Movie Review: Parasite (2019)


Title: Parasite
Release Date: 30 May 2019
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Production Company: Barunson E&A
Summary/Review:

The Kim family are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet while living in a semi-basement apartment in a run-down looking part of a South Korean city. Their fortunes start to look up when the college-aged son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) gets the opportunity to substitute for his friend as a tutor of the daughter of the prosperous Park family, despite not having qualified for the university himself. Ki-woo notices the anxiety the Park family’s mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) has for her young son and recommends his artistically-talented sister Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam) as an art therapist he’s knows named “Jessica.” Ki-jung is able to get the driver of the Park family father fired, and recommends to Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) her own father Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) as a replacement driver (again in disguise).  Finally, the trio work to get the Park’s long-term housekeeper, Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), and replace her with their mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin).

With all four members of the family gainfully employed by the Parks, they take the opportunity of the Parks leaving for a camping trip to celebrate in the Park’s elegant house, designed by a prominent architect who once lived there. Things look good until Moon-gwang arrives claiming that she left something in the basement. She reveals a shocking secret which unleashes a series of events that lead to a tragic final act.

The movie is a dark satire of socially-stratified society. Despite the fact that the Kims do some morally reprehensible things, you still find yourself rooting for them because people as clearly talented and motivated as them should not be living in poverty (of course, no one should live in poverty). The conflict that arises between the Kims and Moon-gwang is also emblematic of how the poor are forced to fight amongst themselves for the scraps thrown by the wealthy. Without going into spoilers, the grim events of the final act are an indication that actual class war would be devastating for all involved, but that inequality is going to have be addressed by other means.

The movie is very cleverly-written and the acting is all-around terrific.  I really felt like I knew all these characters and they were fully-rounded humans, not just types.  I was also impressed by the direction.  One sequence shows the Kim family running from the Park’s house to their own neighborhood by way of descending a series of staircase.  The social stratification between the families is made literal. There’s also a shot where flood waters rise into the frame and everything above the waterline wipes into the next shot, an effect I’ve never seen before.

Parasite is a clever, funny, thoughtful, and disturbing film.  It’s received a lot of awards and accolades, and I guess I’m adding mine to the pile.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Stalag 17 (1953)


Title: Stalag 17
Release Date: July 1, 1953
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

Set in the prisoner of war camp in Germany in December 1944, Stalag 17 sits somewhere between the grim realism of A Man Escaped and the goofiness of Hogan Heroes (at tv show clearly drew upon this movie for influence). The story focuses on a barracks of American prisoners where attempts at escape and the possession of a radio are foiled by the genial and seemingly incompetent guard, Sergeant Johann Sebastian Schulz (Sig Ruman). The men in the barracks suspect that one of their own is a spy, and suspicion falls on a cynical Bostonian who has succeeded in bargaining for luxuries with the Germans, J.J. Sefton (William Holden, reunited with director Billy Wilder after Sunset Boulevard).

The move successfully balances drama with comedy. A lot of screen time is given to Stanislas “Animal” Kuzawa (Robert Strauss ) and Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) whose comic antics keep the barracks loose.  At times, it feels more like a frat house than a prison camp, especially when the men leer at the Russian women prisoners in an adjacent camp. Meanwhile, Sefton works to clear his name and find the real stoolie, while all the prisoner work to defend Lieutenant James Dunbar (Don Taylor) from execution. If there’s one flaw with the movie is that the audience isn’t given any clues on who is spying for the Germans although I suppose the movie isn’t meant to be a mystery.  The movie also features a young Peter Graves, of Mission: Impossible and Airplane! fame as the barracks security chief, Frank Price.

I watched this movie multiple times when I was young, and I’m happy to say that it still holds up as an engaging film.  I didn’t know who Billy Wilder was back then, but now that I’ve seen more of his work, I can definitely say that Wilder was a versatile and talented writer and director.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Reviews: To Be or Not To Be (1942)


Title: To Be or Not To Be
Release Date: February 19, 1942
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Production Company: Romaine Film Corp
Summary/Review:

On the eve of a Presidential inauguration that is under the shadow of a white supremacist insurrection us two weeks ago, it seems unfortunate that a movie that makes light of Nazis would come up next on my list. Except, once I started watching this movie I found it so compelling I let my misapprehensions go. Set in 1939, the movie depicts a theatre company in Warsaw who support the Underground by using disguises and get themselves in and out of trouble. Despite being a very funny comedy this film makes the threat of the Nazis all the more menacing.

In this earlier version Jack Benny and Carole Lombard portray the married stars of a Warsaw theatre company named Josef and Maria Tura.  A very young Robert Stack (but his distinguishing voice is recognizable) plays the Polish airman Lt. Stanislav Sobinski who inadvertently gets them caught up in a Gestapo plot. Benny is absolutely hilarious as the arrogant and hammy actor playing a part in everything he does.  Lombard, in her last role before dying in a plane crash, is equally majestic as the quick-witted Maria.

I remember seeing at least parts of the 1983 remake with Mel Brooks (and more frequently, the unfortunate “Hitler Rap” music video) as a kid, but didn’t remember much about the movie. I can see why it would appeal to Brooks though as it has some of his dark, satiric humor as well as the willingness to be seen as doing something in “bad taste.”

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: Soul


Title: Soul
Release Date: December 25, 2020
Director: Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

The latest film from Pixar continues the studio’s exploration of the liminal space between life and other planes of existence begun in Coco and Onward. The movie is the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a jazz musician who works as a high school band teacher in New York City to pay the bills until he gets his big break. On the very day that break comes, the opportunity to back jazz star Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) at a gig, he falls to his death. Finding himself as a soul heading up on an escalator to “the great beyond,” he runs away and ends up in “the great before,” where souls are prepared for their life on earth.

Through a series of misadventures, Joe ends up as a mentor for the recalcitrant Soul 22 (Tina Fey). Further misadventures result in Joe and Soul 22 on Earth, although not in the way they expected. This portion of the film has some hilarious hijinks but also the opportunity for Joe and Soul 22 to teach one another about the meaning of life. As you might expect from a Pixar film, the finale is tear-inducing in its honesty and beauty.

The movie has been criticized for its depiction of Black man not actually inhabiting his body for most of the movie (and that a white woman occupies that Black body for a good portion of the film). This criticism should not be overlooked especially considering that this is the first Pixar film ever with a Black lead character, but it also does not mean that one cannot enjoy this movie. Soul is a thoughtful, funny, and inspirational film that is a small story on the surface but it resonates deeply.

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: Blow the Man Down (2020)


Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Blow the Man Down
Release Date: March 20, 2020
Director: Bridget Savage Cole & Danielle Krudy
Production Company: Secret Engine | Tango Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I watched this movie because I’d heard that David Coffin, song leader of The Christmas Revels, appeared in it. Otherwise I had not idea what the movie was about and dang was I surprised. Don’t read any further if you want to be as surprised as I was.

The story is about young adult sisters Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth Connolly (Morgan Saylor), beginning on the day of their mother’s funeral. They live in a fishing village in Maine where their mother has established a fishmonger’s shop and has had to mortgage their house. Priscilla, the “responsible” older sister worries about how they’re going to keep the house, while Mary Beth, the “wild” one simply wants to get out of the small town.

On the night after the funeral, they argue and Mary Beth goes out to a bar where she hooks up with a man named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). When she observes him acting suspiciously, he attacks her, and she kills him in self-defense. The bulk of the movie is Priscilla and Mary Beth poor attempts to cover up Gorski’s death. This gets them entangled in other town scandals with Enid (played magnificently by Character Actress Margo Martindale), an old friend of their mother’s who runs a brothel out of her B&B.

Over the course of the film, the sisters learn some dark secrets of the village and their mother’s past. Throughout the film we see the actions of three older women who are not to be underestimated. David Coffin and other singing fishermen appear from time to time to sing sea chanties as kind of a Greek chorus. The beautiful setting is a contrast to the quirky mystery at the heart of the movie. In the sense it reminds me of the first season of Broadchurch.

Rating: ***1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: The Farewell (2019)


Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: The Farewell
Release Date: July 12, 2019
Director: Lulu Wang
Production Company: Ray Productions | Big Beach | Depth of Field | Kindred Spirit
Summary/Review:

The Farewell, titled Don’t Tell Her in Mandarin, is the story of an extended Chinese family who agree not to tell the family matriarch Nai Nai (Zhao Shu-zhen) that she has terminal lung cancer. The movie is told from the point of view Billi (Awkwafina), Nai Nai’s young adult granddaughter who emigrated to New York City with her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) when she was a child. Instead the family organizes a wedding of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese fiancée Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) as an excuse to gather the family together to say goodbye to Nai Nai.

The central tension of the film that the Americanized Billi believes Nai Nai deserves to know the truth about her fate while her parents and uncle (Jiang Yongbo) believe it is the Chinese tradition and collective responsibility of the family to bear the grief (Honestly, I know Irish-Americans who would do the same thing if they could get away from it). Zhao Shu-zhen is terrific as Nai Nai, who seems to be a force of nature and perhaps wiser to things than her family believes, while also showing moments of vulnerability when her illness catches up with her. Awkwafina also puts in an excellent performance as the young person between two cultures. All the performances feel natural and like a real family.

The movie is also beautifully filmed with some clever direction. In one scene Nai Nai and Billi have a meaningful conversation while the wedding couple have a ridiculous photo shoot in the background. The wedding reception scenes are also remarkable with the interaction of guests, karaoke performances, and chanting around a table all wonderfully filmed and intercut. The Farewell is an absolute joy of a movie and perfect reflection of family in all of its idiosyncrasies.

Rating: *****

Recent Movie Marathon: Yes, God, Yes (2020)


Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Yes, God, Yes
Release Date: July 24, 2020
Director: Karen Maine
Production Company: Maiden Voyage | RT Features | Highland Film Group
Summary/Review:

Natalia Dyer stars a teenager, Alice, who attends a conservative Catholic school in small town Iowa in the early 2000s. Her sexuality begins to emerge through tentative cybersex chats and masturbation. At the same time, Alice becomes the center of a school-wide scandal for allegedly “tossing the salad” of a boy in her class, even though she doesn’t know what that phrase means.

The better part of the film is set at a four-day Catholic youth retreat that Alice attends with several classmates, including her best friend and the boy she’s rumored to have performed sex acts with (and his girlfriend!). Over the course of the weekend Alice witnesses other retreatants, the older teen retreat leaders, and even the priest involved in deviant sex acts, exposing their hypocrisy. At the conclusion of the retreat Alice gives a dramatic speech on how everyone is hiding things and how they should treat one another with respect as Jesus wanted.

While the subject of repressed teenage sexuality and how religious people often make life confusing and guilt-ridden for teens curious about their sexuality is a worthy one, I kind of feel this movie missed the mark. The religious figures in the film were mainly broad stereotypes and Alice’s dramatic speech just felt cheesy. Dyer’s performance was good overall, and Wolfgang Novogratz and Alisha Boe deserve kudos for perfectly capturing the enthusiasm of teen retreat leaders. The best scene is when Alice runs away from camp and ends up in a gay bar where she has a heart-to-heart with the bar’s owner Gina (Susan Blackwell), but it’s too little, too late to save the movie.

Rating: **

Holiday Movie Marathon: Elf (2003)


Title: Elf
Release Date: November 7, 2003
Director: Jon Favreau
Production Company: New Line Cinema | Guy Walks Into a Bar Productions
Summary/Review:

I guess I’m a little bit of a Grinch, because I finally watched this “beloved Holiday classic” for the first time and it didn’t resonate with me at all. There’s not even really anything that I can find to criticize about it, I just found it to be almost funny without every really being funny. Will Ferrell does a great job as Buddy, an elf at Santa’s a workshop, who discovers that he was really an orphaned human and goes off to New York City to find his biological father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan).

I can appreciate Ferrell’s performance as a wonderous child in an adult body. I also like that this movie avoids cynicism and really commits to the belief in the Christmas spirit. But maybe because of these things there’s also no real conflict and everyone just seems easily won over by Buddy. I don’t know, I hate to poopoo on everyone’s favorite holiday movie, but this one wasn’t for me.

Rating: **

Holiday Movie Marathon: A Very Murray Christmas


Title: A Very Murray Christmas
Release Date: December 4, 2015
Director: Sofia Coppola
Production Company: American Zoetrope
Summary/Review:

How time flies! I thought to myself that I should finally watch that highly-regarded Bill Murray special on Netflix that came out, was it last year? No, it was five years ago. Five Christmases based and I neglected to watch this hour-long special. Was it worth the wait? Maybe not, but it is mildly entertaining.

The premise is that Bill Murray (playing himself, or at least the version of himself he plays all the time) is hosting a celebrity-studded live Christmas special in New York. But a blizzard means no one else can participate in the show and Murray is distraught. After wrangling Chris Rock into an awkward duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” the power goes out and the show is canceled. Murray makes his way to the lounge where he basically starts a karaoke party with the other guests and staff stranded there (played by a bevy of celebrities including David Johansen, Jenny Lewis, Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman, and the band Phoenix). Finally Murray passes out drunk and dreams of an elaborate stage show with Miley Cyrus and George Clooney as guests.

I went into this thinking it was a parody of corny old Christmas variety specials and about a third of the way realized that it’s a homage to corny old Christmas variety specials. Really, it’s almost entirely musical performances tied together by a meager storyline. Murray is surprisingly a great vocalist in his own right and sings well with all his guest talent. The humor of the show is light and really the only time I bust a gut was when George Clooney popped out from behind a tree to sing the chorus of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.”

Is it an all-time Christmas classic? Maybe not, but it was worth finally getting around to watching to get myself into the holiday spirit this year.


Rating:

Holiday Movie Marathon: Christmas in Connecticut (1945)


Title: Christmas in Connecticut
Release Date: August 11, 1945
Director: Peter Godfrey
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

The movie begins with the travails of WWII sailor Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) who survives 18 days in a life raft and a long recovery in the hospital back home. He becomes obsessed with food and particularly the columns of Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a mother who writes about cooking and domestic life from her farm in Connecticut. The earnest publisher of her magazine, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) learns that Jones is a fan of Lane, and comes up with a publicity stunt of having the war hero spend Christmas at her farm.

There’s only one problem: Elizabeth is a single “career gal” who lives in New York City and knows nothing about cooking. Luckily, Elizabeth’s long-time suitor John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) is an architect with an actual farmhouse in Connecticut and is willing to pose at Elizabeth’s husband (and ultimately marry her for real). Elizabeth’s friend Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall) is a restaurateur who agrees to come along and do the cooking. All of this takes way to long to set up in the movie (as it takes too much space for me to summarize) but once all the pieces are set in place, the movie really shines.

When Elizabeth and Jefferson finally meet, it’s love at first site. There are a lot of comic hijinks of Elizabeth trying to keep up with the imagined life of her column, especially for Yardley’s benefit. But the movie is also surprisingly progressive as we learn that Jefferson is actually far more domestic than Elizabeth. This is especially true in a scene where he expertly bathes Elizabeth’s borrowed baby when she has no clue. The babies themselves are in fact left in the care of Sloan’s housekeeper by immigrant women working in war factories. The war has turned traditional gender roles upside down and this movie seems to be saying that they don’t need to go back to them. Stanwyck’s performance is particularly brilliant and she delivers lines that clearly indicate that she’s had it with societal expectations even as she’s forced to go along with them. (For more on the subversive elements of this movie see this recent article from the AV Club).

The slow start to this movie could use some judicious editing, and there are some subplots I’ve left out of my summary that aren’t too interesting, but overall, once this movie gets to Connecticut it’s a great rom-com. By the way, despite the movie taking place over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it is not a particularly Christmas-y movie. Also, in an odd bit of trivia, this movie was remade in the 1990s as a tv movie directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger! I’m not going to watch that one.

Rating: ****