By Alex McPherson

A dramatically rich, sensitively told love story with an astounding trio of central performances, director Celine Song’s “Past Lives” is a near-flawless achievement — a small-scale film that packs an emotional wallop in its exploration of universal themes.

Song’s film begins with a slow zoom on three characters sitting at a bar, Nora (Greta Lee), Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), and Arthur (John Magaro), as a person from across the room speculates on their connections to each other. We jump back in time to when Nora (Moon Seung-ah), then going by Na Young, and Hae Sung (Leem Seung-min) were 12-year-old best friends living in Seoul, South Korea. They’re competitive, affectionate, and seemingly inseparable, until Na Young’s parents decide to immigrate to Canada, rendering Hae Sung confused and heartbroken as his companion leaves him behind.

Flash forward 12 years later, and Na Young (Lee), having changed her name to Nora, now lives in Toronto as an aspiring playwright, brimming with kindness and joie de vivre that lights up any room she’s in. Hae Sung (Yoo) — who finished his mandatory military service and is in engineering school — never forgot about her, and does some Facebook sleuthing to get in contact. Once he and Nora start chatting on Skype, their bond is rekindled, if only briefly, as Nora eventually decides they should stop talking because of the literal and figurative distance between them.

Twelve years down the road from that, Nora lives in New York City with her non-Korean husband Arthur (John Magaro), a fellow writer she met on a writer’s retreat. Hae Sung, having experienced personal and professional disappointments and still thinking about Nora, decides to visit her in NYC, setting the stage for a heartfelt reunion with plenty of discomfort for the concerned-yet-level-headed Arthur to contend with.

Nora and Hae Sung spend time together, having deceptively low-key conversations as they visit famous landmarks, each reflecting on past what-ifs and how their bond continues today, grappling with the sacrifices they’ve made personally and culturally along life’s winding path.

With a delicate, understated approach that never talks down to viewers nor mines the material to over-the-top ends, “Past Lives” transcends this familiar love-triangle setup to speak to truths both personal and all-inclusive. Song, in her feature film debut, takes a tenderly elegiac approach to this semi-autobiographical narrative that allows the ensemble — Lee, especially — to stretch their wings, and treats its relatably flawed characters with respect as they navigate situations with no easy answers.

John Magaro, Greta Lee

The film’s finely calibrated elegance is largely the result of Lee, Yoo, and Magaro working at the absolute peak of their craft. Lee, in particular, lends a subtly raw emotional power to Nora’s inner conflicts; content in her new life and unmoored by the arrival of her childhood sweetheart, who represents not only a possible romantic interest but one of her primary connections to her former life in Korea.

Lee communicates multitudes through glances, pauses, and body language, sometimes veering from happiness to sober realization in the span of a few seconds — conveying Nora’s tangled emotions in a manner far more engaging than traditional dialogue ever could. We see her confidence, warmth, and friendliness, along with her aching for a relationship and cultural identity she’s had to sideline to pursue her ambitions.

Thanks to Lee’s talent as a performer, we can follow Nora’s emotions based primarily on her mannerisms and facial expressions — Lee gives one of the single best performances of the year so far. It’s easy to understand why so many characters in the film gravitate towards her; Lee exudes an authenticity that’s a perfect fit, as we gradually see Nora becoming more vulnerable and honest with herself and those close to her, releasing her turbulent emotions in an organic way without resorting to melodrama. 

Yoo is incredible, lending real pathos to Hae Sung’s heartache and yearning, especially in scenes of him interacting with Nora face-to-face, exchanging brief smiles and pangs of regret that illuminate the push-pull between his heart and reality. Magaro, as always, plays Arthur with a gentleness and sly humor that makes him easy to empathize with; there are no villains in “Past Lives,” and Arthur’s just another human being caught in an odd circumstance.

The screenplay, by Song, finds humor and earnestness without launching into schmaltz or over-explanation. Much of the drama is based in the Buddhist-derived concept of inyun, which involves the idea of interactions signaling relationships in past lives and of destiny, which Hae Sung follows, perhaps misguidedly, in his continued longing for Nora.

While it’s true that Nora and Hae Sung spell out this concept more than once, “Past Lives” doesn’t overdo it, using it as a way for the characters to discuss the past, present, and future while coming to grips with the decisions they’ve made. Indeed, “Past Lives” is ultimately a poetic meditation on Nora and Hae Sung’s bittersweet acceptance of the present, something we can all relate to as we look back at choices made and opportunities missed in our own lives.

From a directing standpoint, “Past Lives” also excels. Song displays an incredible attention to detail — weaving together a tapestry of yearning, uncertainty, joy, and sorrow that spans decades without becoming unwieldy. The film’s slower pacing lets scenes breathe and provides ample time to establish the emotional backbone of Nora and Hae Sung’s bond, from playing in the park, to battling unstable Skype connections, to meeting in-person at last in adulthood, with all the awkwardness that ensues.

Song finds visual parallels and motifs across the story’s decades-long scope, including one particularly powerful image of Nora and Hae Sung as children on separate ends of a staircase breaking off in two directions. Song knows when to quietly pull the rug out from under us, flashing those memories back, both for viewers and the characters in pivotal sequences. Shabier Kirchner’s lived-in cinematography helps ground the story even more, as well as finding occasional wry comedy, like one particularly uncomfortable albeit meaningful restaurant visit with Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur all together.

Through Song’s direction and Kirchner’s lens, highlighting the minutiae of the characters’ expressions just as much as their surroundings, we see the joy, beauty, loneliness, and melancholia at play for Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur. The last shot, too, a long-take that’s deeply poignant and cathartic, continues to linger in my mind.

By the end, there’s not a single issue in “Past Lives” that stands out. Song’s debut is astounding, making the most of the film medium to tell a story that everyone can connect to and maybe fall in love with.

“Past Lives” is a 2023 romantic drama written and directed by Celine Song, in both English and Korean, starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro. It is rated PG-13 for some strong language and runtime is 1 hour, 45 minutes. It opened in theaters June 23. Alex’s Grade: A+

By Alex McPherson

A gentle, tender exploration of art, creativity, and life’s winding, surprising journey, director Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up” reveals poignant truths through its small-scale yet meaningful narrative.

Reichardt’s film centers on the anxious, non-assertive, and perpetually fatigued Lizzy (Michelle Williams), an artist struggling to make a name for herself in Portland and preparing for an upcoming show. She would much rather immerse herself in her (somewhat tortured-looking) clay sculptures than deal with the messy distractions of other human beings, much less endure the dull grind of making enough money to pay rent.

She works as an administrative assistant at the Oregon College of Art and Craft — facilitating promotion of other, more successful artists — where her mother, Jean (Maryann Plunkett), is the artistic director. This furthers Lizzy’s low self-esteem and makes asking for a vacation day quite uncomfortable. With her slumped shoulders and exhausted, stand-offish demeanor, Lizzy stands apart from students who exuberantly indulge in their creative callings on campus, especially those doing interpretive dance in full, glorious view.

Her neighbor/friend/landlord, Jo (Hong Chau) — a comparatively outgoing, popular, successful artist herself, with two upcoming art shows— hasn’t resolved Lizzy’s non-working hot water heater, adding yet another layer of annoyance for the quietly resentful Lizzy to contend with. Plus, a few nights before her big show, Lizzy is woken up in the middle of the night by a pigeon who’s wandered into her apartment and been attacked by her cat. After Lizzy leaves the pigeon outside post cat-attack, Jo, of course, bandages it up, and entrusts it in Lizzy’s care. 

Along with that, there’s her father, Bill (Judd Hirsch), a retired artist himself who lets two ne’er do well drifters crash at his place, and her brother Sean (a scene-stealing John Magaro), who Jean describes as the artistic “genius” of the family, and whose turbulent mental health weighs heavily on Lizzy’s mind. 

It’s all a lot for Lizzy to juggle as she prepares to present her work, but Reichardt doesn’t indulge in heightened melodrama. “Showing Up,” with its breezy yet thoughtful rhythms, reflects the power of art as self-expression, as an all-consuming force, and as a means of bringing people together; of how small acts of compassion yield surprising returns, and how life itself, like Lizzy’s malleable sculptures, remains beautiful through its imperfections. Moments of connection show up in the most unexpected places.

With all these themes, “Showing Up” would seem at first glance to be a very busy movie. Under Reichardt’s patient direction, though, the film effectively brings us into Lizzy’s world and illuminates the complex connections that both create distance and bring us together. Similar to her previous masterpiece, “First Cow,” Reichardt gives scenes plenty of time to breathe, letting us sit with Lizzy’s discontent, appreciate art of all forms, and watch a story unfold that doesn’t force-feed viewers answers or wrap everything up neatly in a bow. 

Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond thrive within the nuances of characters’ interactions — the minimalism reveals multitudes about the characters, trusting viewers to put the pieces together themselves and recognize evolution in characters’ arcs that doesn’t feel over-the-top and sensationalized, but beautifully human.

Complemented by an excellent ensemble that’s perfectly in-tune with the film’s low-key vibes and an efficient style that encourages looking beneath the surface (enhanced by Ethan Rose’s serene, flute-based score), the film has a power that percolates upon further reflection — so long as viewers are willing to adapt to its measured pacing and lack of traditionally “dramatic” moments. 

Indeed, “Showing Up” takes ample time observing Lizzy slowly but surely unlocking her compassion towards others and the world in general, while providing a grounded look at artists-at-work. One sequence, for example, sees Lizzy rearranging the arms on one of her sculptures, which were originally made by artist Cynthia Lahti; cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s camera sits over her shoulder for an extended long-take, with only the intermittent “coo-coo” from the pigeon to accompany her. It’s both a quiet, drawn-out scene, and one where so much happens internally, if we’re game to put ourselves in Lizzy’s shoes.

Creating art is Lizzy’s preferred way of communicating with the world, and “Showing Up” illustrates how her lifestyle is both rewarding and barely sustainable. Her passion and persistence are often at odds with the rigid expectations of adulthood and personal challenges by those who, at least initially, let her down at critical moments. The aforementioned pigeon, which Lizzy first cares for out of a sense of guilt, is partly responsible for the erosion of her cynicism and reservedness; she finds some solace and relatability to this often-ignored animal in need.

Although the pigeon’s symbolism could be heavy-handed under a less-skilled storyteller, Reichardt’s approach remains neither overplayed nor maudlin. Lizzy’s bond with the bird, as well as her troubled, paranoid brother Sean; her stubborn yet caring parents; and Jo, a close friend whom she also harbors jealousy towards, point to an overarching message: the small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness Lizzy takes towards them (showing up, in other words), and vice-versa, ultimately make all the difference, inspiring hope for a new day of possibilities.

Williams is outstanding here — bringing to life Lizzy’s malaise and emotional growth in a manner that never feels overstated, rather embracing intricacies and minutiae of body language, not unlike the sculptures Lizzy so meticulously puts together. Chau is similarly exceptional as Jo, radiating enthusiasm for her craft and frustration through her flakiness and laissez-faire mindset regarding her responsibilities as a landlord.

Hirsch is charming as Lizzy’s father (with old man jokes to spare), and Magaro stands out as Sean, bringing true pathos and melancholy to his amusingly deadpan comments. André Benjamin is excellent as a laid-back kiln operator, possessing a warmth and nonjudgmental attitude contrasting Lizzy’s high-strung demeanor and the obsessive attention she puts toward her sculptures.

“Showing Up,” alas, will likely alienate viewers refusing to dig into the small-scale yet potent canvas that Reichardt lays before us. The film’s style occasionally lets scenes drag on just a beat too long, and the film requires some leg-work to untangle the threads of its deceptively straightforward narrative. For me, however, “Showing Up” is one of 2023’s strongest efforts yet — a life-affirming film that’ll only grow stronger with time.

“Showing Up” is a 2023 comedy-drama directed by Kelly Reichardt and starring Michelle Williams, Hong Chau, Judd Hirsch, John Magaro, Andre Benjamin and Maryann Plunkett. It is rated R for brief graphic nudity and runtime is 1 hour, 47 minutes. It opened in select theatres April 28. Alex’s Grade: A.

By Lynn Venhaus

Thoughtfully constructed with insightful character snapshots foreshadowing the people they become in the landmark television series, “The Sopranos,” the well-cast “The Many Saints of Newark” is one of the year’s best films.

Molti Santi translates to “Many Saints” in English, and the backstory connecting the people to Tony Soprano is a fascinating, yet tangled, web. The movie begins with a voice from the grave, and an Emmy-winning actor reprises his famous role through narration.

Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this prequel to “The Sopranos” follows Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) as he climbs the ladder in the DiMeo crime family. His nephew is Anthony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini), a teenager who idolizes his uncle.

Dickie’s influence over his nephew will help shape the impressionable teenager into the all-powerful mob boss we came to know in the HBO series, which ran from 1999 to 2007. Tony is growing up in one of the most tumultuous eras in Newark’s history as rival gangsters rise and challenge the DiMeo crime family’s hold over the increasingly race-torn city.

The year is 1967, and one mobster notes it’s the “Summer of Love,” which is ironic, given all the violence on the Newark streets. Race riots erupt, creating chaos and confusion. The times, they are a-changing, and rival gangsters try to muscle in on the Italian mob’s stronghold.

Racist attitudes prevail, although Dickie has Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), who collects money from the black side of town for him, as he runs the numbers game.

Leslie Odom Jr., 2016 Tony winner as Aaron Burr “Hamilton” and Oscar nominee as Sam Cooke in last year’s “One Night in Miami,” stretches his acting chops as the ambitious and fearless defender of his turf. He becomes a formidable foe.

A warning, although expected — there is a lot of bloodshed. In scenes of grisly torture and gruesome murders, the violence is explosive on the mean streets, and sometimes, directed at their own inner circle. Such is the way of the family business. Lines are frequently crossed, matter-of-factly, and sometimes without consequence.

Dickie, who has had a love-hate relationship with his menacing father, Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Montisanti, played with verve by Ray Liotta, is drawn to dear old dad’s new Sicilian bride, Giuseppina, played by the beautiful Michela del Rossi, who looks like an actress in a Fellini film. She soon becomes his goomah (mistress).

Connecting the dots gets even more complicated – see the movie to find out how everyone is six degrees of separation.

Vera Farmiga and Jon Bernthal as Tony’s parents

Familiarity with the series, which ran for six seasons, is helpful, although not a prerequisite. However, people with knowledge of the series will understand the references and anticipate the mix of dark humor, and secret revelations.

Universally regarded as one of the best shows ever on TV, “The Sopranos” won 21 Primetime Emmys and 2 Peabody Awards.  In 2013, the Writers Guild of America named it the best-written TV series of all time, and TV Guide ranked it the best television series of all time. In 2016, it ranked first in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest TV shows of all time.

Some of the indelible characters from the television series earned Emmy Awards and nominations, and are an integral part of the prequel, while others barely emerge from the background.

Writer (and show creator) David Chase teamed up with an alum, Lawrence Konner, who was Emmy-nominated for writing “Second Opinion” (Sopranos) and this is a fascinating look back as to how things developed and about the people who made things happen.

In the series, Tony Soprano juggled the problems with his two families – his wife Carmela and their two children, Meadow and Anthony Jr., and his mob family. Power struggles, betrayal, violence, panic attacks, affairs and keeping the business from being exposed as a criminal enterprise were all part of the intoxicating mix. And a lot of people were whacked.

The movie has many of the same issues compacted into nearly two hours – concentrating on the personal and professional struggles of Dickie Moltisanti. And a lot of people get whacked.

For fans, seeing Janice Soprano (Alexandra Intrator) as a rebellious teenager and a young Silvio Dante (John Magaro), wearing a different hairstyle, is just fun.

Corey Stoll is an intriguing Uncle Junior and Vera Farmiga conjures up memories of the mean elderly woman she became as Tony’s mom, so no wonder she is such a non-stop nag here.

Sharp and savvy, Alan Taylor is at the helm. He was previously nominated for primetime Emmy Awards for ‘Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men,” and won for directing “The Sopranos” episode, “Kennedy and Heidi.”

While the writing is top-notch, so are the vintage costume designs by Amy Westcott and the production design by Bob Shaw. It steeps us in the cultural shifting times and the by-gone post-war life in eastern American cities.

In addition, another highlight is a killer soundtrack, just like the series. The eclectic music selection perfectly captures each mood and time: The Rat Pack-vibe of the smoky clubs, the rock music pouring out of Tony’s new stereo speakers and a wide range of tunes punctuating the action.

But the very best element of the film is its cast. In an exceptional star turn, Alessandro Nivola emerges as someone to watch, who rises to the occasion as Dickie – and he’s mesmerizing.

The gamble of casting the late James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, as the younger version of his father’s character, turns out to be a smart decision. He soulfully embodies teenage Anthony with his father’s mannerisms, if not his speaking voice, slipping into the role with ease. He’s another one to watch. It’s guileless and seamless,

Michael Gandolfini as teenage Tony Soprano

Gritty and gripping, “The Many Saints of Newark” bristles with an excitement that describes a fitting backstory and a welcome return to these characters.

“The Many Saints of Newark” is a crime drama directed by Alan Taylor. It stars Alessandro Nivola, Michael Gandolfini, Corey Stoll, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Leslie Odom Jr., Billy Magnussen and Michela del Rossi. It is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity and has a runtime of 2 hours. It is in theaters and streaming on HBOMax on Oct. 1. Lynn’s Grade: A.