind your teeth. He justifiably received acclaim for following in his daddy’s footsteps and some thought he might even end up being a better actor someday than his dad. That hasn’t happened yet and maybe it never will, but here he shows more maturity than a lot of actors his age don’t possess. Perhaps that comes with growing up with a dad as famous as the Fresh Prince.

Now, there are moments where the sentimentality threatens to take over and to Muccino’s credit he doesn’t let it trample all over the film but occasionally you can feel those instincts to manipulate the audience nagging at him. The center section of the movie also drags in a few places, although not enough to really disrupt the flow of the film overly much.

The movie is a compelling portrait of the working poor; people who have jobs but don’t make enough to make ends meet. There are people who work two and three jobs who can’t afford a place to live and go home to shelters or onto the streets. This problem has only gotten worse since this movie was made, given the economic crisis that followed a year after its release. One watches Chris Gardner’s struggles and can’t help but feel “There but for the grace of Whatever Deity (if any) I worship goes I.”

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best performances of Will Smith’s career to date. Good chemistry between him and his son. Unsentimental look at modern poverty.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally maudlin. Slow in the middle sections.
FAMILY VALUES:  The language is rough in places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film employed actual homeless people from around the Bay Area and paid them a full day’s wages for often just a few hours of work, generally including a catered meal. For some, it was the first income  that they’d made in years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are featurettes on the father-son acting team and why they were cast as well as one on the humble Rubik’s Cube and also an interview with the real Chris Gardner. The Blu-Ray also includes a music video of the Dave Koz/Bebe Winans song “I Can.”
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $307.1M on a $55M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Llewyn Davis
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Kill the Messenger

Frozen River


Frozen River

Melissa Leo discovers how cold the world can be.

(Sony Classics) Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O’Keefe, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Jr., James Reilly, Jay Klaitz. Directed by Courtney Hunt

When times are hard, our moral compass is tested. How much of our integrity and our ethics will we compromise in order to survive? Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.

Ray Eddy (Leo) lives in a trailer with her two kids, 15-year-old T.J. (McDermott) and 5-year-old Ricky (Reilly). They live in Northern New York near the Canadian border and also near the Mohawk reservation. It is the middle of winter and with Christmas approaching, things are pretty bleak.

We’re not just talking about the landscape. Ray’s husband has deserted them, leaving his car one night at the bingo parlor and getting on a bus, presumably to Atlantic City. He has a gambling problem – that would be an understatement – and has taken all of their savings with him. Ray is trying to keep her fingers and toes in the dike but the leaks are beginning to chip away at the dam. They dine nightly on microwave popcorn and Tang.

T.J. is fully aware that his dad has left them in the lurch and isn’t coming back. He wants to drop out of school and find a job, something Ray is adamantly opposed to. She works at the Dollar store part time and scrambles for more hours and maybe a promotion but the paycheck doesn’t quite stretch far enough. Their television set is about to be repossessed, something that Ray wants to avoid because she wants to keep Ricky feeling somewhat secure.

Lila Littlewolf (Upham) works at the bingo parlor and is terribly nearsighted, but can’t afford to buy glasses. She has a baby who is being raised by her mother-in-law, who refuses to allow her contact with her own child; Lila resorts to perching in a tree outside her mother-in-law’s home in freezing weather just to catch a glimpse of her baby.

Lila notices the abandoned car in the parking lot with keys conveniently in the ignition and drives off with it. Ray, who had gone to the bingo parlor to see if she could find some clue to her husband’s whereabouts, sees this and follows Lila home. She confronts the girl and takes the car back. Lila needs the transportation desperately and lets Ray in on a potential payday; if they drive across a frozen river at the Canadian border, they can make $2000 for bringing something back to the U.S. no questions asked. Furthermore Ray is less likely to be stopped than Lila, being white.

Ray is desperate so she agrees. When they arrive at Lila’s contact, Ray is shocked to discover that what they are bringing across the border are illegal aliens – mostly Pakistanis and Chinese. Ray is initially reluctant but it’s too late to back out. Once they successfully make it to the other side, Ray is ready to call their relationship quits.

Money talks however and Lila needs a lot more of it and so does Ray. They decide to make a few more runs, enough for Ray to replace the money that her husband stole for her and for Lila to get her baby back. However, as much as you try to keep your business in the dark, inevitably your actions will emerge into the light. In making things right for her kids, Ray could risk making things even worse for them.

Writer-director Hunt was nominated for an Oscar for her screenplay, as was Leo. While Hunt’s nomination really didn’t get a lot of buzz, Leo attracted a lot of notice from the critics and deservedly so. This is a career-making performance. Leo makes Ray a real, breathing woman, someone who the audience can identify with and root for. As good as Leo’s performance is, I think that despite the nomination Hunt’s script got lost in the shuffle because Leo was given a great character to play with, a woman pushed into a corner by a cold, unfeeling world and doing whatever it takes to keep her family together.

While Upham didn’t get the acclaim Melissa Leo did, nonetheless she delivers a terrific performance that nicely compliments Leo; not to take anything away from Melissa Leo but without Upham’s performance it’s entirely possible her own performance might have been overlooked. Part of what makes the role work as well as it does is the relationship between the women, one born of desperation and pragmatism.

As a director, Hunt captures the environment nicely. Mostly working class and the working poor, she nails what it’s like to live close to the edge where even one paycheck can mean the difference between survival and catastrophe. What the women do is dangerous but Hunt wisely doesn’t focus on that. Instead, she places the emphasis on the characters and the movie is much better as a result. In lesser hands, this would have been a run-of-the-mill drama with elements of suspense. A movie of the week, in other words.

This is a solid indie film that has authenticity oozing out of every frame. You never get the sense that the filmmakers are manufacturing anything; the events and characters seem organic to their environment and the story flows nicely without being formulaic. It can be hard to watch because of the unrelenting grim tone, but then again that’s just the way some people live. Worth checking out for Leo’s performance alone, this is one of those rare movies that come out of left field and attract the right kind of attention. It should also have your attention as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A standout performance by Melissa Leo elevates what could have been a mundane drama into something better. Director Hunt captures the despair and desperation of the characters and their situation nicely.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An unrelenting grim tone may turn some viewers off.

FAMILY VALUES: A lot of rough language and adult situations may make this a little too much for younger sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McDermott and Reilly, who play brothers in the film, are cousins in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Men Who Stare at Goats