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7 stars

Parasite

Parasite

I musn't be remembering the film properly, because I don't
remember the bit where rich people stole everyone's eyes.
Sounds like something they'd do, though.

(기생충 Gisaengchung)

dir: Bong Joon-ho

2019

The thing about parasites is… how many are too many, and what should I do to get rid of them, lickety split?

Nah, but Parasite, the latest flick from the deranged and brilliant mind that brought us Okja, Snowpiercer, Mother, The Host and Memories of Murder, all of which are remarkably solid films, all of which are fairly unique, is probably the most outwardly conventional of all his films.

Not only that, but it won the Palme D’Or this year at Cannes! Can you imagine caring about such a thing? Surely if something wins the Palme D’Or it means it’s a pretty great film, if not the greatest film of all time, or at least that year thus far? I mean, look at all the other great Palme D’Or winners, like Pulp Fiction, Barton Fink, The Piano and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

I didn’t make up that last one. On the list of winners there are a lot of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh films, and films from many nations, with no obvious bias towards the films of any region. Mostly, they have nothing in common, though one could be tempted to imply that the jury likes flicks where class is addressed, or plays a part thematically, or is indeed called The Class, which won the Palme D’Or in 2008.

Parasite, the South Korean director’s latest flick, is pretty much about class, but it’s also about the struggles of a family of grifters, and their travails. The least charitable application of the title would be to say that what this family does is become a parasite burrowing its way into the body of another, wealthier family. When we meet our grifters, they’re living in a basement, fighting to find the right spot in which to use someone else’s wi-fi connection in order to connect for some data. Calling the place a hovel would be an insult to squalor.

But they’re tough, and resourceful, as are most petty crims who need to survive on their wits. The father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, who is not only in most of the Bong Joon-ho or Park chan-wook movies I’ve seen, but also in the majority of all South Korean flicks I’ve ever seen) is a fairly quiet, fairly optimistic chap. He supports all his kids in all their attempts to grift. He seems like such a likable guy. The mum, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) is a former athlete, and gives the least amount of fucks of any in the family (being exactly zero), often threatening to bite the hand that feeds or actively biting it especially when it’s not in their interest. Then there’s the gentle and retiring son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and the daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), with some serious Photoshop skills that she puts to work in service of the plan.

Rating:

The Perfection

The Perfection

Just keep practicing, it's the only way to get to Carnegie Hall

dir: Richard Shepard

2019

That was… a decidedly macabre experience.

Some films live for their twists. Others pay lip service to the twist, and just dangle it as an afterthought at the end, which often undoes much of the goodwill a film might have earned along the way. Others are so dependent on their twists that getting invested in the story seems pointless once you know that the rug is going to be pulled out enough times such that there’s nothing left to believe in anymore, man. The whole System is corrupt, Man!

But some films, like this one, and the great recent Korean flick The Handmaiden, have twists baked into the production, meaning we couldn’t predict what was coming, or why, but it at least enhances the story even as it keeps changing course in whiplash-inducing ways.

We think we know what’s going on. We don’t really know what’s going on, until the very end.

The Perfection refers to… something, I’m not entirely sure what. It might be the level of excellence required by the elite classical musicians of this strange world. It could also be a short cut phrase to the almost-cult like mentality of the musicians trained at the 1 % of the 1 % that is the Backoff Academy, run like a personal fiefdom by Anton (Steven Weber).

Rating:

Midsommar

Midsommar

I guess my allergies must be acting up something fierce

dir: Ari Aster

2019

This is some fucked up shit.

Midsommar is a deeply creepy flick, that is very long (I watched a director’s cut which adds like another half hour, making it nearly three hours long), but is not without its merits.

The main merit it possesses is Florence Pugh, who seems to be getting all the acting work these days (she was great in Lady Macbeth and the Little Drummer Girl mini series, and will star in the new Black Widow movie), and is just phenomenal even in something as disturbing as this. And it’s not an easy role, at all. You can just say this flick is a horror flick, and assume it requires someone being terrorised for a time before rising up and killing their tormentors or escaping to leave the tormentors to keep tormenting them in the sequel, but that’s not the kind of horror on display here.

This is a deeply weird flick, but it’s the kind of weird that I can get behind. I can’t say that I am that much of a horror flick fan now as in the past, but it certainly is transporting to see something a bit different (even if it isn’t entirely unfamiliar).

The place where it starts is a deeply, viscerally horrible place. Dani (Florence Pugh) is a college student, with a boyfriend called Christian (jack Reynor) who’s an anthropology graduate student. Her sister, who we never meet, has decided to kill herself, but even worse, to take her parents with her. But Dani doesn’t know all of this at first, and is reacting to a worrying text from her sister, and is more concerned about alienating her boyfriend by being too clingy or too needy.

When it cuts to the boyfriend, he’s chatting with his mates about how he’s planning on giving her the flick. The mates don’t seem to care, but they also seem to think he’s put up with enough as it is.

It is probably a kind of callous conversation that has been had by millions of people in their late teens early twenties since at least the dawn of human time, though it’s possible even our less evolved ancestors took a similar version of that chat for a spin back when the latest gadget was a sharp rock.

Rating:

Unicorn Store

Unicorn Store

You can relax now, job well done

dir: Brie Larson

2019

It’s a bit of a strange anomaly of a flick. It’s a so-called Netflix Original, but all that means is that when it played the film festival circuit, Netflix bought the rights to screen in when no-one else wanted to.

Perhaps they thought audiences would clamour to see it after Captain Marvel became a massive hit. But how could they have known? I mean, Larson did win an Academy award for her role in Room, but she was hardly a household name before this year. Maybe it was to build a creative relationship with her ongoing, as this is her directorial debut.

It’s unlikely that they saw it and thought “People will punch their grandmothers in the face in order to be the first to stream this goddamn movie!”

Oh, it’s quite odd. I like odd, there’s no doubt, and this is plenty odd. This is the kind of odd that I actually value Netflix for. It is the kind of thing I see or seek out of curiosity that I otherwise would never have even heard of, and I would probably only watch it on a streaming service.

I am not going to explain any further. It is what it is. It is, I hope, the flick that Brie Larson wanted it to be, the exact flick she wanted it to be. It is strange, it doesn’t follow predictable story beats, it seems to exist in our reality, and it seems to be making some points about art, about creativity and about creative people being in tension with commercial interests or profit motives, and how easily people are crushed in that altercation / dynamic.

But it’s also about a young woman who is finally going to get the unicorn she’s craved all her life, as any girl would.

I watched this with my daughter, and at one point she turned to me and asked, “So, do you think the unicorn is meant to be, like, a metaphor for something, or real?”

Rating:

Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You

... but have you accepted Jesus as your personal saviour?

dir: Boots Riley

2018

Any film can go off the rails in its third act, but few do it in such a bonkers, catastrophic fashion. If you’re going to crash and burn, I say do it as spectacularly as possible, and this flick certainly gives it a red hot go.

I could not even begin to describe what genre this movie slots into. I guess you could kind of say it was a comedy? Corporate satire with racial / social commentary? I mean, it’s pretty funny in parts, but it tries to do so much in its running time that to say it transcends traditional restrictions in favour of making an insane set of literal and allegorical points would really not even scratch the surface.

Maybe it’s just easier to call it a satire, though a satire of late-stage capitalism and the pretentiousness of performance art, or the way African-Americans have to commodify themselves in order to eke out a living, I could not rightly say. It’s saying something, or a lot of somethings, it’s just that I don’t know ultimately what it means, if anything.

Our Hero Cassius, or Cash as he’s referred to more often, is played by Lakeith Stanfield, probably best known for playing Darius in the FX series Atlanta. The characters, at least initially, aren’t that dissimilar. He also had a brief but memorable role in Get Out, as someone who clearly wasn’t feeling like himself anymore.

Here he’s a financially disadvantaged bum who lives in his uncle’s garage, and is desperate for work. We see him trying to put 40 cents of petrol in his car, one which needs literal strings to be pulled in order to get the wipers moving. I wouldn’t have mentioned the uncle except that the uncle is played by the sublime Terry Crews, who is confidently working towards taking over America by appearing in everything and on everything. If there is only one person on the planet I can accept getting to refer to themselves in the third person, and there is only one, it’s Terry.

I have however expended more words in the last paragraph than Terry gets in the whole flick. Let me not give the impression that Cash’s uncle Sergio plays any significant part in the proceedings. He doesn’t, other than as an occasional antagonist.

Cash tries to lie his way into a job at a telemarketing place. He unfortunately perpetrates a bit of resume padding claiming he worked as a manager at the Bank of Oakland during a particular time period, not knowing of course that the jerk interviewing him was the manager at that bank at the same time. Other places would show you the door, but this is telemarketing, of course, where being an awful person is its own reward and a valuable skill. Cash’s initial attempts to sell bullshit to people on the phone fails because the second people hear his voice they hang up.

An old hand at the job, Langston (Danny Glover), advises Cash to speak with his white voice. A voice that reassures the listener, that calms and comforts them, radiating ease and privilege, a voice that never knows want or fear of being able to pay the rent. When Cash finally masters that kind of voice, his rise through the ranks becomes stratospheric.

Rating:

Us

Us

This phenomenal poster is more disturbing than
anything in the film. Plus, where did they get all
the fingerless gloves from?

dir: Jordan Peele

2019

That was…something.

The shadow self, the dark Jungian version of our unexpressed ourselves that might have up until now lurked in the depths of our consciousness; right now, for plot reasons, comes to the fore, scissors in hand, ready to take our place.

I… am not going to pretend that I actually completely understood either the text, the subtext, the literal meaning of stuff or the allegorical meaning of what actually transpires in this horror film that starts off looking like a family under siege in their own home kind of story, and becomes something very much more complicated.

It starts in the 80s, as a young girl called Adelaide watches an ad for Hands Across America, an effort that came after the whole We Are The World fiasco to raise money for charities including homelessness. Also maybe to prove that Americans could stand up and hold hands, doing two things simultaneously. In retrospect it seems bizarre that anyone would do such a thing, but when I looked up that it raised probably around $100 million, but only about $15 million went to actual charities, it makes perfect sense.

Although, let’s be honest about this, after that, there was no homelessness or poverty in America or anywhere else for that matter, ever again, so it was all obviously worth it.

Adelaide watches this bizarre ad on the telly, and then it cuts to her and her parents going down to the Santa Cruz boardwalk, to celebrate her birthday with candied apples and games of chance, as her parents bicker. She observes her parents from behind, but observes all the people around her, including a strange chap holding a sign that says Jeremiah 11:11. This number and this wordless character keeps cropping up throughout the flick. I had to look it up, because I’m a godless heathen, and it talks about the Lord God visiting evil upon a bunch of people for no good reason.

Rating:

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers Endgame

You've got to wonder what the hell they're all looking at

dirs: Joe and Anthony Russo

2019

It’s finally over. Now we can all stop watching Marvel movies. They’ve got all our money; they’re richer than the gods now, so there’s no need to keep putting out movies. The heroes won, the baddies are gone, and now we can all rest easy in peace or in pieces, as the case may be.

It’s about bloody time. We could all do with a rest, don’t you think? We’ve earned it, they’ve earned it, we’re all good.

But… we can’t. Just can’t let it go. They can’t, we can’t. We knew it was only a matter of time. Marvel, and by Marvel I mean Disney, are addicted to money. It’s sad, but it’s true. They’ve got so much already, you think, they’ve taken so much for so long, but past actions, past performance doesn’t stop them from wanting more in the future. It’s the unfortunate way of the world.

When people talk about the death of cinema, or declining audiences etc, some, usually pretentious wankers, complain that it’s because the amount of decent films being put out is ever decreasing; more flicks are going straight to streaming versus the multiplex, piracy and more people spending time gaming or whatever else we occupy our time with in between tormenting strangers online via social media.

Disney sees this. Disney hears this. Disney’s plan of action is: however many or few eyeballs exist to glare at screens, we will own them all. Marvel’s ascent is just a part of the same rise that sees every massive franchise now under their one banner. Ultimately, they’re not going to care about how many or how few people are still going to the movies, because however many it is, wherever it is being watched, the ‘product’ they’re watching, in most cases, will be Disney product.

That’s the shame about all of this, but there are also benefits in these films now being the biggest movies in the world. One of them, I guess, is that maybe this is the natural peak, the pinnacle, the ne plus ultra, after which maybe, just maybe, we can start focusing on something else other than these monstrosities.

I don’t really think I’m ever going to sit through another 3+ hour film in the cinemas. I just find it increasingly hard to justify the time constraint of being forced to sit in a specific place at a specific time in order to see something soon enough such that we’re not exposed to too many spoilers. That’s the only real driver to seeing it near opening day: a fear both of missing out and of having others lord it over you that they saw it first.

Rating:

Green Book

Green Book

Green Book Green Book with two Stars. Twinkly Racist Driving Cars.

dir: Peter Farrelly

2018

Yes the fact that this got nominated for things at the thingie ceremony in late Feb / early March is the only reason I saw this. Otherwise I probably would have skipped it, not that I’m against touching stories where a low-rent mob palooka and a prissy African-American pianist reach across the racial divide and make America a better place by doing so.

I would have skipped it because on paper, in ads, conceptually and aesthetically, it did not appeal to me on any level, despite starring two actors that I adore. Viggo Mortensen is a tremendous man and a wonderful actor, and I’ve loved him in almost everything I’ve ever seen him in. And Mahershala Ali has been magnificent on tv, in movies and, like, probably even when he walks down the street or just out the front door to get his newspaper, very convincing, totally believable. Mahershala has charisma and presence to burn 99% of the time, so the stage is set for a feel-good movie you could take your grandmother too, that could just as easily have had Ebony & Ivory playing in it, that would also win heaps of awards from the less than discerning voters of the Academy, thank you, thank you, this is such an honour, I’d like to thank the Academy, and my agent etc etc…

That this is based on a couple of people who existed in human history does not make it a documentary, and a lot of critics point to discrepancies between what Doc Shirley’s surviving family say about their time together, and what Tony Vallelonga’s family say happened, as if either of the two sets of gold-diggers / reality deniers would really know. Even better, several times in the film Tony takes pride in announcing to the world that he’s famous for his well-earned nickname ‘Lip’ because of his propensity and alacrity with bullshitting people at any and all times.

Plus, not to be too rude, but who the fuck is Don Shirley anyway, and why should we care? I mean, he’s no Freddie Mercury / Jackson Maine / Lady Gaga, is he.

So perhaps the most accurate rendering of what this film is about, is that this movie is based on a story Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga told anyone who would listen about the time he drove a famous pianist around. Is that so complicated?

Well, it’s complicated by the time in which this happened, and the myriad of levels that people feel the need to argue and discount people’s stories these days (I guess it was always thus and always thus shall be). Some critics have dismissed the film saying a) it’s all bullshit, b), it’s a white saviour narrative, c) the road trip did happen, but not like this, d) bloody Hollywood pushing its agendas on us.

Rating:

You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here

You, Really, Here, Never Were, but you could have tried at least

dir: Lynne Ramsay

2017

Such a title sounds like an admonition, a cold observation, a sad reckoning. It sounds like the kind of thing someone would say to an absent parent, especially, but I can imagine a bunch of other situations where someone could say it and mean it, too. You could say to someone “you were never really here”, and it would be an acknowledgement that even if that person was actually, physically there the whole time, their mind, their emotional investment, was somewhere else, focused on something or someone else.

If nothing else it emphasises absence over presence, and we can safely assume it’s not seen as a positive quality.

I cannot say that I entirely know what it means in the mind of the author of the novella that this is based (by Jonathan Ames), or in Lynne Ramsay’s mind, but the main character definitely has a lot on his mind, and if he’s a bit distracted, I can understand why.

Joe, as played by someone who clearly already has mental health issues, being Joaquin Phoenix, has a mass of mental health issues and an array of traumas from which crests a continued existence of remarkable precariousness. That’s a fancy way of saying Joe is so messed up I’m amazed he can get out of bed. Almost every action flick with a jerk at the centre of it has a tragic backstory where someone’s wife died or someone’s kid died, and they have to make up for it by killing a bunch of people in order to save some other woman or child. And then, when that’s done, they can be rewarded either by partnering with the woman, adopting the child, or dying, or all three.

It’s the standard screenwriting playbook, as lazy and as repeated as a Valentine’s Day card’s banal message. Is it really that different in the hands of Joaquin Phoenix and Lynne Ramsay?

Well, do you remember what else Lynne Ramsay’s done? Do you remember watching We Need to Talk About Kevin? If you did watch it, do you remember watching it a second time? Could you ever bring yourself to watch it again?

I think not, but that doesn’t speak as to the quality of the films she makes. They are high quality and like no-one else’s films. Her approach is distinctive and amazing in equal measure (not really, but it seemed like the right thing to say at the time). They are definitely memorable, but the reason you remember them is not because of the dialogue, or the script in general. It’s because of the way she chooses to tell her stories visually, and how unsettling an experience it is to watch them. She finds the most distinctive but sometimes most obtuse ways to get her images and ideas across. And she wants you to remember her images, the same way in which the protagonist here can’t stop thinking about the horror-show going on in his own head.

Joe’s traumas begin early, in childhood, at the hands of an abusive parent, but he has also clearly seen terrible, truly terrible things in a time of war, and as an FBI agent, images that haunt him constantly, and now some of them will probably haunt us too.

Rating:

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Six paths, six stories, that all say the same bloody thing

dir: Coens

2018

Usually I’d argue that anthology films are kind of a waste of time and resources unless you’re in the mood for the cinematic equivalent of tapas instead of an actual meal, but, hell, it’s the Coens, it’s on Netflix, and I’d be a fool to not see it, considering the, I dunno, 14 or so truly great films they’ve made so far. It’s a reasonable bet to give them the benefit of the doubt, and it pays off most of the time.

Except when it doesn’t. But this is not one of those times. The fact that these stories are told in short story form, is the perfect delivery device for the overall package, because there’s no real connection between any of the stories, other than that people suck. It’s not the first time the Coens have ventured in the realm of the Western, but it’s the most recent, and probably the funniest. There is a certain mordent grimness as well, which befits the frontier setting, one which maybe implies man’s drive to ‘conquer’ the New World was an inherently deadly business.

Almost all the stories trade in death, in that death is either an element of the story, or the punchline to it, but not always. The last story, as far as I could tell, is entirely about death, with a number of people lead unawares to their final reward on a stagecoach, and yet they also argue about the nature of love, tedium, loneliness, the value of speaking the same language as someone you’ve shacked up with. All while the driver drives on.

The stories are bookended with images from a literal book being leafed through, as if these are all stories from the same book, by the same author, but really it’s mostly the Coens putting together some stories they thought up over the years (one of the stories is from Jack London, probably the best one, but who could tell) and making it look like there’s an overarching theme or connection at work.

There isn’t. Their only point is the same one they borrowed when they made No Country for Old Men, which is that there is no mercy, no divine grace, no power of prayer, no divine intercession on our behalf, and evil easily triumphs over good because it is way meaner and wants the prize more.

Again, except when it doesn’t. There is a wry approach at play here, where luck doesn’t really seem to go anyone’s way for too long, and misunderstandings lead to tragedy, or where venality wins out over virtue, but it’s not meant in a mean way, if that makes any sense, and it probably doesn’t.

The first story, which shares the title of the movie, is about a happy-go-lucky singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) who looks like and sounds like the clear embodiment of all that jerks used to love about cowboy movies. Not only that but, like Deadpool, or any number of other characters who talk directly to the audience, this jerk tells us all about how wonderful he is, through his particular song and dance routine. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s quite handy with a gun.

Rating:

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