“Navillera”—Soar Like a Butterfly

This quirky and endearing sleeper mini-series from Korea (premiered on Netflix,  March 2021)  is a definite winner.  (Navillera in Korean means “like a butterfly.”) 

In the opening scene Sim Deok-chul (the renowned Park In-hwan) is celebrating his 70th birthday with his wife, three sons and their wives.  Only the youngest son, considered a failure for quitting his hospital position as a doctor, is unmarried.  Sim is a retired mailman who always dreamed of performing “Swan Lake” on stage and now, at his advanced age,  is determined to follow his passion after seeing how  his friends regret not pursuing the dreams of their youth.  Accidentally, he observes the gifted Lee Chae-rok (Song Kang) practicing for his upcoming ballet competition.  Unbeknownst to Sim, Chae-rok is struggling financially, working a part-time job as a waiter, and is considering giving up ballet.

Sim persuades the ballet studio’s manager to accept him as a ballet student.  So Sim is assigned to be the young Chae-rok’s manager and literally follows Chae-rok around, making sure he eats well and practices without distraction.  Sim literally stalks him, almost following him into the bathroom.   At first Chae-rok is irritated and deeply annoyed, but both Chae-rok and Sim have family issues and dysfunctional relationships with their fathers.   They have a lot to learn from each other and most of all, have the need to develop empathy.   Sim’s family—and especially his wife in some hilarious scenes—can’t understand why he doesn’t play golf and follow the usual routine of a retiree.

Navillera

There are comic scenes between the elder Mr. Sim and his millennial counterpart as well.  Watching a 70 year-old dress up in a leotard with a beaming smile on his face is entirely unexpected and for this viewer, utterly charming.  Not quite a melodrama because of the extraordinary pas-de-deux (both figuratively and literally) between these two powerful and beautiful actors, Navillera does make us soar as the septuagenarian and his 20-something counterpart lift the story to a breathtaking, poignant finale where dreams and memories are not completely extinguished.  The peak of youth and the decline of the aging are mirrored images of disappointment and loss, seamlessly and poetically intertwined throughout the film.

Viewers will fall in love with this pair of sympathetic characters who must resolve issues from their painful past with mutual grace and compassion.  Don’t be surprised if you experience   a heart squeezing, and are moved to tears.

Note:  A great family show for adults and older children who can read subtitles.

Availability:  Netflix streaming

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“Cruella”–DeVil’s Delight?

Set in London in the 1970s, Cruella focuses on the backstory of the woman who becomes Cruella DeVil, the villain in the beloved children’s story, 101 Dalmatians.  This Disney film is the origin story of Cruella DeVil.   Beautifully costumed, creatively re-interpreting characters from the much-loved two previous 101 Dalmatians films, we are treated to a prequel like none this reviewer ever expected.

Estella Miller (the outstanding Emma Stone), is an aspiring fashion designer, orphaned and relegated to being a street grifter with two boys in a Dickensian survival-of-the-smartest.  As she is determined to pull no punches to achieve her dream, Estella will become Cruella by the end of the film.

Treated very poorly by the unparalleled fashion designer, Baroness von Hellman (played brilliantly by Emma Thompson), Estella/Cruella plots to gain recognition from the Baroness and then to take over her empire.  The dueling competition over who is the greatest fashionista of all is immensely entertaining. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the darker tones of two women who have lost family and now feel so unloved, delve deep into nuances of character that are very adult psychological themes. 

Baroness, as a child, was humiliated in dreaming of a world of  fashion.  Now she does the same to Estella. The two are mirror-images of each other, but Estella has yet to realize that.  This is the emotional centerpiece of the film.

Part Ocean’s Eleven for the heist during the Baroness’s fashion gala, and part Joker for the torment and trauma that morphs Estella into Cruella, this is not your typical Disney movie.  There is something for everyone. The young viewer will enjoy the breathtaking staging.  Sumptuous costumes and Joker-like makeup are performances in their own right.  For adults,  we see vulnerability in both characters being crushed.  What an origin story!

Without a doubt Cruella is the very best of the Disney live-action dramas, not merely an engaging snow globe of entertainment, and it will likely become a classic. Cruella is definitely a DeVil’s Delight!

Note:  Some children under the age of ten may not be comfortable with the intensity of certain scenes and unexpected behavior.  They might end up watching a few action scenes through their fingers.  My two granddaughters, ages six and eight, who watched this movie with me for the second time, loved it!  So did I –but for some very different reasons, I’m sure. 

Availability: Disney+

“Mare of Easttown”–Living with the Unacceptable

Mare of Easttown, a seven-episode HBOMax mini-series, we watch a mother,  Mare Sheehan (the remarkable Kate Winslet) attempting to come to terms with her unexpressed and unresolved grief over the death of her young adult son, Kevin. She is also a detective living in Easttown, a working-class suburb of Philadelphia, who is  investigating the murder of an adolescent single mother, Erin McMenamin. 

Mare is a local hero, a high-school basketball champion dating back 25 years. She now has multiple setbacks and tragedies to deal with:  an unsolved missing case of a young girl, a divorce, her judgmental mother, her grief-stricken and wounded daughter Siobhan, a professor boyfriend, her best friend’s suspicions, and an ex- addict ex-daughter-in-law battling for custody of Mare’s grandson.  The multiple characters demand focus and attention to detail in order to understand the mystery and the jaw-dropping final scene. 

In this merciless seesaw of harrowing grief, we witness Mare– and all those impacted by Kevin’s death–lose him a thousand times in a thousand ways. As a mother, a source of her agony is the realization that she cannot protect her children.  And in perhaps one of the most powerful scenes before the final closing, Mare consoles a widow who doesn’t know how to deal with the death of his wife:  “After a while, you learn to live with the unacceptable.”

The supporting ensemble cast– which includes Guy Pearce (Memento, LA Confidential), Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County), Evan Peters (American Horror Story), and Jean Smart (Hope Springs, The Accountant) — is exceptional.  All integrate their characters’ backstories, whether revealed on screen or on their faces, as past histories remaining untold.  Winslet, Nicholson, and Smart deliver shattering, emotionally brittle performances, often leaving them trembling from their open wounds. In unforgettable scenes pairing Winslet with Nicholson and Winslet with Smart, we see female empowerment and vulnerability simultaneously and inseparably.   Simply brilliant acting!

Availability:  HBOMax for streaming

“Underground Railroad”–Tracking US History

Based upon the Pulitzer-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, Underground Railroad, is produced and directed by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlighting”). This gripping portrayal   is an allegorical account of slavery and the role it has played in American history from colonial times. 

The Underground Railroad, in the mid-1800s,  was actually a network of safe houses and routes from the southern US up into Canada– with other routes to Mexico (which had abolished slavery decades earlier).  The book and film re-imagine these escape routes and safe havens as an actual train running underground to assist runaway slaves in their escape from their plantation owners.

A young slave, Cora Randall (the astounding South African newcomer, Thuso Mbedu) suffers one heartbreaking loss after another–of her mother, beloved friends, and two lovers.  In an act of desperation, she tries to escape a Georgia plantation and discovers the Underground Railroad.

In spite of almost insurmountable obstacles and defeats, she triumphs– somewhat miraculously– first, over her slave owner, and then over a notorious and avaricious “slave catcher” with a demented, damaged soul (the excellent Joel Edgerton), and somewhat surprisingly, over a free-state town council. Cora is compelled to run for her life over and over again. 

Overlaid with magical realism evoking uncanny spiritual powers, the Black communities, depicted as Valentine Hill (echoing the Greenwood “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma) have a strength, which their white neighbors fear, yet deny.

This is a must-see film. It is a history lesson for us all. Underground Railroad reveals, through imagery and drama,  why so many state governments try so hard to ban “critical race theory” from schools.  Perhaps the most disheartening conclusion from watching this masterpiece of visual storytelling, is that the behaviors of those in power back then are so recognizable today.

The viewer needs to have time to feel the raw and brutal emotional truths of those who are trapped and powerless, as well as those who are detached and power-drunk.  The outrage and resentment are brilliantly acted by the main characters to deepen the dramatic effect.

Central to the story is the examination of trust and resilience, dependency and the disingenuous guises of the powerful.  While the psychology of domination and subjugation are unforgettably rendered, the stunning genius and poetry of the cinematic art form need to be mentioned as well.  The cinematography is impeccable.  Watch the photographer’s use of light–some scenes yield extraordinary photographs as works of art.  The lighting is masterful and exceptional.

Criticism, on some of the major internet movie sites–of the darkness of  some scenes– misses the point.  Dark tones are intentional, underscoring the underbelly and darkness of US slavery.  Yet accompanying slivers of light reveal an ineffable quality of heroism and a tentative optimism.

Needless to say, this is not a movie to binge watch. It is too overwhelming.  But the feelings you have after watching each single episode are, in part, because of the quality of the  art.

The subject matter is immeasurably uncomfortable because of its closeness to all of us. It is a time for reckoning.  That in itself may feel menacing.

If you want to know about the burden of  America –without any tone of preaching or lecturing,– watch this masterpiece!

Availability:  Amazon Prime