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Rundown of the Best Films of 2019

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The Farewell

Image from The Farewell courtesy of IndieWire

The beauty of cinema is its ability to connect us empathetically with people in situations we might not otherwise be familiar with, or even aware of. For myself, I was unaware of the Eastern practice of not telling an elderly when they’re diagnosed with a terminal illness, thus lifting the burden of dying off of them (“In China, we have a saying: when someone gets cancer, they die. But it’s the fear that really kills them.”) This touching, tender portrait of a life caught between two societies never asks us to choose which is better; it only asks us to relate. Before watching the film, I secretly wanted Awkwafina to turn out to be brilliant because I imagined some drunk Hollywood idiot mispronouncing her name at the Oscars. Now I’m annoyed that she was snubbed, because I wanted her to win all the awards in the world, because holy shit, she is an incredible actress.

Parasite

Image from Parasite courtesy of Los Angeles Times

I don’t like how the phrase “Hitchcockian” gets thrown around willy-nilly. Yet I’m also at a loss for how better to describe Bong Joon Hoo’s brilliant social thriller, which largely contains people committing crimes, trying not to get caught in the act. As a work of socio-political commentary and a piece of entertainment, Hoo excels at both, with the message of the film never interfering with how gut-churningly suspenseful or gut-bustingly hilarious it is, or vice versa. This was the well-deserved Best Picture winner at this year’s Oscars, and while I have no doubt that they only got it right by accident – they are the Oscars, after all, and they are stupid – this one time, they did absolutely get it right. Director Bong knows the score: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” he said in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. Preach.

High Life

Image from High Life courtesy of wbur

It feels like each year these past couple of years have had at least one sci-fi masterpiece to them. 2015 had The Martian, 2016 had Arrival, 2017 had Blade Runner 2049, and 2018 had Annihilation. And now…2019. High Life is the first film from French writer/director Claire Denis to be shot in english. With that in mind, it’s fascinating how nonverbal the film is; made with all the subtlety and depth Brad Pitt’s Ad Astra could only dream of, High Life relies on feeling and emotion rather than empty spectacle. Fascinatingly, the film’s director, Claire Denis, is French, and this is her first ever English-language film. Yet more proof as to the universal language of cinema; that one-inch barrier is looking pretty flimsy, huh?

Monos

Image from Monos courtesy of RogerEbert.com

Painted faces and long hair. A stick sharpened at both ends. These are just a few of the images Monos dances before our eyes in service of its tale about teenage soldiers, making its chief literary allusion pretty clear long before a literal decapitated pig’s head pops up in the movie. Following a group of Colombian child soldiers engaged in an unspecified conflict, Monos isn’t shy about invoking Lord of the Flies, which might be a tricky prospect if the film itself weren’t so well-judged.

Her Smell

Image from Her Smell courtesy of The New York Times

Her Smell is an intensely psychological experience, a cococophany of sight and sound that culminates in a brutal depiction of mental disparity. Elizabeth Moss gives the performance of a lifetime as “Becky Something” and Cara Develenge finally gets to show her stuff in a movie that doesn’t suck. Much like Uncut Gems, the way the film depicts downward spiraling and addiction is cinematically gripping and nerve-wracking, but unlike Uncut Gems, there’s a glimmer of real and honest hope to the proceedings. A masterpiece.

Rocketman

Image from Rocketman courtesy of Colorado Boulevard

It’s incredible the turnaround I had on this movie. I went in with nothing but dread, having detested the laughable Queen biopic attempt from just last year. Now the same director was going to do one for Elton John? Well, as it turns out, Rocketman is a redemption story; one for director Dexter Fletcher, a man who does deserve our respect for taking the mangled corpse of Bryan Singer’s failed movie, wrangling it together in something like a coherent narrative, and dragging it over the finish line. That’s no small feat, and Rocketman could be seen as a well-deserved victory lap. Fletcher’s in control from the beginning, and his superior skill is apparent from the word go. Rocketman is a fun, lively musical, one which gleefully transcends the usual boring old biopic conventions in favor of making a “true fantasy.”

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Image from Portrait of a Lady on Fire courtesy of Empire

It’s fitting, considering the subject matter, that the best way to describe Portrait of a Lady on Fire is “cinematic artwork.” This French film (yet more proof that Bong Joon Ho knows the score; the “one-inch barrier” of subtitles mean nothing here) is just getting its wide release now in 2020, which in some respects makes it a 2020 film. Which means it might end up on two Best Of lists! Honestly, it’s so perfect, I’d accept that.

Uncut Gems

Image from Uncut Gems courtesy of movieplayer

What’s ultimately most surprising about Uncut Gems, the pressure-cooker thriller from the directors of Good Time, is how it isn’t actually all that far removed from what we might consider to be a “normal” Adam Sandler movie. Once again, he’s playing a loud, abrasive asshole, an idiot manchild who gets in over his head in a bad situation, and keeps digging himself deeper through no fault but his own. The difference here is context; namely, that the Safdie brothers have constructed a movie that knows that the main character doesn’t deserve to win. This simple understanding would be enough to push this into the upper echelon of Sandler flicks, even without its impeccable script, its spine-tingling score, and the best performance Sandler has ever given. Yes, better than Punch Drunk Love. 

Knives Out 

Image from Knives Out courtesy of Lionsgate

As a young lad who grew up with the works of Agatha Christie, Knives Out was my movie. A delicious balancing act between genre throwback and 21st century update, Rian Johnson’s best film yet (yes, better than Brick, and even Looper) is a sly and intelligent mystery film, one that trusts its audience to keep up and understand what’s going on. Every clue is fairly laid out before us, thus allowing us the privilege to play along with Daniel Craig’s brilliant detective, without fear that the film will cheat us on the solution.

The Irishman 

Image from The Irishman courtesy of The New York Times

For a hot internet minute there, Martin Scorcese made headlines for comments where he appeared to go on the attack against Marvel. “I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” he was quoted as saying, and while his comments were clearly more about his own personal taste in films than anything else, the nerd rage that followed was very real. And while the “controversy” was no doubt capitalized on/exaggerated by hit-desperate clickbait sites, I have to imagine there were quite a number of Marvel fans out there positively tearing their hair out at the release of The Irishman, “real cinema” if ever such a thing could be identified. Less a sprawling gangster epic than a mournful elegy of time gone by, Scorcese crafted the epilogue to end all motherfucking epilogues with this movie, a capper on a career that no one can match.

Knocking Down the One-Inch Barrier: Parasite Wins

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There was a moment, a tangible moment, where Director Bong transcended from “well-respected director” and became a bona-fide Savior of Cinema. It was right after Parasite won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Foreign Language. It was a significant win, signaling many more to come (not that we knew that at the time). Director Bong got on the stage, along with his translator Sharon Choi, and proceeded to deliver this iconic quote: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”

It’s been five months since Parasite was released in the US last year, and just one month since its historic (and well-deserved) win at the Academy Awards, so famous for getting it so spectacularly wrong, who here got it spectacularly right (it’s a decision so good, it almost makes up for Green Book two years ago. You know, almost). Here’s how you know this one’s gonna last, how we’ve got a long-lasting masterpiece on our hands; it’s been a month, and the feeling about Parasite winning all those Oscars is still one of elation. Apart from some inane ramblings from our Commander in Chief (weird, how easy it is to block that out after a while. We’ve had some practice…), there’s been absolutely nothing substantial in the way of pushback, or backlash, or any “Hot Takes” about the validity of the movie; was Parasite reeeeeeeeaaaally that good? Everyone seems to be on the same page that, yes, yes it was. Parasite is now in the coveted position that films like Schindler’s List, No Country for Old Men or Unforgiven have, where there were other good movies that came out those years (seriously go back and look; 2007 was stacked when it came to content), but general consensus seems to be, “Yeah that was the right call.”

Months (and many viewings) later, what I initially said about Parasite still holds true. If you’ve not seen it yet, the best thing to do is to go in as blind as possible. The joy of Parasite has to do with how seamlessly Director Bong (who wrote the movie along with Han Jin-own) toys with expectations; I mentioned in my initial review that, for American audiences who only know Director Bong through his slightly straighter genre pieces, like his monster movie sendup The Host, or his action movie Snowpiercer, the free range he has over every genre or tone in the book might throw them for a loop. Is this a drama? A comedy? A parable? A social satire? Who cares? It’s anything and everything, and it is magnificent.

As has been said before, and with more eloquence, the parasites in Parasite are very human. Or maybe it’s society. Either way Parasite has to do with an impoverished, unemployed family of four; a son, a daughter, a father and a mother. There is a striking opening scene in which a fumigation crew starts dusting the street outside, and the family makes the decision to leave their windows open. After all, this way their roach problem gets dealt with. For free! Things kick off when a friend of Ki-woo—the son in the family—asks him to fill in as a tutor to the daughter of a rich family. The friend is going on vacation, and doesn’t trust any of the other tutors at his school not to make lecherous advances at the rich family’s underage daughter. He suggests to Ki-woo that the latter assumes his identity; a deception, sure, but a harmless one. 

Things take an interesting turn when Ki-woo – under the assumed name “Kevin” – first arrives at the house of the wealthy Park family. Or, more accurately, their mansion. They live on a hill in the sky, surrounded by luxury, with wide open space and amenities as far as the eye can see. The contrast between them and the Kim family – who we see live in a sub-basement hovel that routinely gets pissed on by drunk passerbys – is striking. The difference between the two families is made immediately apparent; their social standing is emphasized by the geography. They are literally miles above the poor. Thanks to the hedges, they don’t even have to look at them most of the time.

Upon finding himself immersed in their world, “Kevin” concocts a plan. It’s innocent enough – the Park family’s hyperactive son needs an art therapist, and in an apparently off-the-cuff flash of inspiration, Ki-woo suggests his sister. Never mind that she’s not got a degree in any of the places “Kevin” suggests that she has; a bit of light forgery will soon fix that. As for the fact that she’s got no idea what the responsibilities of an art therapist actually are? Eh, she can fake it ‘till she makes it.

It’s down to Director Bong’s extraordinary skills as a storyteller that I still didn’t quite know where the story was going from this point forward. It was only when Ki-jung – AKA “Jessica” – engaged in a blatant act of manipulation in order to get the Park family driver fired, that I began to connect the dots. Sure enough, for a while there Parasite becomes a downright Hitchcokian thriller of false identity and unbearable suspense, as slowly but surely the entire Kim family has invaded the home of the Park family, posing as the help.

And that’s only the beginning. From there, well, that’s where the conversation lies. Is Parasite a scathing satire on Capitalism? Is it – I already did this multiple questions thing earlier. Here’s what it is; brilliant, and totally in control of itself. It completely and perfectly wrangles every plot thread and thematic undercurrent in a fashion that seems singular. It’s multiple messages, but at all times, it all seems to be coalesced into one message. Like I said in my initial review, I never felt that Director Bong was just throwing whatever he wanted at the wall, and seeing what stuck. There’s a purpose to every tonal shift; absolutely none of it is “random.” Every zany digression, or apparent non-sequitur, it’s all built into the very fabric of the film. And the end result is a film experience that I couldn’t predict the end of, or even the next scene of, but in the end it all worked. 

There are layers upon layers to Parasite. This is a smart, complex, important, but ultimately enjoyable movie, and you have no idea how much it warms my heart and gives me hope that so many American audiences responded so rapturously to its release. Director Bong knows the score: once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you really will be introduced to so many more amazing films. Trust me; it’s true.

Review by Sam Stashower

Miss Americana and the Heart Pulling Doc

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By Grace McLean

“I want to love glitter and also stand up for the double standards that exist in our society. I want to wear pink and tell you how I feel about politics. And I don’t think that those things have to cancel each other out.”

On Friday January 31, 2020, Miss Americana was released on Netflix and I, being the Taylor Swift lover that I am, started watching during my workout. I was 2.5 miles into my bike ride when I began to cry. Not teary eyed. Full blown sobbing. I quickly rushed out of the gym and continued crying outside in the cold. I grew up with Taylor Swift. Not in the sense that we were neighbors. But somehow her music always reflected what was happening to me. And yeah, Taylor Swift has no clue who I am but who cares. I find meaning in her music and it helps me get through tough times. However, I wasn’t expecting Miss Americana to affect me like it did. 

The documentary is about many things. It’s about being a woman in the music industry. It’s about a girl who often gets mocked in the public eye. It’s about a girl finding love with a boy and herself. But at its core, the documentary is about change. From changing from a country singer to a pop icon to changing from judging her body to respecting it as it is. It shows Taylor’s change from becoming the girl who was quiet, never shared her opinion, and followed the rules to a person who spoke up about politics for the first time, focusing on what’s healthy for her, and doing what she wants to do. 

The documentary shows Taylor in a different light than what the media has shown her in the past couple years. Not as the girl who dates a lot and plays the victim but as women who has struggled with an eating disorder, been through a sexual assault trial, and struggling with her mother’s diagnosis with cancer. It shows her as a person. Not a Grammy-winning artist but as a woman who has just as many personal and private problems as anyone else. She has anxiety and is self-conscious. Taylor even says that after Kayne West interrupted her on stage by saying that Beyoncé should have won, she believed that the boos were directed at her instead of West.

I think everyone should watch Miss Americana. It is a beautiful and powerful documentary that everyone should watch. Even if you don’t like Taylor Swift, you should still give it a try.
 

Sonic The Hedgehog: The Best 90’s Movie To Not Release in the 90’s

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by Simon Wickwire

While there is a decently sized fanbase for Sonic the Hedgehog, the idea of this movie seems about 20 years too late. Sonic as a video game mascot today does not have the same impact he had during the 90’s Well that idea may not actually be the case, because Sonic had the best opening weekend at the box office for a movie based on the video game, beating Pokemon: Detective Pikachu by $4 million. And it is even more shocking considering its release date was moved back by four months to change after Sonic’s original design design that was so horrific and unsettling that the internet screamed for it to be changed. Now that we have a sonic with a far less horrific design, the question of the day was whether the delay was worth it? The answer: eh, kind of? 

Ben Schwartz (Parks & Rec, Duck Tales) brings the perfect amount of energy in voicing him. Whenever it comes to celebrities being brought in to do voice roles, it usually is to just slap a name on the poster to get people to come see it. Even though Schwartz’s name is not on most of the posters,it should be because he is a big reason for a lot of the heart the film has. With Schwartz having voice acting credit in the past, you never feel like it is a celebrity doing a voice. 

A bunch of the advertising, has put in the forefront that Jim Carrey’s performance as Doctor Robotnik is a return to form for what made him one of if not THE biggest comedy actors to watch in the past couple decades. Carrey plugging back into his Pet Detective Energy helps contribute as to why the movie feels like the movie is from the nineties, with Carrey getting a few good laughs in there. 

With the positives discussed, we can get to the aspects that don’t shine as well. In general, the movie’s plot is very predictable and the human characters besides Robotnik are nothing that special, starting with James Marsden’s (Westworld) “Tom.” Marsden’s character arc is copied and pasted from basically every other family film script: a loving husband that feels that he has far more potential and learns along the way that being himself is perfectly okay as is. But Tom has a surprisingly sweet comradery with the animated blue fur ball that isn’t actually there, even with the vast comparisons to 2011’s Hop, another film where Marsden interacts with an animated rodent goes on a road trip with. Some of you probably have forgotten that movie existed, huh? 


However, being far more memorable than that lackluster Easter flop, Sonic the Hedgehog realizes that the audience is there for sonic and you get plenty of him on screen. It is perfectly acceptable family fun that has a good heart behind it with a fun dynamic between the two leads. It is a good step in the right direction for better video game movies and hopefully future ones can learn from this one as well as Detective Pikachu. I’m looking at you Tom Holland, you better not mess up Uncharted.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is beautiful

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“Hello neighbor.”

The first things we see and hear in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood should strike all the right pangs of familiarity. Set to the gentle, calming tinkles on a piano, we see the grainy film images of the red house, then the street, then the yellow blinking streetlight, then the door, and out the door comes…Mr. Rogers. Yes, he’s being played by another person––a different icon of American kindness––but somehow we know it’s HIM. It’s not just the mannerisms––the zipper that goes all the way up and then comes down a little, the bit with the shoe––but something more fundamental.

It’s not just Tom Hanks that has the tenor of the man down; it feels as though all of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood exists on the wavelength of Fred Rogers’ quiet heroism. It’s patient, calm, honest, and open. It’s tempting to describe these qualities as “saintly,” but, as we’re told, Mr. Rogers doesn’t like that word. It puts him on a level of unattainability, and that won’t do. We all have it within ourselves to be Mr. Rogers. We’re all human.

That’s the hard lesson Lloyd Vogel learns over the course of the movie, because this isn’t actually a story about Mr. Rogers. Rather, it’s about just one of the many, many people he saved. “Someone has hurt Lloyd,” Mr. Rogers tells us in the beginning, and we see that hurt has transformed him into a cynical man; not a monster, or an unrealistically cruel person, but a man who perhaps understandably scoffs at the idea that Fred Rogers and “Mr. Rogers” are actually one and the same.

But they are. They are, and soon Lloyd finds himself on the receiving end of Mr. Rogers pure, unfiltered empathy, and it’s almost too much for him to take. There’s some potential tension towards the beginning, especially in the early interview scenes, where Vogel’s hard-hitting interview style clashes with Rogers’ almost infuriating kindness. Matthew Rhys plays this tricky role with extraordinary precision, hitting all the right notes to ensure that we sympathize with him and long for his salvation (well, I say “extraordinary,” though anyone familiar with his stellar work on The Americans knew long ago just what he was capable of).

It sounds strange to say, considering that he’s widely considered to be one of the all-time great American actors, but Tom Hanks isn’t the man I would immediately think of when asked who should play Mr. Rogers. He’s very much of a type, and while it’s reductive to say that “he always plays Tom Hanks” – he doesn’t – it’s true that he does have a persona that usually shines through no matter what he’s doing. 

What Marielle Heller manages to do is channel Hanks’ inner goodness into a performance that evokes Fred Rogers more than it tries to imitate him. Heller, fresh off of another quietly affecting biopic (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) is directs the thing with clipped restraint, content to mostly stay out of the story’s way.

“You love broken people,” he says. “Like me.” You might remember that line from the trailer. What’s not included is Mr. Rogers’ response: “I don’t think you’re broken.” What follows is the definitive scene of the movie, where Mr. Rogers asks Lloyd to join him in thinking about the people who loved him into who he is today. Lloyd agrees, and the restaurant where they’re eating goes quiet. And as the camera slowly zooms in on Tom Hanks’ face, we realize that the movie is inviting us to do the same. So we stop. And we think.

Ford v Ferrari: Dawn of Racecars

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“James Bond does not drive a Ford.”

“Well, that’s because he’s a degenerate.”

This just feels like a throwback, doesn’t it? There’s something about Ford v Ferrari that evokes the days of cinema gone by, even though its closest analog I can think of is Ron Howard’s criminally underseen masterstroke, Rush (there’s also Le Mans, a 1971 Steve McQueen picture, but I’ve not seen it). It is, for better or worse, and old-school racing picture about companies trying to one-up each other and cars that go really, really fast.

The film begins as such, with the Ford Motor Company being out-maneuvered by Enzo Ferrari. So incensed by this humiliation is Henry Ford II that he becomes obsessed with defeating Ferrari at Le Mans, the most prestigious – and dangerous – race in the world. To do so, he conscripts the only American to ever win Le Mans: Carroll Shelby, a cowboy hat wearing Matt Damon, who was once on top of the world, but had to retire from racing due to a heart condition.

A question might already have occurred to you; how in the world does Ford v Ferrari position Ford, which was one of the most powerful companies even back then, as the underdog? Quite simply, it doesn’t take their side. We’re with Ford only so far as we’re with Matt Damon, and he’s not always treated very well by them. For instance, he wants Christian Bale’s volatile Ken Miles to be the one to drive in Le Mans. Problem is, his hostile reputation puts him at odds with what the higher-up want a “Ford driver” to look like.

That’s only the beginning of Ford’s attempts to micromanage Damon (after, of course, promising him complete freedom to conduct himself however he wants). On the one hand, bravo to Ford v Ferrari for being very clear-eyed about how shamelessly and soullessly a big corporation would work to remorselessly screw over a group of people who are trying, for all intents and purposes, to give them the biggest win of their lives. 

On the other hand, this is a long, long movie, and a lot of it is a little meandering. A lot of the non-racing running time is committed to making the same point over and over again about how big companies are not Matt Damon’s friend, but he just can’t see it. James Mangold began his career with character-driven films like Cop Land and 3:10 to Yuma, and went on to make Logan, arguably the most character-driven superhero movie ever made. Here, there’s an element of that that’s missing. In something like Rush, the emotional core is the relationship is the constantly evolving rivalry between Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. Here, the Bale/Damon dynamic never really gets close to that level, nor does any other relationship, for that matter.

This would be more palatable, I think, if the script were just a bit better. Right at the beginning, we see a bunch of German investors who are interested in investing in Damon and Bale. They’re told, however, that Bale is “difficult.” One won race later, and the lead German investor has a moment to helpfully inform us that, “He’s difficult…but good.” Thanks, I needed that.

That’s not the last of the clunky lines Ford v Ferrari throws our way, and trust me, they all hurt just about as much as that wrench Bale throws at Damon. Fortunately, they’re all made worth it by the exemplary racing sequences. Those make it absolutely worth it to have seen the film on the big screen. I don’t know if it’s better than Rush in this regard – I’ll have to rewatch that film to see – but it’s bloody good all the same. Mangold accomplishes a great feat, in that he very effectively puts you in the car with Bale as he’s racing for his life, always inches away from death.

I’ve seen Ford v Ferrari described as a “dad movie.” Yeah, that’s accurate. It’s certainly a throwback to the era they’ll remember. Josh Lucas plays a great “you’ll love to hate him” villain who comes to embody the corporate side of racing. Caitriona Balfe is great, but she’s also more or less just playing “the wife.” Noah Jupe’s also great, but he’s also just playing “the son.” And for a movie called Ford v Ferrari, there is basically no input from Ferrari beyond the opening and closing minutes. Still, it is entertaining, and, for all its pacing and scripting issues, very cinematic.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale on the set of Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI.

Go go Jojo Rabbit

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Jojo Rabbit is a movie that will confuse some, annoy more, and anger most. It’s an “anti-hate” satire that’s been accused by some of heinous bowdlerization; of being a “Heartwarming Holocaust feel-good flick” that ignores, or paves over, the atrocities of the time.

Interestingly, though, I’m not seeing that much in the way of controversy about this film. Sure, there were the expected “OMG THIS IS THE MOST DANGEROUS FILM SINCE JOKER” headlines from the increasingly desperate clickbait-based “news” sites, but I guess those were non-starters, because there haven’t been that many. If I had to guess, I’d say Jojo Rabbit is too good-hearted and pure to really get that worked up over, in spite of its tricky material.

Again, that sentence might seem very strange to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. A good-hearted and pure movie…about Nazis? Trust me, it works. I think that’s partially because this isn’t “really” about Nazis, or Nazism. The iconography is used, as well as some surface-level trappings, but really, it could be anything. What Jojo Rabbit is about is cliques. The Third Reich is portrayed as an elitist social club, and little Jojo is a lonely little kid who wants in with the big boys, to such an extent that he’s blind to the club’s rotten core.

Again, to many people, this will come across as wildly misguided. Writing it all out, I find myself amazed at what Taika Waititi has pulled off. From where I’m sitting, Jojo Rabbit is a perfectly judged film, a balancing act that spends nearly two hours riiiiiight on the edge of dipping into monstrously poor taste, without ever crossing the line. 

In a couple of ways, what Taika Waititi has done here reminds me of a sillier Spike Lee film. It’s thrillingly fearless, with a direct line to your emotional core. It has no need for such things like “subtlety,” nor should it. But whereas the films of Mr. Lee are usually vivaciously angry, Waititi is stubbornly feel-good, even in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

This isn’t exactly smiles and sunshine always. There is darkness creeping around the edges of the film, occasionally taking stabs at its heart. Don’t believe for a second that the horrors of living in Nazi Germany are glossed over, or made completely frivolous. This is a kind movie, but it’s not a facetious one.

You know how I’d describe this movie? Cathartic. I needed to see this movie, in a way that I’m still at a loss to explain. A special word must go to Roman Griffin Davis, making his acting debut as young Jojo. Think about that; this is his first movie. This is his first job, period. What he does in this movie is extraordinary. He took a character that could’ve gone so wrong, and made him one of the most brilliant original characters of 2019. I found myself completely engaged with the movie because I was invested in the fate of Jojo’s soul. 

Again, this won’t work for everyone. This is a wavelength movie if ever there was one; you gotta get on board with what it’s doing, or be completely lost at sea. I can imagine some out there will find themselves completely unsympathetic to Jojo’s plight. I can imagine some out there will find what Waititi does here completely wrongheaded. I can also easily imagine some out there feeling comfortable denouncing this movie without bothering to see it (I have absolutely no sympathy for that last group there). Regardless, as someone who actually saw the damn film, I found myself treated to a resonant, fully-realized film, one that knew exactly what it was doing, and did it with a smile.

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in the film JOJO RABBIT. Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Parasite infects American cinema with its brilliance

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Man, the new movie by the guy who directed Snowpiercer is really picking up steam!

…get it? Picking up steam? Because it’s from the same director who did Snowpiercer? The movie about the train that never stops? Get it? 

Ah, never mind…

If I had to guess, I’d say that Parasite is a very different kind of movie than what most ‘Murican audiences will be used to from Bong Joon-ho. While he’s done drama before – Barking Dogs Never Bite and Mother – over here, his most popular films are his genre pieces. Films like The Host, his take on Godzilla, Okja, which is more fantasy than anything, or the aforementioned Snowpiercer, which is all about a magical train that goes around and around the world, forever and ever…suffice it to say, I can easily imagine a scenario where someone goes into a movie called Parasite, knowing it’s by the guy who made all those films, expecting another dip into sci-fi and horror, and getting what appears to be a straight-up drama instead. There are parasites in this movie…but they’re all very human.

Parasite has to do with a downtrodden, out-of-work family of four. We see in the opening scene that they in such squalor that, when a fumigation crew starts dusting the street outside, they decide to leave the window open to get rid of their roach problem. For free! Things take an interesting turn, however, when a friend of Ki-woo – the son in the family – asks him to fill in as a tutor to the daughter of a rich family. Ki-woo obliges, but soon into his first day he senses an opening for his sister, Ki-jeong, to join him as an art tutor for the rich son. Never mind that she doesn’t know the first thing about art, and doesn’t have any credentials; nothing a bit of light forgery can’t fix. Once she’s there, though, she starts looking for positions for her parents. The other jobs around the household are already taken by other people, but if something were to happen to them…

Doesn’t sound much like Snowpiercer, does it? But make no mistake; Parasite comes from the same mind. For one thing, despite all appearances, it’s very fluid, genre-wise. It defies simple characterization, which I always like (I’m generally of the opinion that genre restrictions are stupid). It begins as a satire, before hardening into straight drama, then back into comedy, before elements of horror start to creep in, and then…I’d better not say. But Bong Joon-ho is always in complete control; I never felt that he was just throwing whatever he wanted at the wall, and seeing what stuck. There was a purpose to the tonal shifts, and the end result was a film experience that I couldn’t predict the end of, or even the next scene of.

But the main clue that this is a Bong Joon-ho picture is the recurring theme of class warfare. I’m bringing up Snowpiercer a lot in this review, and there’s a reason for that, beyond the fact that I love it. Snowpiercer isn’t just a movie about a train endlessly circling a desolate, frozen earth; it’s a movie about the way the train divides its passengers into different cars based on their wealth and social status, and the eventual armed revolution by the have-nots against the haves. 

Parasite isn’t as fantastical as Snowpiercer, or even Okja, but it absolutely deals with the same themes. Weirdly, Parasite serves as a kind of spiritual relative to Jordan Peele’s Us from earlier this year. They’re both comedy-drama-horror hybrids that start out as one thing, before slowly transitioning into a parable about the lengths the disenfranchised will go, not only to survive, but to get back what they think they’re owed. There’s something almost supernatural about the way the family systematically attaches themselves to the rich family; watching them at work, they almost could be seen as the tethered. 

It works, though, for two main reasons. The first, it’s never moralistic, or heavy-handed. The themes are right there, but you do have to work for them. The social satire of the movie mostly comes up through contrast; for instance, when there’s a downpour about midway through the movie, the poor family (I refer to them as such because we never get any last names) has to worry about their little hovel flooding. The rich family, by contrast, spend the whole day post-flood commenting on how lovely their wet grass looks, which irritates the poor family to no end. 

The second reason is much simpler; it’s just wildly entertaining. There are sequences so brilliantly put together, the audience I saw this with was simultaneously screaming and in stitches. This is a prime example of a film that deals with heady subjects dead on, while still maintaining a high entertainment value.

Harriet Tubman gets an origin story worthy of a superhero, but not a real person

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Though the pendulum has been swinging for some time now, historical biopics about black women are rare. It must be said, though, that this one’s been coming for a while now. The story of Harriet Tubman – probably the most legendary “conductor” on the Underground railroad – is one that practically screams out for the silver screen treatment. A woman born into slavery, Tubman – born Araminta “Minty” Ross – managed to escape her bondage, traveling over a hundred miles to Philidelphia, and then more or less immediately turned right around, heading back into enemy territory to liberate as many slaves as possible.

I’ll say this; if you’re planning on seeing Harriet just to escape the recent deluge of comic book adaptations, save your money. Harriet goes out of its way to take this extraordinary, real-life hero, and strip her of every possible human frailty, until eventually turning her into a literal superhero. 

The first scene of the film begins this two-hour long lionization of Tubman. We see her as a young woman, still enslaved, in the throes of one of her “spells,” a kind of trance-like state she frequently enters throughout the movie, one which apparently allows her to see memories from the past and visions of the future. Tubman, a deeply religious woman, is convinced that the spells are caused by divine intervention, and for all intents and purposes the film agrees with her. What else are we to make of the scene where, when escaping through the woods with most of her family in tow, she enters a trance, and then somehow intuits that the path they’re on will lead them into a trap?

The film continues in this fashion, never passing up an opportunity to raise Tubman up on the highest of pedestals. The obvious question here is, so what? What’s the problem? If ever there was a historical figure that deserves lionization in the extreme, shouldn’t it be Harriet Tubman? 

My issues with Harriet aren’t so much that it plays up the heroic nature of her actions – a seemingly impossible task that the film somehow accomplishes anyway – but more that it systematically removes every single source of hardship from her life. Tubman never seems to encounter any real hardship, or at least any kind of hardship that poses any kind of an obstacle for her. The film pays lip service to the horrors of slavery, familial abandonment, and the perils of long travel, without immersing us in either. As such, it took what is to my mind a truly breathtaking real-life experience, and made it honestly pretty boring. Why should I care what happens to this woman when she’s never presented as being in any danger at any point in time?

This is a very poorly paced film. It’s just over two hours long, but it still feels improbably rushed, almost like it’s missing several reels. The editor, Wyatt Smiths, pieces Harriet together in a way that seems to actively thwart investment; we’re never in any one location for long enough to get invested, either in the place or the characters that occupy it. As such, the world of Harriet never comes to life in a satisfying way. I’ll say this; it never feels like a set, at least in terms of its visuals. Cinematographer John Toll has a knack for these kinds of sweeping visuals, having previously shot The Last Samurai and The Thin Red Line. The scene in which Harriet literally jumps over the Maryland state line to freedom, the sun shining down on her in a Heavenly aura, is appropriately awe-inspiring.

But while the thing looks grand, it never feels grand. All the pretty visuals in the world don’t mean jack if you’re not able to shoot them in an appropriately epic way. And it must be said that Harriet is directed in a way that feels unfortunately flat and uninspired. Cynthia Erivo is giving a good performance here, one that might have been a great performance if the film had just let it breathe a little before rushing off to the next thing.

That’s honestly my big takeaway from this film; a wealth of potential, wasted by the film’s insistence on being as crushingly conventional as possible. There’s a great life story here, one that absolutely deserves to be told on the big screen. But when you saddle the film with an uninspired script, a blandly repetitive score, and an almost pathological aversion to any actual tension, you end up wasting that potential.

Doctor Sleep damn near put me to sleep

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It’s almost hard to believe that The Shining was only Stephen King’s third book. He wrote it in the throes of alcoholism, in part as a way to purge his darkest demons. A horror story about an alcoholic writer who is trapped with his family in a snowed-in hotel, and slowly overtaken by the malicious forces within its halls, King has described the novel as a “confession” of sorts, a way to come to terms with the real anger he occasionally felt towards his children. You can imagine his frustration, then, when Stanley Kubrick chose to jettison most of the alcoholic undertones – as well as damn near all the relatability of the alcoholic writer – in favor of making a more general parable about abuse.

King fucking HATES the Kubrick Shining, to an almost legendary extent. He’s made clear that he resents the fact that Kubrick took the main character, Jack Torrance – a twisted self-insert if ever there was one – and turned him from a flawed, but ultimately well-meaning family man into a psychotic murderer who seems perfectly willing and able to kill his whole family without any ghostly influence. Famously, he went so far as to commission an entire made-for-TV miniseries, just so that he could get the “true” version of his story onto a screen. This wasn’t enough, though, and in 2013 he wrote a whole-ass sequel to his book, one which went out of its way to ignore all the changes Kubrick made to the story in favor of following up on the book’s story threads.

I read Doctor Sleep pretty soon after it came out. It’s…not great, and I say this as a fan. King’s prose is evocative as always, and there are moments of real power here and there (the segment at the beginning where we see grown-up Danny Torrance hitting rock-bottom is powerful for how personal it is). But the thing is dramatically structureless, a victim of King’s late-career inability to plan his stories out properly. Sometimes, this never-plan-ahead strategy results in free-flowing brilliance. This was not one of those times. Doctor Sleep was a book full of things that just kind of happened, one after the other, until the end, at which point instead of climaxing they just sort of petered out. 

So I was dubious about the efficacy of a film adaptation of the novel, even before director Mike Flannigan revealed that he would be marrying his vision to Kubrick’s; in effect, that he’d be making a sequel to the book AND the film of The Shining. This was a dubious prospect at best, considering how many differences exist between the two. Even putting aside the more fundamental issue of Jack Torrance, there are a number of surface-level plot discrepancies that differentiate the adaptations; the book has hedge animals that come to life and try to kill you, the movie has a massive hedge maze. Kindly old cook Dick Halloran dies in the film adaptation, whereas he makes it in the book. And – and this is a pretty big one – the Overlook Hotel completely burns down in the climax of the novel, whereas the end of the movie sees it standing tall.

The fact is, The Shining is not the type of film you make a sequel to. It’s completely self-contained, as closed off from the outside world as the poor, doomed Torrance family. As directed by Kubrick, it’s a largely plot-free nightmare of a film, concerned mainly with the frighteningly unique experience and atmosphere of the thing. Doctor Sleep takes the bare-bones iconography of the film – the twins, the tricycle, the elevator of blood – and staples it onto a plot. The results are about what you’d expect.

What is the plot? Well, I’m sorry you asked. So, there’s this group of Shining Vampires, see? They call themselves the True Knot, and they have the ability to sense if someone has the Shining within them or not. So what they do is, they kidnap that person, eat them, and suck the Shining out of them while moaning orgastically with glowing eyes. It is, somehow, even more ridiculous than I just made it sound. The True Knot were pathetic villains in the book, and they’ve somehow been made even more cartoonish here.

See, as I always saw it, the Shining was kind of an allegorical thing. The beauty of the Kubrick movie was that it existed between the precipice of madness and supernatural; you were never sure of where you were, or what was really happening. It operated on pure nightmare logic. Here, not only is the Shining a tangible thing, but it’s represented via CGI smoke that comes out of people’s mouths. I’m serious. 

It’s not just that this film doesn’t capture the elusive, intangible fear of the film, or the more overtly allegorical and emotional – but no less effective – fear of the book. Doctor Sleep doesn’t capture any fear, ever. This isn’t a scary movie. The one time it comes close is this extended, gratuitious murder scene involving a small child. It goes on for too long, and feels genuinely exploitative. The fact is, the Kubrick film was too classy to sink to this. 

Even in its attempts to be a more conventional film, I thought it failed. I’ve already mentioned that the True Knot are a gaggle of absolute laughingstocks, but Abra Stone doesn’t fare much better. I remember liking this character back when I read the book; being able to see a character’s internal dialogue really does wonders for making them interesting. Here, she’s a nothing of a character, the latest in a long, long, long line of stock “kid with psychic powers” that King loves to write. Maybe Kyliegh Curran has it in her to be a great actress – in fairness to her, no one other than Ewan McGreggor really fares well in this – but as it stands, there are a ton of scenes where her character could be replaced by a cardboard cutout for all the difference it would make.

What sucks especially is that there are a handful of moments that hint at a really good idea at the heart of this film. Like I said, McGreggor is great in this; it’s through his acting that we come the closest to understanding what it would actually be like to live in the aftermath of a very specific trauma. And while so much of this film’s finale consists of, “Hey, remember this?” there is one scene – a conversation at a bar – that raises a number of fascinating possibilities. But it’s not enough. As a film that tries to exist at the intersection between two versions of The Shining, Doctor Sleep ends up honoring neither.

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