Review:’ Ghosts of the Ozarks,’ starring Thomas Hobson, Tara Perry, Phil Morris, Angela Bettis, David Arquette and Tim Blake Nelson

February 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tim Blake Nelson, Angela Bettis and Thomas Hobson in “Ghosts of the Ozarks” (Photo courtesy of XYZ Films)

“Ghosts of the Ozarks”

Directed by Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1860s Arkansas after the U.S. Civil War, the horror film “Ghosts of the Ozarks” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young doctor is summoned by his uncle to live in a secretive community in Arkansas that is haunted by ghosts.

Culture Audience: “Ghosts of the Ozarks” will appeal mainly to people who don’t mind watching very boring and poorly written horror movies that aren’t very scary.

Phil Morris in “Ghosts of the Ozarks” (Photo courtesy of XYZ Films)

“Ghosts of the Ozarks” tries to make social commentary about power and race relations in Arkansas after the Civil War, but the intended message gets buried in a cesspool of sluggish storytelling and terrible acting. This horror movie also fails to be suspenseful or scary. The cheap-looking visual effects don’t help.

Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long co-directed “Ghosts of the Ozarks,” whose screenplay was co-written by Long and Tara Perry, with Sean Anthony Davis credited as a collaborating writer. Glass and Long also co-directed the 2018 horror comedy “Squirrel.” “Ghosts of the Ozarks,” which is not a comedy, has a simple concept that gets muddled with a lot of boring filler scenes that add very little to the story. In addition, many of the cast members give lackluster performances, as if the story is monotonous to them too.

In “Ghosts of the Ozarks,” which takes place in the 1860s sometime after the U.S. Civil War, physician Dr. James McCune (played by Thomas Hobson) has been summoned by his uncle Matthew McCune (played by Phil Morris) to live and work in a secretive rural Arkansas community named Norfolk, where Matthew is the leader. Norfolk is located in the Ozarks Mountain area. The movie was filmed on location in Arkansas.

James (who is African American) is eager to take the offer to become Norfolk’s doctor, because he wants a better life than the one he’s had. Racism has prevented him from getting the same opportunities as white doctors, so he wants to go to a place where he’s welcomed and appreciated. In addition to being a doctor in private practice, James has experience as a medic for the Union Army in the Civil War.

During his trek to Norfolk, James reads Matthew’s letter that convinced James to live in Norfolk. In the letter, Matthew says: “I invite you to Norfolk. It’s a sanctuary for all in these times. We like to keep to ourselves. We have need for a doctor with your skills. It’s a place unlike anything you’ve ever seen.” What Matthew doesn’t say in the letter, but which James finds out after he arrives in Norfolk, is that Norfolk’s previous doctor mysteriously disappeared.

James’ horse Ruthie runs away in the beginning of the movie, so James has to make the rest of his way by foot to Norfolk, through a heavily wooded area. It’s here that James gets the first clue that something might be strange about this place. He’s at a campfire by himself when a creepy-looking man named Micah (played by Scott Dean) approaches James in a suspicious manner and invites himself to join James at the campfire.

In a comment with racial overtones, Micah sneers at James, “It must be mighty nice, now that you’re free, you can go wherever you want.” James answers with confidence, “I didn’t need a war to be free.” Micah’s tone becomes even more hostile when he wrongfully accuses James of having precious stones. Micah then lunges at James and attacks him. But then, a mysterious red fog comes out of nowhere and pulls Micah into the fog, as Micah can be heard screaming in fright. James is also terrified, and he runs away.

When James arrives at Norfolk and tells Matthew what happened, Matthew nonchalantly tells James that the area is haunted by ghosts, which manifest themselves in the red fog. Matthew and James are the only African Americans in Norfolk. Everyone else is white. Toward the end of the movie, it’s haphazardly explained why an African American man in 1860s Arkansas was easily able to convince a white community to make him the leader, in a region of the United States where slavery of African Americans was legal just a few years earlier.

Matthew tells James why Norfolk is a utopia: “People here don’t care what you look like. Purpose is all that matters.” Throughout the movie, it’s repeated to the point of annoyance that everyone in Norfolk has a “purpose.” There’s also a wall that makes Norfolk a gated community. Security guards or “gatekeepers” are always at the entrance gate. Norfolk residents are discouraged from going outside the gates unless it’s to fulfill their “purpose.”

James doesn’t really believe in the supernatural, but Matthew says to James about the ghosts of the Ozarks: “They’re as real as I’ve ever known. They’re as magical as I’ve ever known. There’s not a soul [in Norfolk] who hasn’t come in contact with them. Most are wearing their history as their scars. The ghosts are real, boy. So are the walls. As long as that’s honored, each to his or her own purpose.”

Norfolk is filled with eccentrics. And because it’s a small community, everyone seems to know each other’s business. Torb (played by Tim Blake Nelson) is a quick-tempered blind man with an acute sense of hearing. He tends the bar/saloon at a local inn, where his gossipy confidante Lucille (played by Angela Bettis) likes to play the piano at the bar/saloon. The movie has a cringeworthy, out-of-place scene where Torb and Lucille perform an entire song together.

James also meets Douglas Giuseppe DuBois (played by David Arquette), who’s proud of the fact that he’s one of the few people in the area who has a camera and a photo studio. Douglas makes a living by taking studio portraits, but it’s later revealed that he uses his camera to take photos of people without their knowledge. Arquette is one of the least-believable 1860s characters in this movie’s cast. He just seems to be playing dress-up in a costume.

One of the Norfolk residents is a grandmother-age woman named Miss Roberts (played by Neva Howell), who is James’ first house call as a doctor in Norfolk. Miss Roberts has a girl living in her household named Emma (played by Skylar Olivia Flanagan), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. The movie is so poorly written, it never explains what Emma’s relationship is to Miss Roberts. Both of these characters get too much screen time, considering that they don’t do much, unless you think it’s fascinating that Emma sometimes goes outside the gated walls to fly kites.

Three other Norfolk residents who encounter James are an outgoing young man named Joe (played by Aaron Preusch), his socially awkward friend Mick (played by Brandon Gibson) and a middle-aged man named Jesse (played by David Aaron Baker), who is Emma’s uncle. Not long after James has settled in his own place at Norfolk, he has another unsettling experience one night: Joe suddenly bursts into James’ home and coughs up a lot of blood. James puts something that looks like a heat-glowing tongue depressor in Joe’s mouth, and Joe eventually recovers. The glow on this device looks supernatural, but it’s never explained why.

Outside the gated walls of Norfolk live two siblings who are the children of the doctor who disappeared: Annie Hunter (played by “Ghosts of the Ozarks” co-writer Perry) and her brother William Hunter (played by Joseph Ruud), a hulking and bearded man who doesn’t talk much. Annie and William used to live in Norfolk, but they were cast out by the community for not following the rules of “living your purpose.” The dislike goes both ways: Annie and William don’t think the community did enough to help find their father. Annie thinks of herself as an outspoken, gun-toting maverick, as if she’s Annie Oakley before Annie Oakley became famous.

Because James has been tasked with taking over the missing doctor’s clinic, he goes outside the gated walls to ask for Annie’s help to show him around and help set up the clinic. She reluctantly agrees. Over time, Annie and James develop an attraction to each other. Annie is also sought after by Mick, but she rebuffs his advances because she has no romantic interest in him.

As a Norfolk newcomer, James initially has a positive outlook on this place he now calls home, which he describes as a “haven.” Annie has the opposite opinion when she tells him: “This is a prison, James. They’ve convinced the inmates it’s a paradise.” If you consider why James has ended up in Norfolk, and who would have the most power to get things done, it’s very easy to figure out who’s the villain in this story. It really is that obvious.

Even though the movie has an obvious villain who isn’t revealed until the last third of the movie, there are things about “Ghosts of the Ozarks” that just don’t make sense. Micah—the man who attacked James in the beginning of the movie before being hauled off by the red fog—is found dead later near the Norfolk gates. James sees Micah’s body being carried away, while a Norfolk resident declares that the ghosts killed Micah. And yet, James doesn’t appear unnerved at all. And for all this talk in the movie about “purpose,” characters like Miss Roberts and Jesse seem to have no real purpose in the movie.

There are parts of “Ghosts of the Ozarks” that introduce ideas and then just leave these ideas to dangle with no real resolution. Emma’s kite flying didn’t really need to be in the movie, even though considerable screen time (about 15 minutes) is spent on this kite-flying activity. If it’s supposed to create tension that Emma could get in trouble for being outside the gates, then this intention fell flat. In addition to the strange heat-glowing device that James used to medically treat Joe, there’s also a brass wind-up device that James has brought with him, but he can’t get it to work. It’s another time-wasting part of the movie that’s never explained.

Early on in the film, Matthew asks James to find mushrooms for a “remedy” recipe that Matthew says can “work wonders” for Matthew’s health. It leads to a scene where James is digging for mushrooms in the woods at night, and he encounters the ghostly red fog again. It’s all so contrived and phony, because James could’ve easily been digging for mushrooms during the day. It’s yet another “Ghosts of the Ozarks” scene that’s weak on being scary.

Most of the acting in “Ghosts of the Ozarks” is downright awful and made worse by the idiotic dialogue in the movie. Nelson is the most acclaimed actor in this cast, but he plays a hollow caricature in this movie, which makes him look foolish with his corny overacting. At least Torb has something resembling a personality. James is as bland as bland can be, with Hobson giving a generic and forgettable performance to match.

“Ghosts of the Ozarks” gets dragged down with a lot of badly staged and tedious scenes about the social environment at Norfolk. It isn’t until the last third of the movie that it seems to remember that it’s supposed to be a horror story. A big showdown is rushed in toward the end. But just like this entire movie, it’s badly conceived, sloppily executed, and just one big letdown.

XYZ Films released “Ghosts of the Ozarks” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on February 3, 2022.

Review: ‘Minari,’ starring Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han, Noel Cho and Will Patton

February 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han and Noel Cho in “Minari” (Photo by Josh Ethan Johnson/A24)

“Minari”

Directed by Lee Isaac Chung

Korean and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1980s, in an unnamed part of rural Arkansas, the drama “Minari’ features a cast of Asians and white people portraying the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Korean American family moves from California to Alabama, so the patriarch can start a farm, but the family experiences culture shock and unexpected hardships.

Culture Audience: “Minari” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted dramas about family struggles and the American Dream.

Will Patton and Steven Yeun in “Minari” (Photo by Melissa Lukenbaugh/A24)

The standout drama “Minari” makes an emotional impact in moments of quiet desperation and anxiety during a family’s quest to achieve the American Dream. It’s not a movie packed with fast-paced action, nor does it fall into predictable clichés of how immigrant families in America are often portrayed on screen. It’s an intimate “slice of life” portrait of a pivotal time in a Korean American family’s history, with impressive performances from the movie’s cast.

Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari” won the 2020 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Award in the U.S. dramatic category (the festival’s top prize) and the Audience Award in the same category. And it’s an arthouse film that’s also a crowd-pleaser. There isn’t a false note in the entire movie, although the deliberate pacing of “Minari” might not be to everyone’s taste, especially if a viewer is expecting more melodramatic antics in this story.

Set in the 1980s, “Minari” centers on the Yee family, who have recently moved from California to rural Arkansas. Jacob (played by Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (played by Yeri Han) are in their 30s and have opposite feelings from each other about this relocation. Jacob is excited and optimistic about this new chapter in the family’s life, while Monica is skeptical and worried. When they drive up to their new home, which is a trailer, Monica expresses her disappointment to Jacob: “This isn’t what you promised.”

Jacob and Monica’s children are daughter Anne (played by Noel Cho) and son David (played by Alan S. Kim), who are aware that their mother isn’t thrilled about moving to rural Arkansas, where the family doesn’t know anyone. But the children have no choice but to go along and see what happens. Anne, who is about 11 or 12 years old, is an obedient and unfussy child. David is 7 years old, very precocious, and a little bit rebellious. David also has a heart murmur, so he’s often reminded by his parents that he can’t run or do any physical activity that could over-exert his heart.

It’s mentioned in the movie that Jacob and Monica are Korean immigrants who moved to the United States after they became a couple, while Anne and David were born in the U.S. It’s why Jacob and Monica usually speak to each other in Korean. Anne and David are also bilingual, but they prefer to speak English.

There are other signs that Anne and David are more open to assimilating with Americans than Jacob and Monica are. The children (especially David) want to make new friends in their new hometown, while Jacob and Monica prefer to keep to themselves and feel more comfortable around the few other Korean immigrants in the area. (“Minari” was actually filmed in Tulsa, Oklahoma.)

In California, Jacob was a very skilled farm worker whose specialty is being a chicken sexer: someone who identifies baby chickens by their sex, so that the males can be separated from the females. Female chickens are considered more valuable than male chickens because females can produce eggs. When the Yee family arrives in Arkansas, Jacob gets a chicken sexer job at a place called Wilkinson Hatcheries, which employs mostly Korean immigrants. Anne works there too, doing the same thing, but she’s new at learning this skill.

There’s been tension brewing between Jacob and Monica. When she first sees that they’ll be living in a trailer, instead of a house, she mutters to herself, “It just gets worse and worse.” And several times during the movie, Monica expresses regret about moving to Arkansas, and pines for what she says was the better life that the family had in California.

But Jacob has other ideas. The property they own in Arkansas comes with about one acre of land that’s ideal for farming. One of the first things that Jacob does is scoop up some of the grassy soil in his hands. He marvels, “This is the best dirt in America.”

Monica is dismayed that Jacob’s plans to have a backyard garden as a hobby quickly turns into plans to start a small farm. It’s a lot to handle for Jacob, who also needs to keep his day job at the hatchery company. Monica reluctantly goes along with Jacob’s decision for her and Jacob get a bank loan to start the farming business. Jacob’s plan is to sell his farm produce to places that carry Korean food. Jacob immediately begins teaching David some aspects of farm life, no doubt because Jacob thinks that David might want to inherit the farm someday.

Jacob determines that there’s enough water flow on the land to build a well and irrigation system. He then buys a tractor from a local, scruffy eccentric named Paul (played by Will Patton), who offers to work for Jacob on the farm. Paul is a Christian who’s a religious fanatic. One of the first things Paul does during the tractor sale is pray in tongues over the land. This behavior makes Jacob uncomfortable, so he declines Paul’s offer to work on the farm.

However, it soon becomes clear that Jacob has no one else to turn to in this sparsely populated area. Paul ends up working for Jacob, who learns to tolerate Paul’s religious quirks. For example, Jacob is a smoker, and the first time that he lights up a cigarette in front of Paul, the reaction from Paul is as if he’s near the fire of hell. In his free time, Paul has a habit of walking down the area’s dirt roads with a large, heavy wooden cross on his shoulder, to recreate the biblical story of Jesus doing the same thing.

Throughout the movie, it’s made every clear that the Yee family is very isolated. Monica suggests to Jacob that they move to a bigger city called Rogers in Arkansas, but he brushes off that suggestion and says they’ve invested too much in the property that they have now. Anne and David are homeschooled, but since Monica and Jacob have to spend their weekdays at the hatchery, they need someone to help take care of the kids during the day.

And that’s why Anne’s feisty mother Soonja (played by Yuh-jung Youn) comes to live with the family. She travels from Korea to Arkansas, but her immigration situation is never explained in the movie. Due to visa restrictions and how quickly that Soonja was able to get to Arkansas, it’s implied that her stay in Arkansas will be temporary. Jacob wants to make enough money through the farm so that eventually, he and Monica don’t have to work at the hatchery anymore and will be able to work from home while the kids are there.

However long Soonja plans to stay, “Minari” takes place over the course of about five or six months, with Soonja coming into the picture during the last couple of months that the story take place. In the movie, Anne mentions that she’s the only living relative for Soonja, who lost her husband in the Korean War. When Soonja arrives with food from Korea, such as chili powder and anchovies, Anne gets so emotional that she cries.

Soonja doesn’t get a very warm welcome from David though. It doesn’t help that David has to share his room with Soonja, even though she sleeps on the floor. David tells Soonja and his other family members why he doesn’t trust Soonja: David thinks she doesn’t act like a “real grandmother,” because she can’t read, she often curses, and she wears men’s underwear. Soonja tries to bond with David by cracking open a nut with her mouth and then telling him to eat it what she just spit out. Naturally, David refuses.

Soonja also tries to be friendly to David by giving him a pack of playing cards. Monica asks Soonja if that’s an appropriate gift for a 7-year-old. Soonja replies: “Start him young to beat these other bastards!”

David has a bed-wetting problem, and when Soonja finds out, she teases David by saying to him in Korean: “Penis is broken.” David replies, “It’s not called a penis! It’s called a ding-dong!” In an act of impish revenge, David plays a prank on Soonja that won’t be described in this review, but it’s enough to say that the prank can be considered amusing, nauseating or both.

Soonja and her minor clashes with David are the movie’s main comic relief, as the stress continues to build in the family because of problems with the farm. Starting the business has been a major financial drain on the family’s funds and there are some setbacks which make it questionable when or if the farm will be profitable. The more that it looks like the business will fail, the more that Monica wants to leave Arkansas.

Jacob refuses to quit, and he tells an increasingly frustrated Monica that it’s about more than the money. It’s about a sense of accomplishment and setting an example for their children: “They need to see me succeed at something,” Jacob says.

More than once, Jacob tells Monica that if the farm fails, she can do whatever she wants, including leaving him and taking the children with her. In other words, the stakes are pretty high for this family, which also has the added worries of some health problems that happen later in the story. Except for the bank loan and Paul’s assistance, Jacob doesn’t ask for much help. Part of it is because of his pride, but part of it could also be Korean culture, which teaches that families should try to keep their problems to themselves so that they won’t burden society.

Because the Yee family lives on a fairly isolated farm and the children are homeschooled, they don’t come in contact with a lot of the local people in their part of Arkansas. Therefore, “Minari” doesn’t have any scenarios where the Yees experience any blatant racial discrimination. Shortly after Soonja arrives, the Yee family attends a local church service, where the Yees are the only non-white parishioners. The white churchgoers are friendly and occasionally culturally ignorant, but they do not deliberately exclude the Yees.

The title of the movie comes from a noteworthy scene when Soonja and David are in the woods and she notices that a nearby creek would be ideal to grow minari. Soonja mentions that minari is the type of herb that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their ethnicity or socioeconomic status. The minari becomes a metaphor not just for following a dream but also for persistence when there’s an obstacle to that dream.

Chung’s writing and direction for “Minari” are uncluttered but rich with emotions that are relatable to people who have close-knit families. There are some arguments and hard decisions that have to be made in how this family will move forward, but these scenes of conflict never look gimmicky just for the sake of bringing more drama to the story. The movie’s production design, cinematography and production design are assets in bringing authenticity to this family tale.

Yeun, Kim and Han deliver the movie’s most memorable performances. There’s an underlying power dynamic between their three characters in the movie that are the catalysts for the biggest developments in the story. Soonja’s arrival puts added pressure on Jacob to be the family’s chief provider, because he doesn’t want to look like he’s incapable of taking care of his family.

David and Jacob also know that Soonja is a reminder of Korea, a country that Jacob and Monica left to seek a better life in America. At one point, David comments about Soonja in a disdainful tone of voice that she “smells like Korea.” Even at this young age, David is aware that his parents think that they’re better off in America than in Korea. However, Soonja’s vibrant presence, even in her unsophisticated glory, is a reminder of how people shouldn’t be dismissive of their family heritage and the value of wisdom that comes with age.

“Minari” takes its time to get to the most dramatic part of the story. But viewers who like to immerse themselves in the everyday lives of a very specific family will find a lot to admire about this film. The movie takes place in the 1980s, but there are lessons learned in the story that are timeless.

A24 released “Minari” in select U.S. cinemas on February 11, 2021, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on February 12, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is February 26, 2021.

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