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The silent era was the richest in the cinema's history.- Kevin Brownlow
Motion, two planes and a suggestion of depth: that is our chaos from which we will fashion our universe.- Charles Chaplin
Characteristic of all good film is a certain rhythm-bound restlessness, which is created partly through the actors' movements in the pictures and partly through a more or less rapid interchange of the pictures themselves. A live, mobile camera, which even in close-ups adjusts flexibly and follows the persons so that the background is constantly shifted (just as for the eye, when we follow a person with our eyes), is important for the first type of restlessness.- Carl Theodor Dreyer
In the montage of attractions: it is not in fact phenomena that are compared but chains of associations that are linked to a particular phenomenon in the mind.- Sergei Eisenstein
To get the public enthusiastic, you have to get the same feeling into your camerawork--poetry, exaltation... but above all, poetry.- Abel Gance
The camera is the director's sketching pencil. It should be as mobile as possible to catch every passing mood.- F.W. Murnau
Sporadically, for years now, I've written reviews on IMDb (or "comments," as the website originally defined them back when I started--and which would probably be a more fitting term for the postings allowed on the site since it lowered its minimum verbiage to Tweet-esque standards). In the past, I mostly focused on early silent films (hence the quotations above), but have since branched out some. Occasionally, I took advantage of the message boards to discuss movies with fellow enthusiasts--before IMDb ended that feature. I've created a few lists, too, and sometimes update information on titles when I come across it. Since IMDb also got rid of its private-message feature, the best way to contact me would be at letterboxd.com under the same user ID and where I've also began posting reviews and rankings.
I love many different kinds of movies, from throughout the history of motion pictures, but I do have a special fondness for silent films. It's exciting to view the beginnings of a new art form, and it's altered my appreciation of later movies, as well. It's not as though the early pictures are necessarily inferior, either. Silence was in ways beneficial; it emphasized that it's a visual art form: to the filmmakers and viewers.
I studied cinema at university (and, otherwise, just for the fun of it), but I don't subscribe to any particular approach to film criticism or theory--at least not consistently. And, honestly, some of it (especially rejects from the social sciences such as psychoanalysis and Marxism, as applied to movies) to be more amusing than enlightening. I write on what I find interesting, and I try to write well and informally. I'm interested in style and structure, including editing, mise-en-scÃ¨ne, cinematography and narrative. I'm especially interested in how they relate to the early development of filmmaking, as well as relationships to art history and history in general. I like self-reflexive films--movies about movies--and like to compare films to see where filmmakers are influenced by others. Of late, I've also been curiouser and curiouser of adaptation studies.
There are some good comments on this website: for links, especially as concerns other reviewers of silent films, here is a link to Snow Leopard's profile http://www.imdb.com/user/ur1174211/boards/profile
And in case you're interested, I use IMDb's rating system with the aim that if I rate an appropriate and large enough sample size one day that my ratings will average out to about 5.5 and be mostly evenly distributed for each number except with fewer titles rated towards the extremes of 10 and 1, with 10 being reserved for movies I'd consider for an "all-time greatest" sort of list and 1 reserved for pictures that lack even the most basic of technical competence--and "Love Actually" (2003). Thus:
9 = a great movie
8 = a very good movie
7 = a solid or interesting, good movie
5-to-6 = average, not definitively good or bad, or "so bad it's good"
4 = bad but somewhat interesting
3 = a bad movie
2 = near total rubbish
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Also check out my ranking of Frankenstein films.
And my ranking of Dorian Gray pictures.
Also check out my list of the 25 Best Films of the 19th Century
And of the 25 Best Films of the 1900s (1900-1909)
In case you're interested, here are some relatively popular films of the decade that didn't make my list, and you may click on the title links to glean why from my IMDb reviews: Cabiria (1914), Les vampires (1915), Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (1918), Stella Maris (1918) and Male and Female (1919)
Also, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" isn't included because it was released in 1920, and someday I want to make a list of 1920s films, too, which will surely include it.
(P.S. Note that I've intentionally skipped what seemed to be some of the more childish motion-picture tales of Oz. I can only tolerate so much, after all. Also, it should be noted that the first Oz film--really, a multi-media presentation--is lost, "The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays of Oz" (1908), Baum's first but not last foray into adapting his own stories.)
Also check out my list of the 25 Best Films of the 1900s (1900-1909)
And of the 25 Best Films of the 1910s
In this pursuit, one common misapprehension regarding adaptation has become clear to me, which is the supposed importance of fidelity to story. I even decided to skip at least three TV versions this time because boob-tube movies and mini-series tend to falter in this regard, while also lacking the production, technical and other values of their theatrically-released counterparts. I've seen enough poor cinema; I don't care to punish myself with yet another BBC (or whatever) presentation that drags out the slavish devotion to story particulars while blundering the more compelling and potentially-cinematic aspects of the source. For instance, in this case, the novel has proved promising material to explore dreams and hallucinations, duality, cinematic and literary reflexivity, as well as different philosophical, political and religious ideologies, and has provided for some interesting cases of national cinema and genre adaptations.
Thus, this ranking does include movies that update the story to modern times, relocate it to different places, rework it to the point of not even crediting Dostoevsky, and some films that are, at most, strongly inspired by the book, as well as more-straightforward adaptations. For a Russian novel from the 19th century set in Saint Petersburg, it's also notable that the 24 films listed here span over 100 years, from 1914 to 2015, and from 12 different countries: from Australia, Brazil, Britain, Finland, France, Germany, Kazakhstan, Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, Russia/USSR, USA, to Woody Allen (and I would still like to track down subtitled versions from Peru, Portugal and Sweden someday).
Also check out my ranking of Frankenstein films.
And my ranking of Dracula movies.
Also check out my ranking of Dracula movies.
And my ranking of Dorian Gray pictures.
Also check out my list of the 25 Best Films of the 19th Century
And of the 25 Best Films of the 1910s
I see why people like "Labyrinth." There's nothing especially awful about it; everything in the production from the puppets and animatronic creatures to the musical interludes is pleasant enough (although the green-screen effects for one scene are primitive), but I also see why it initially flopped. It's too blandly simplistic for me to appreciate it. The fairy-tale genre is a rich one. There are Lewis Carroll's Alice books, from which "Labyrinth" alludes to by falling down rabbit holes, and this story's girl also breaks through the looking glass at one point. Although not as sophisticated as children's literature, adapted, "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) is rightfully beloved as a fantasy film. In "Labyrinth," too, the girl meets friends along her path to the fairy land's mastermind humbug hidden behind the gates. This King of the Goblins employs crystal balls like the Wizard of Oz and the Wicked Witch of the West did. He also employs poisoned fruit à la Hollywood's first popular fairy tale, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937). Yet, overall, it doesn't work as well here.
I suppose successful fairy tales are "taken for granted." Labyrinth walls covered in glitter, David Bowie strutting about with a bulge, and a stink swamp comprised of excreting sphincters constantly farting doesn't hold the same wonder or brilliance of scenes from Baum, Carroll and Grimm or the aforementioned masterpieces of Disney and MGM. In a sense, "Labyrinth" is a garbage dump of fairytale conglomeration. Even the slight fourth-wall breaking with Bowie looking at the camera while singing and Jennifer Connolly reading her lines in the opening, from a book of the same title as the film, doesn't add much. Neither does the most compelling reading of the film I've come across, such as in Josh Larsen's review, of the protagonist's fondness for fairy tales being a retreat from her burgeoning sexuality, as attacked by Bowie's pop-star signaling of sexual reproduction--what with the baby snatching and crotch display. It lacks the intricate layers indicative of a labyrinth.
The conclusion to the latest Star Wars trilogy, "The Rise of Skywalker" is cluttered with characters of trivial interest. I couldn't care less about the new, wannabe Han Solo's relationship with the helmeted woman, for instance, nor his friendship with the former stormtrooper, nor that guy's with another ex-stormtrooper, and so on. None of that is significantly developed or consequential here, so why would I be interested? The series' continued introductions of cute robots (the new one here being reminiscent of Pixar's Luxo lamp, the logo of another former studio of George Lucas since sold off to Disney) and small creatures continues to be a nuisance, whereas moments of humor generally fall flat (e.g. the shot of the guy holding a flashlight next to Rey's lightsaber, I can tell was meant to be funny, but I don't see how it actually is so). The movie is bloated in plot and runtime, with deus ex machina (essentially Lando Calrissian's entire role in this one, besides also seemingly setting up some spin-off or paratext when he suggests an adventure with some other character in the end), red herrings, MacGuffins and plot conveniences abounding. The underlying struggle, too, as with much of the Star Wars universe, between good and evil is the epitome of banality.
Try to avoid being distracted in the weeds by that stuff, however, for there is a more appreciable conclusion here in the commitment to building atop and reconstructing the original series. J.J. Abrams and company revived the first trilogy so as to add new characters and storylines, which in turn were reworkings of the original ones. It's as circular and repetitive as the continual chases and stand-offs in the plot. But, there are characters able to pass between scenes and between Star Wars movies. The Millennium Falcon jumps through planets and scenes in space early on. The three stars from the first run--Leia, Luke and Han--all do likewise as spirits, from the dead or otherwise to another space they're not physically present. They are past films remembered onto and sutured into the new ones. Luke's image being projected in "The Last Jedi" (2017) was another twist on this. Of the characters new to this trilogy, only Rey and Ben share this power. Not coincidentally, these five characters are also the only interesting ones. Even if Rey and Ben's relationship recalls Luke's attempts to convert Darth Vader in "Return of the Jedi," at least it develops and is consequential to this narrative, which is more than can be said about all the distractions and road bumps in the plot that are just there.
Although the repeated lightsaber swashbuckling may grow tiresome or the constipated looks and raising of hands to battle over moving objects or project lightning or whatever by forced telekinesis may be ridiculous--no matter how gripping John Williams' score--this psychic connection between Rey and Ben is compelling. It's more than a banal struggle between good and evil; it's between ancestral cults, Jedi and Sith. It's the force of past Star Wars films... which, after all, is also what compels many of us to continue to appear for screenings of these franchise additions: the memory of their filmic ancestors. The otherwise distracting side characters tend to be, like the main ones, preoccupied with their ancestry or their past, as well. Heck, even the business with C3PU's memory connects to this thread. The best part of Rey and Ben's duels, too, is that they perform them atop of the old films (thus, suturing themselves and the spectator into multiple scenes and films simultaneously): swashbuckling over Darth Vader's helmet, the drowned Death Star and, ultimately, among the spirits of all the past Star Wars films to harness these ancestral forces.
Black Moon (1975)
I suppose it's good to get out of one's comfort zone sometimes, to see a film such as "Black Moon" that eschews psychological narrative and rational meaning. Otherwise, this sort of pure surrealism seems tedious to me. Largely, it's merely a record of Louis Malle filming his random thoughts--the more incoherent, unconnected and unformed the better it seems believed--while venturing little beyond his country home. If it weren't so well photographed by Sven Nykvist, a frequent cinematographer of Ingmar Bergman's films, it'd probably be difficult to watch. Some, including, reportedly, Malle himself, have ascribed Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" as relevant here, but "Black Moon" demonstrates no connection to that text. Carroll's Alice books are more than mere nonsense, and every weird trip involving a girl and chattering animals doesn't equate to being Carrollian. For an actual surrealist interpretation of "Alice in Wonderland," see Jan Svankmajer's 1988 film, as well as his more loosely-connected short, "Jabberwocky" (1971).
It's hard to take "Black Moon" seriously, and, fortunately, it's a largely playful picture that may not even be asking us to. I see it as something of a joke on what we'd expect from traditional narrative cinema. Animal turned to roadkill with teenage protagonist precariously coming close to following suit. Little dialogue and what there is of it is mostly gibberish. Visual puns, including a literal battle of the sexes and time flying by clocks being thrown out a window. What would otherwise seem a key plot point concocted from a painting within the film (an eagle being decapitated). A circular plot that repeats itself: male and female soldiers at war, girl running into and out of the house, drinking milk next to a pig, bedridden old woman (alternately breastfed and making disparaging remarks over her ham radio), the two mute siblings... oh, and it's been some time since the naked children ran about, so they come back--plus, a unicorn, which the girl circularly chases. Dreams don't necessarily have a point--at least, not a profound one.
El laberinto del fauno (2006)
I gave "The Shape of Water" (2017) high marks, but I'm not finding Guillermo del Toro to be a very interesting filmmaker as of yet despite the praise he receives from others. The same reservations I had for his Best Picture Oscar winner, I hold for this, "Pan's Labyrinth," but this earlier picture also lacks the reflexive inversion of a classic film (in that case, "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954) to partially make up for it. I held out hope, too, finally coming to this due to rumors of it sharing similarities with Lewis Carroll's Alice books, for which I've been seeking a bunch of related movies lately. Unfortunately, besides the rabbit-hole-like entries to a fantasy land, the dress and the business with small doors, "Pan's Labyrinth" doesn't really have anything to do with Alice's adventures; instead, it's a bland conflation of a generic fairy tale seemingly of del Toro's own design. Girl must solve quests given to her by a faun to become princess. I'm not counting it among the Alice films I've been collecting.
So, what does "Pan's Labyrinth" offer us, then? As in the rest of his oeuvre, the visuals and CGI impress, although they're darkly lit. But, the characterizations and storytelling is exceedingly simplistic. In the home-video commentary, del Toro valorizes the perspective of a child, which seems to be something he's unfortunately internalized. Consequently, there's no complexity, no nuance to his world. The baddies are bad and the goodies are good. The faun and ferries are supposedly a bit more ambiguous, but not by much. As in "The Shape of Water," there are nurturing mother figures, good spies, and Sergi López plays the same role here that Michael Shannon occupies in the later production, to play dastardly and even to be physically mutilated. In this one, even the fairytale magic and the historical drama hardly interact, although they're both juvenile visions lacking intricacy. The opposite of a labyrinth.
The framework on display here is too facile even for superhero fare, which is why his "Hellboy" movies suffered, too. Even there, he began to ground their narratives in other movies, by connection to Universal's classic monster movies, which may be one of the more obvious methods to enrich a picture, but it may be all that can be hoped for with a filmmaker of this limited of a vision. "The Shape of Water" may be the pinnacle of that, and I don't see where he can improve from there without altering this formula For Pan's Labyrinth, set directly after the Spanish Civil War, a conspicuous filmic precedent is "The Spirit of the Beehive" (1973), which is also about a child looking to fantasy to cope with the horrors of reality (in that case, through the classic "Frankenstein" (1931) film). "Beehive" is vastly more sophisticated than "Labyrinth," as well as visually richer. It engages intellectually by its oblique stance to its subject and earns its emotional appeals to the spectator by such depth. By contrast, this movie is simple, superficial and spiritless.
Stripped to the Con
Fundamentally, "Hustlers" is a con-artist film, with all of the performance of actors-playing-actors that usually goes into the double crossing. It's a somewhat unusually straightforward one, though--as straightforward as strippers enticing with sex in exchange for money. Others in the genre will turn the con on us, the spectator, even if only for a revelatory denouement where a heist is explained (the Ocean's series does this a lot, for example). I like these type of movies because, in a way, they're, ironically, more honest than others. Cinema itself is a kind of con that we go along with--the so-called "suspension of disbelief" that's required to become invested in fictional narratives and artificially-arranged scenes. By adding another layer of deception on top of this inherent trickery suggests its own reveal--calling attention to the fact that we're being sold an illusion. "Hustlers," however, invites the spectator into the dance instead of turning the con on us. Like Constance Wu's Dorothy, then, our destiny is to become friends with the con artists. Fortunately, Wu, Jennifer Lopez and the other women are a joy to follow through the glamour and sleaze of the world of stripping-turned-larceny.
Rightfully, considerable attention for "Hustlers" has focused on Lopez's performance. It's easily the best I've ever seen from her, which, albeit, isn't a high hurdle considering the only other picture I recall liking that she was in was "Out of Sight" (1998). Nevertheless, she's effective here because of the star image she brings to the role of an actor-playing-an-actor exploiting her sex appeal. Between Lopez in a music video such as "Booty" and her character's pole dancing at the beginning of "Hustlers," the only difference seems to be in degree of separation from the patrons paying for the sex. Akin to the difference between live theatre and motion pictures, if you prefer. Moreover, from this beginning, the strippers--already performers--add another layer of performance by, then, pretending to be strippers, or "sisters," when in fact they're brazenly drugging and stealing from their marks. A good deal of time is spent on rationalizing that these marks are bad men who may deserve what they get--that the women are merely stealing from thieves. Indeed, the target is a soft one, as the guys tend to be Wall Street schmucks amidst the 2008 financial crisis, but I don't consider the point here to be that we're supposed to rationalize and argue ethics along with the them. That's the business of plea bargaining and journalists, which occupy a peripheral space here. To get stuck there is to con oneself. "Hustlers" is mainly concerned with the pure fun of our being vicariously led along their path from stripping to crime.
There is some plot machinations going on here, though, if not entirely in the sense of turning the con back on us. This has to do with the identity of the narrator. First, it's Dorothy's point of view, but this is revealed to only be the case in so much as she's telling her story to the reporter played by Julia Stiles. Temporarily, the story we've been following ceases as Dorothy refuses to tell her any more of it. Thus, the reporter becomes the narrator of the story narrated to her by Dorothy. But, then, the third act unravels all of this for what is seemingly the usual unrestricted narrative--that is, no character as narrator. I'm a bit disappointed by this. As well, hardly any other tricks, such as in the way of an unreliable narrator, are suggested. Consequently, the plot of the movie begins to unravel around the same point that the characters' criminal one does likewise. Oh well, while it lasted, it was a guilty pleasure.
The Wiz (1978)
The 1939 "The Wizard of Oz" has been so vastly popular--perhaps more so than any other film ever--that it has become instructive for, among other things, how minority or subcultural groups approach this prominent, distinctly American product of the country's dominant culture. One need look no further than its significance in the LGBT community, from rainbow flags, to the coded "friends of Dorothy" and Judy Garland's status as a gay icon. Indeed, the film is ripe for camp readings. Indian-born author Salman Rushdie wrote an entire book on how he related to a Hollywood studio production framed by Kansas. Then, there's this subsequent adaptation of L. Frank Baum's book. Due to the pervasive influence of the 1939 iteration, however, "The Wiz," as with all other subsequent Oz productions, is more so a remake or reworking of that Technicolor screen version from MGM (the plotting being more akin to the 1939 film as opposed to the book gives it away). Whereas "The Wizard of Oz" featured an all-white cast, "The Wiz" stars African Americans. While the 1939 film, as in the book, concerned a (white) juvenile's perspective and adjustment towards the adult world, this 1978 version is about that of racial minorities in juxtaposition to the dominant American culture, and what better springboard for that than arguably the most-widely cherished film from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Consequently, while I consider criticisms of the film's musical production to be fair--that the Thanksgiving prelude is dull and that the film doesn't manage to pick up until after Michael Jackson enters as the Scarecrow, or that the musical numbers are bloated and, with the exception of "Ease on Down the Road," a chore to get through, or even that Toto seemingly wonders in and out of scenes inconsistently--I consider, however, lamenting the casting of Diana Ross as Dorothy to be rather missing the point. That's not to say I think she's any good in the part (she isn't, and, blessedly, at her most falsely emotive in the sequence with the Wizard, she's framed with her back to the camera), but neither is she too old to play this Dorothy. "The Wiz" isn't about white childhood or the embrace of Manifest Destiny, as in Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" or the MGM version. It concerns African Americans in the modern metropolis. Thus, Kansas is replaced by New York and the land of Oz becomes an urban dreamscape with the Emerald City being a variation on downtown Manhattan, with walking cameras projecting mise-en-abymes and a big, green apple for a Sun. The yellow brick road, for the dominant culture at least, are the yellow cabs populating New York streets. The poppy field episode translates especially well as a nightclub scene. Appropriately, too, the Tin Man is some sort of automaton carny instead of a woodsman. The Cowardly Lion emerges as a statue adorning a building. And the Scarecrow is stuffed with trash, while Jackson plays him like a scared youth, as bullied by crows.
The experience of African Americans as a minority in the United States could've been a stronger theme in "The Wiz," though. Hiring black filmmakers behind the camera as well as for in front of it likely would've helped. At least getting someone other than Joel Schumacher, with his tendency for excessive incoherence, to pen the script may've produced a more intelligible throughline. Still, I prefer "The Wiz" to the sanitized, romantic schmaltz he made out of "The Phantom of the Opera" (2004), another integrated musical based on a novel but, first, filtered through a musical theatre adaptation.
The Wizard of Oz (1933)
Colorbred Oz: The Birds and the Bees
This short cartoon version of "The Wizard of Oz" is notable, I suppose, for being the first of the film adaptations to be in Technicolor, although since it wasn't originally released due to contractual disputes, its influence was likely negligible. Moreover, although the 1939 MGM film receives much credit for its use of Technicolor, the contrast between grays and colors has always been a feature of Oz, from the start in L. Frank Baum's book, as illustrated by W.W. Denslow. Like the films, such painting was a remarkable addition in the literary field at the time. Thus, similar to the book and as in the 1939 adaptation, this cartoon begins in a black-and-white Kansas, with a cyclone transitioning the fairytale to the rainbow-hued land of Oz.
There's a curiouser aspect to this particular cartoon, though--that's reproductive and sexual and almost along the lines of a Freudian, psychoanalytical treatment. After the familiar narrative of Dorothy meeting the Scarecrow and Tin Man (although, no Lion this outing), they travel to a bridge overlooking a romantic, spring-time scene about, quite literally, the birds and the bees. After this strange sequence of animal, insect and plant-assisted courtship, intercourse and reproduction completes, Dorothy and company are escorted to the Wizard. He performs a magic demonstration on reproduction that echoes early trick films in the cinema of attractions mode (e.g. "The Red Spectre" (1907)). Only, the Wizard's presentation exclusively involves birth and duplication--ending with the chicken and the eggs fertilized by the Wizard's phallic wand. Thankfully, Toto cuts this magic act short. As with the rabbit hole in Alice's adventures, to the Freudian mind of perversities, such an interpretation adds an entirely new meaning here to the funnel of the tornado from Dorothy's Kansas and the color transformation (decades later, "Pleasantville" (1998) did the latter explicitly). It becomes a story of rebirth and, seemingly to some extent, one of sexual awakening.
I've read Baum and Lewis Carroll's books, though, and this isn't how I read them, but that seems to be the message encoded here--and concluding with the hen holding her chick, as "Rock-a-bye Baby" plays us out. I tend to find such Freudian analysis amusing rather than serious-minded, so I'll conclude this review before further considering the implications here for the portrayal of Dorothy, from falling atop the Scarecrow to the Betty-Boop-type skirts and of the Wizard's focus on the posteriors and undergarments of his duplicate dancing girls. It's as though someone misread "children's story" as meaning that it's a story about where children come from.
Rambo: Last Blood (2019)
The Rambo series may've begun in "First Blood" (1982) as a poignant examination of a Vietnam veteran's trauma and struggles to reintegrate into society, but, now, "Rambo: Last Blood" is simply exploitation fare. That'll be enough for fans of gory machismo fantasies, though, and, admittedly, it's intoxicating and even rather amusing in a so-bad-it's-good sort of way. After all, the entire production is in bad taste, but I can embrace that ethic to an extent. The narrative begins as "Rambo" meets "Taken" (2008), where the titular hero employs his "very particular set of skills" in the service of rescuing his adopted daughter. From there, it becomes a rape-revenge plot in the vein of the "Death Wish" series, concluding with a ridiculously-violent variation on "Home Alone" (1990).
Accompanying that generic formula, there's the conspicuous alignment with right-wing politics in the United States during the Trump administration regarding Mexico and immigration. Mexico's side of the border is depicted as a gang-infested city trafficking in sex slavery, whereas Rambo inhabits idyllic rural virtues to the north. Ultimately, he lures the baddies into a wall of bullets, mutilation and torture of his own design. This is a character--a walking, talking bloodbath--who has already and largely single-handedly won wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Myanmar, so securing the border seems par for the course.
Additionally, that the direction and script here otherwise are slipshod is almost irrelevant. The daughter, introduced for the plot here, is nothing more than a cliché, for which it would be a challenge to be concerned about her fate if that were the point of this enterprise, as opposed to the real point of seeing 73-year-old Sylvester Stallone going on a bloody rampage. I understand that the tunnel business is supposed to recall Rambo's Vietnam past, but that, too, hardly matters except to help make the hero believably unhinged (which, it must be said, mission accomplished). The zoom focus shots and montages are prosaic, as well, but refined filmmaking would've been lost on this Rambo burger. What "Last Blood" does well badly it does excessively, but also within a thankfully-brisk runtime. On its own terms, the picture is a success.
Downton Abbey (2019)
I don't think I'm a fan of these movies serving as conclusions or continuations of TV series. Remaking a small-screen serial to adjust to the long form of a theatrical release is another matter, and there are plenty of examples of features that work in this field separate from their episodic precedents. Although both motion pictures, feature-length cinema and chapter plays broadcast and streamed at home are two considerably different art forms; one might work well in one medium and fail miserably in the other. Despite mostly positive reviews from others, I consider that the case with "Downton Abbey" (2019), although even it's better than another such example of this phenomenon in 2019, "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie," which makes it appropriate that the latter is mostly restricted to Netflix whereas this conservative country-house melodrama on classism for Anglophiles received wide theatrical distribution. That's because the show lends itself better to the big screen in a couple ways, although it also falls short in most other respects.
On the plus side, "Downton Abbey" is architecturally grounded by the eponymous estate. The camerawork and use of space, consequently, translates well to a movie. For "El Camino," they attempted to compensate for this by emulating the Western, with its sweeping vistas, but dismally so. The other thing going for "Downton Abbey" is the score. The script here doesn't deserve its dramatic buildup, but, admittedly, it does manage to make even setting up chairs in the rain more compelling than it otherwise would be (which is to say it wouldn't otherwise have been of any interest and barely is regardless).
I never finished the TV series, but it was entirely too easy to pick back up with the characters in this movie. That's because despite all the big world events the show covered in a "Forrest Gump" (1944) sort of way, the characters left standing don't develop. Sure, the daughters switch beaus and this or that servant resigns or is hired, but it seems ridiculous to me that a series survives for years, hours upon hours of story, without changing. I suppose that's comforting to viewers picking up a show once a week to not be thrown off by radical shifts in character and narrative, and it makes more sense for the same reason to dance in and out of the lives of a plethora of them, but it's antithetical to good cinematic storytelling. A two-hour farewell party to your favorite characters frozen in time doesn't make for quality cinema. It doesn't help, either, that these characters and the writing are slavishly in awe of the British social hierarchy of yesteryear. Some episodes are best left in the past.
An exchange between Charlie Oliver Twist and the TV kid here sums up TIm Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" quite well. Riding in the glass elevator through fireworks, Teavee asks sarcastically, "Why is everything here completely pointless?" To which the cloying simpleton Charlie circularly states, "Candy doesn't have to have a point. That's why it's candy." Stupid telly child, why one might as well inquire as to the point of any Tim Burton movie.
Based on the same book, the 1971 "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" worked on a couple levels. It was something of a parody of itself in its making fun of the culture surrounding television and candy. Much of the first forty-or-so minutes were devoted to this--even before Willy Wonka was introduced. Such humorous self-deprecation is largely dispensed with here in favor of zany looks, pratfalls and straightforwardly-debasing caricatures. The latter includes restoring some of the book's imperialist attitudes, what with the Indian prince stereotype and furthering the connotations to the history of African slavery with the Oompa Loompas (originally, Roald Dahl wrote them as African Pygmies) being discovered by Wonka in the jungle. And make what you will of this racial other all being made to look alike here.
The 1971 film also benefited, despite the name change in the title, from generally sticking with the perspective of Charlie. What we saw in the film, then, was the world as a child might perceive it. One where candy is currency, adults are nonsensical and capricious, contrivances seem magical and factories are amusement parks. In this 2005 movie, however, we also get Wonka's backstory, as remembered by him and as told by Charlie's grandfather, as well as too many other perspectives, which is ultimately cleaned up by the introduction of a narrator. The result is even more saccharine, too. But, the real problem is that the child's perspective is lost; in its place, we get what we always get in Burton's oeuvre: his perspective--unaccountably skewed and made-up to look goth. Oh, plus, there's the CGI, which merely makes the candy look like a cartoon.
Yet, I'll gladly rewatch this any day over what Burton did to Lewis Carroll's Alice books. They don't stray far from the source this time. Johnny Depp is at least slightly amusing as Willy Wonka, as opposed to his insufferable turn as the Mad Hatter. Casting Dracula himself, Christopher Lee, as a dentist is fangtastic. There are a few good verbal puns, too. And the candy-as-TV sequence is reimagined relatively well here compared to the 1971 iteration, including referencing "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), "Psycho" (1960) and pop-music bands. Indeed, there are quite a few references to other media sprinkled throughout--some being other Burton films or the usual gothic and horror-related pictures he likes to imitate. We first see Depp here reprising a pose from "Edward Scissorhands" (1990), for instance, whereas one unfortunate Oompa is transformed into Cousin It from "The Addams Family." But, yeah, mostly it's just completely pointless.
This is a bizarre classic of children's literature turned into a memorable movie. What strikes me reviewing "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," however, isn't so much its imaginative indelibility, but rather how playfully--even duplicitously--parodic it is. Charlie's life is a joke on "Oliver Twist"--a childish notion of poverty, with Charlie being the literal bread winner, when he brings a loaf home to add a more substantial meal to their usual cabbage soup, for a family that includes four grandparents all bedridden to the same bed the past twenty years. The other golden-ticket winners, too, reflect a world controlled by children. Consequently, the most important things in life become candy, gum and TV, and success comes from wanting and demanding things more. Likewise, we see a chocolate factory as a child might imagine it. It's a world of confusion and nonsense, alternately whimsical and menacing, that revolves around sugar and the boob tube. And, I suggest the parody is duplicitous, because this very film is akin to a sugar high--a piece of appealing-looking confection that's ultimately quite saccharine and owes much of its success to appearances on television (or, nowadays, streaming, as I viewed this on Netflix, with the option to munch on snacks infused with corn syrup... boy, how things have hardly changed).
Although quite amusing at times--the repetitive coverage by the news anchors is especially so methinks (as one of them states in between their obsession with the golden tickets, "We must remember there are many more important things--many more important things. Offhand, I can't think of what they are, but I'm sure there must be something.), I don't think there's much more to it than that. None of it has the bite of satire. It isn't as clever as Lewis Carroll. Even the somewhat reflexive business with TV and "Wonka-Vision" or the tunnel sequence avoids a reading of any commentary even at level of "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) on theatrically-released films such as this one. Moreover, while the film, fortunately, changed the book's original Pygmies to the fictional race of Oompa Loompas, an orange-faced cousin of Oz's Munchkins, it would seem, the film remains largely ethnocentric, including Western Europeans and Americans with their golden tickets that racial others may only hope to counterfeit. (At least, this version excised the episode--retained in Tim Burton's 2005 iteration--of the stereotypical Indian prince and his chocolate palace.) Indeed, some of the songs are catchy, it's quirky and fun, and Gene Wilder steals the show as the trickster Wizard to the Oz of his factory, despite not appearing until over 40 minutes in. In other words, it's candy: Wonka-Vision, which, in small doses at least, can be attractive and appealing.
The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)
Living the American Dream, Like a Mark Twain Story
Shia LaBeouf's character, Tyler, sums up "The Peanut Butter Falcon" conspicuously, at one point, with the above quotation. As every reviewer with even a passing familiarity with that particular "great American novel," Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," has mentioned, this movie is similar to that river-rafting journey of Americana with the local color of its Southern settings and vernacular of its people. Instead of floating down the Mississippi River through the antebellum South, however, "The Peanut Butter Falcon" takes place in the present along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. There's the bromance between two fugitives: one, Zak, a young man with Down syndrome escaping his forced residency at a nursing home and the other, Tyler, a dirt-poor fisherman on the run after stealing crabs and committing arson. The ultimate destination of their adventure is a professional wrestling camp run by "Salt Water Redneck." Along the way. Zak comes up with his own alter ego for the ring, the titular "Peanut Butter Falcon."
Fortunately, most of this is lighthearted, if also familiar and lightweight, amusement, and LeBeouf and Zack Gottsagen are fun travel companions, along with Dakota Johnson's caretaker Eleanor, who joins them later on. The wrestling serves as a play-within-the-play, although it's not treated as a con as with the play in "Huck Finn." Rather, the two fishermen chasing after Tyler, for his theft and destruction of their property, serve as the "Duke" and "King" baddies here. Given the literary allusions, another character met along the voyage that has me wondering is the blind preacher, who I would like to consider the movie's version of Demodocus from Homer's "Odyssey," but that may be a stretch. After all, the Twain references aren't so subtle, and the minister's baptism of Zak, whereas Tyler states his preference for a baptism by fire, is a bit on the nose for a narrative about their rebirth. To an extent, all of that works, though. Unlike others, I don't think that's the case for the references to the characters' past lost family members, including flashbacks of Tyler's dead brother, which comes across as hollow to me, especially with the syrupy message of "friends are the family you choose." Nonetheless, it's a feel-good picture partially lifted by its lofty literary leitmotif.
The Two Popes (2019)
"The Two Popes" is an oft amusing talkfest, if ultimately trivial and forgettable despite concerning the transitions between Bishops of Rome--the central one of the picture, of Pope Benedict XVI to Pope Francis, including the historical rarity of retiring from the papacy. Hence, two popes. Plus, there's the-conservative-versus-the-reformer dynamic between them amid the child-abuse and other scandals regarding the Catholic Church. Reportedly, the central conceit here of their meetings and budding friendship is fictitious, but it does make for a conceptually-droll bromance. Moreover, it makes relatable two men whom a great many people think to be literally holier-than-thou.
After their first, heated walk in the garden, which includes some intensely shaky close-ups for emphasis during the arguments, "The Two Popes" is more funny than dramatic. There's the confessions of their past sins to each other, including blocking out Benedict's admission related to a priest's misconduct, which probably helps maintain the likability of his character here, and a bit of the political machinations involved in electing the popes, but, otherwise, it's rather surprisingly fun and light fare except for the flashback scenes that make this a partial biopic of Jorge Bergoglio, the would-be current occupant of the Apostolic Palace.
The flashback scenes are probably the biggest drawback here, as the acting and mood doesn't match that set by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, as the leads, in the present, as well as their magnificent Vatican environs. Despite the religious topic, this isn't a proselytizing picture. You either buy the signs from God stuff or you don't, I guess. Although overly contrived in its symmetry of both men trying to convince the other to allow them to resign and the secret message stuff having the faint appearance of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in "Lost in Translation" (2003) or something, "The Two Popes" benefits from moments such as the two sharing a meal of pizza and soda, dancing the tango, or watching Germany defeat Argentina for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Apocrypha, perhaps, but entertaining nonetheless.
A demythologized origins story of Santa Claus just in time for Christmas. Finally, a story of how American capitalism and British class fears turned an agrarian seasonal occupation of gorging and reveling into a family-oriented tradition of gift-giving money to retailers in exchange for debt and junky toys and, then, blaming it on a white-bearded guy in the sky made up by Coca-Cola.
Oh, wait, that's not what "Klaus" is about. Again, a mythologized supposedly-partially-demythologized story full of copious amounts of perniciously recycled, predictable and trite schmaltz. Netflix enters a time-honored Hollywood practice of gift-giving lousy Christmas movies in exchange for our money. From "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947) to "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause" (2006), we keep receiving these stupid Santa movies. I prefer the simpler past, when "Santa Claus" (1898) was a one-minute film made to experiment with photographic multiple exposures. Now, Zara Larsson's mawkish "Invisible" music-video montage takes up more time than that in "Klaus" and without even an innovative effect.
Why movie critics, who by definition one would think are supposed to think critically and to have seen this cinematic emotional blackmail time and again, turn into saps for this seasonal sentimentalism is rather perplexing, though (it holds a 93% certified-fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of this posting). I speculate it's for the same reasons that Santa Claus and modern Christmas exist in our imaginations at all--because they're so thoroughly stamped upon and become ingrained in the rituals of modern Western society. Regardless, after the initial set-up of a postman and a woodsman inhabiting a village enraptured in some absurd feud, the rest of the movie is so obviously reverse-engineered from the usual Santa Claus narrative that it writes itself. The humor mostly consists of the postman being emphatic and frantic and trading anachronistic barbs with others, such as the "snail mail" line. Even that is preferable to the waterworks manipulation. On the other hand, the animation, including some traditional hand drawing, is pleasant enough, and the pacing isn't too bad.
It's interesting, too, that Netflix released "Klaus," as the picture employs largely-antiquated animation in the digital age to mythologize the same snail mail that was the backbone of the company's original DVD-rental business. That, of course, has since changed with Netflix sliding down our chimneys through the seemingly-ethereal streaming. Even the postman sits expectantly in his living-room chair. Plus, they give us the gift of their own junk now. "A true act of goodwill," surely. Bah humbug.
6 Underground (2019)
Michael Bay's Justice League
Baddies fight goodies. Story summary aside now, I'll comment on what actually matters in a Michael Bay movie--the noise, visual and otherwise. Since Bay seems to have wrapped up most of his commitments to the Transformers franchise, I suppose he's looking for a new series with this Netflix release, "6 Underground." Basically, this one is the same loud, adrenaline-junkie garbage he usually makes. Another rapidly-edited, stunt-laden car chase sequence occupies the opening act even before, as well as during, the narrative set-up regarding what the gang of heroes are and will be doing. After an especially blatant product-placement shot for Captain Morgan rum (and this after they make a guy a "pirate" by removing one of his eyes--get it?), there's some fighting, shooting and killing in a building, then some more of that on a yacht. They incite a coup in a fictional Asian state named "Turgistan." Anyways, I'd better tolerate the shots lasting one or two seconds before cutting to the next if it weren't for the obnoxious pop-music soundtrack, the sex scenes that are filmed the same way except with the addition of ass shots of women, the car commercials, listless parkour, hero posturing, and the gaudy slow-motion tableaus.
It's peculiar that during the car chase sequence, this visual mess threatens to spill over into the destruction of historically-important pieces of art, including Michelangelo's "David," or as this movie has it, the statue of the guy with a small penis. Another scene has a brutal dictator admiring the artwork of the Louvre. These scenes aren't as perfect of a metaphor for what Bay does to art as was his destruction of Ancient Egyptian monuments in the second Transformers burger, but it offers a stark contrast nonetheless between art and exploding rubbish such as "6 Underground."
The casting of Ryan Reynolds here makes sense. Besides putting a likable personality in front of the rest of the action-movie noise meant to disguise writing so lazy that it borrows its punchlines from other movies and media--and points that out, as if that's the joke--Reynolds has plenty of experience with (super)hero franchises. They even got his "Deadpool" writers to script this one. Again, Reynolds provides voiceover narration to directly address the audience, as he becomes something of a resurrected "ghost" who, then, assembles a team to fight baddies. Deadpool, Green Lantern, Blade, Deadpool again and, now, this. Given that he's an inventive billionaire in this one who, at one point, is accused of acting like Bruce Wayne, I guess this is Reynolds's Batman picture. Unfortunately, none of the other members of white savior's Justice League have the star charisma and fame of Reynolds, to compensate for a noisy movie and lousy script that do them no favors. This movie is trash.
The Farewell (2019)
An Actual Lie
"The Farewell" is a thoughtful piece of filmmaking. Yes, it's touching and handles the Chinese-American culture clash with sophistication, but it's also cleverly self-referential of the process of telling and, inevitably, fictionalizing a true story. It's "based on an actual lie," as stated from the outset. A pet peeve of mine are movies that claim to be "based on a true story" but are obviously dramatized in many ways without any acknowledgement, thus negating any intelligent investigation into the fundamental dichotomy of motion pictures, or, to an extent, storytelling in general, as objective recorder and manufactured illusion.
The story of "The Farewell," on the other hand, is all about lying, characters arguing whether to tell the truth and, ultimately, constructing stories of various degrees of truthiness to tell each other. The shifts between languages--mainly English and Mandarin--play into this. Besides the main secret and the connected mock wedding, there's also the protagonist's rejection letter for a Guggenheim Fellowship, her mother's and everyone else's display or concealment of emotion, hiding smoking, where one is or what they're doing during a phone call, and even the birds motif gives the lie to symbolism--to how one sees themselves and the world. That is to say not only how one perceives the character's illness, but also extends to the theme of American individualism in contrast with Chinese values placing family and society first, as well as to how the spectator views movies, as reflected reality or fabricated fiction. The movie itself is authored by the "real Billi," writer-director Lulu Wang, who already told a version of it on the radio program "This American Life." The picture is entirely told from the perspective of Billi (as portrayed by Awkwafina), who is an aspiring writer who will one day tell this very story and, indeed, is the on-screen surrogate for doing so within the picture. Interestingly, the character who decides to conceal Nai Nai's terminal lung cancer from her, her sister, is played by the real woman, Lu Hong, the part is based on. Thus, we have an actress pretending the part of the truth-telling author and the real woman as herself telling the lie. This is not simply a sappy story.
Having seen many classic Hollywood films, it seems that hiding one's illness from them (especially if they're female) used to be a common practice in America, too. Much of the time, if I recall correctly, such incidents served as melodramatic twists in these films--hence why I'm hard-pressed to think of a title I can mention without spoilers. One stars Bette Davis, and that's all I'll say. Regardless, the point I'm building up to here is that "The Farewell" is as remarkably restrained from histrionics as its characters often are in hiding their feelings from Nai Nai. Sure, it's an emotional experience, but it's a remarkable job that this isn't overly melodramatic. In fact, it's quite humorous at times.
Visually, this is a well-made picture, as well. It's no easy task to make appear interesting lots of talking scenes with intermittent moments of silent, wistful looks. The rhythm of wide-shot framing, often in long takes, with the few intimate close-ups here is exceptional, as is the occasional exploration of space out of frame, as with the opening shot of a hospital painting that reveals no visual information as to who is talking. We never discover the secrets of birds entering and exiting interiors, either. Even the slow-motion and spinning-camera tricks later on work. It's as though photographically, too, the picture is both being honest with the spectator and withholding secrets from them. Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen (as Nai Nai) heading a terrifically expressive cast also helps, as does the camera's focus on them, who are mostly actors playing characters who are acting out the lie, while Nai Nai stages the central deceit of the wedding--a sort of play-within-the-play supposedly for her own benefit. Even the farewell itself, it's revealed, isn't the final goodbye.
"The Farewell" is so excellent I'm hesitant to compare it with "Crazy Rich Asians" (2018), which, despite some rave reviews by others, is a trashy rom-com. Such couplings of the two movies by the media made me somewhat reluctant to see "The Farewell" in the first place. Granted, however, they are two popular American co-productions about and starring Asian-Americans, which has traditionally been rare (but will not continue to be given the growing market importance of China, as well the increasing population of Asian Americans). There's the resulting culture class of the characters traveling from New York to East Asia--both for a wedding. Awkwafina is in both. The similarities end there, though. "Crazy Rich Asians" is a soap-opera celebration of conspicuous consumption for its own sake and is otherwise obnoxious and formulaic. It's a lie told to us. "The Farewell" involves what appears to be a more middle-class family and is in every way more restrained, reflective and even honest. It's a movie that actually matters.
Good Boys (2019)
In "Good Boys" three preadolescent boys have a series of misadventures involving foul language, drugs, misuse of sex toys and such dangerous activities as running across a freeway and causing a series of car crashes. What's indecent about the movie, however, is that it's utterly formulaic. Seen "Superbad" (2007)? "Booksmart" (2019)? Well, here it is again--repacked with tweens. Naturally, the likes of Evan Goldberg, Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen are credited as producers. These dudes and other Judd Apatow disciples keep making the same garbage blend of sentimentalism and dick jokes. The irony is that this is another reworking of the coming-of-age narrative, but these guys never grow up--at least, their movies don't. They're like children who frequently curse or otherwise act provocatively because they got a rise out of someone once, but they're too juvenile to realize how easily tiresome such humor becomes. If not a coming-of-age teenage party flick (this time, a kissing party rather than the drug and sex ones for older kids), it's a rom-com or raunchy sex comedy--all abiding by the same clichés. There are high jinks, despite whatever protests from wet blankets, revolving around some obstacle; the friends or lovers break up; and, then, reunite in some fashion.
The one new thing someone seems to have discovered this outing is the play-within-the-play, which here is presented as an equally-inappropriate musical as portrayed by children, "Rock of Ages," about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Plays-within-plays have been around since at least the era of Shakespeare, but I guess it's good the boys are trying something new for a change.
This is only the third movie of his I've seen, but it's readily apparent that Bong Joon-ho is a masterful filmmaker. Unfortunately, the writer-director also seems to have a tendency towards delivering heavy-handed social commentary, and, unlike the others I've seen thus far ("Snowpiercer" (2013) and "Parasite" (2019)), this one is overburdened with sentiment. Mawkish message movies are generally too uncomplicated--repeatedly hammering emotional appeals instead of trusting the audience's intelligence with any ambiguities or intricacies. So, here, "Okja" champions the bond between a girl and her titular superpig, a new species that seems to look and act as much like a dog as it does "Babe" (1995) and whose personality and intelligence is otherwise quite human. Assuredly, that's intentional, for us to become invested in the CGI character. Film has been appealing to dog lovers since, at least, Rin Tin Tin and animating anthropomorphic beasts as far back as "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914). "Okja" is like an outrageous version of the sort of kiddie fare Disney might make.
Stranger still is that "Okja" is a fanciful picture but it appropriates some famous and seemingly-unrelated imagery from real life in its satire of a pork-manufacturing company. For instance, there's the imitation of the "Situation Room" photograph of the Obama administration viewing the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, as, here, Tilda Swinton's CEO and other executives watch their Miranda Corporation receiving bad press coverage. Later, a slaughterhouse resembles the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Unless you're interested in didactic lecturing from a movie on the merits or lack thereof of genetically-engineered food or veganism, or another tale of rustic life as good and city and industry as bad, which I'm not, there isn't much more that's sophisticated in "Okja." Sometimes, it's a thrilling and spectacular picture merely to look at, though. The creature is effectively animated, to the point that she's less cartoonish than the cast of baddies led by stars Swinton, in twin roles, and Jake Gyllenhall. My favorite sequence is when Okja is running loose through Seoul, which serves as a nice contrast to her earlier frolicking about in nature. The rampage through a shopping center, including the subsequent slow motion, is a highlight.
The Truman Train
I rewatched "Snowpiercer" after recently seeing writer-director Bong Joon-ho's latest movie, "Parasite" (2019). Despite the dystopian sci-fi, "Snowpiercer" is simpler, but it's interesting how both visually depict literal, geographical class stratification. "Parasite," a twist on the upstairs-downstairs, master-servant drama, features a poor family that descends stairs to arrive at their semi-basement hovel, whereas they ascend steps to reach the home of their employers. In "Snowpiercer," the poor reside at the back of the locomotive, while the wealthy occupy the front cars. In both, a group of lower-class people travel through both worlds, of haves and have-nots. There's more to the landscape of "Parasite" than staircases underscoring the social commentary, and the message, too, is more nuanced. That the rich are exploiting the poor in "Snowpiercer," however, is bluntly obvious, with the train being run on a system of theocratic feudalism. Moreover, these front-car villains are cartoonish (albeit wonderfully so in Tilda Swinton's case) , and the heroes, for the most part, Captain America included, aren't. The dystopian sci-fi, too, is largely and merely a framework for action scenes, which admittedly can be entertaining.
What I particularly like about "Snowpiercer," though, also involves the train. Ever since the Lumière brothers' 50-seconds-long film of the arrival of one at a station in 1896, trains have held an important place in cinema. They are two mechanical inventions of the 19th century that move by tracks (that is, actual film did) and provide passing, framed views--one upon a screen, the other through a window. Some of the first moving-camera shots in film history were phantom-ride views from trains. This analogy works rather well in "Snowpiercer." The poor live in the darkness of the window-less back of the train, and they marvel at the passing scenery though the windows of the front cars--sometimes taking a break to do so from their journey to the engine. Intriguingly, there is an actual film-within-the-film here, but it's utter propaganda in reverence of the conductor, Wilfred, and the "sacred engine," while also serving to indoctrinate the children into the divinely-ordained social order. The TV screen in this case, then, is a lie, whereas the windows shed light. Even those views are framed and limited by position, though. The ultimate truth is beyond the sight of the train. Ordinarily, I wouldn't think such a metaphor necessarily intentional by the filmmakers; Bong's picture, however, casts Ed Harris as Wilfred. Essentially, Harris plays the same god-like role here that he did in "The Truman Show" (1999), which is all about manipulating the boundaries between reality and illusion. Harris is the on-screen surrogate for the filmmaker, and, again, he is taking us for a ride.
A lot has been made of the social commentary, the message, of "Parasite," but I think the picture is effective because the message is not overly blunt and because the structure--largely geographical--supporting it is congruent. Plus, it's unpredictable genre-mixing entertainment otherwise. That's not to say the social commentary isn't obvious, though, and rather nihilistic. There's ambiguity and complications as to which characters are the "parasites." While one suspects that our sympathies are supposed to be with the lower-class Kim family, they are the ones conning the upper-class Parks. In one sequence, to deter detection, they even hide, crawl and slither about like the insects that infest their own home. But, then, the Parks often come across as a vacuous family of privilege who tend to hold their employees in contempt. In effect, they're all parasites--even the former workers that the Kims replace by tricking the Parks into firing them. Every major character tries to exploit or debase others in some way or another. The Kims get others fired, forge their own qualifications and take advantage of the Parks' trust. Conversely, the Park parents mock the smell of Kim Ki-taek, and they pretend to be slumming it for sex roleplay. Their daughter is more interested in her tutor as a boyfriend instead of as hired help, and even the young son misinterprets a cry for help in Morse code and is a fan for the cultural appropriation of Native Americans.
The only other Bong Joon-ho movie that I've seen thus far, "Snowpiercer" (2013) is more heavy-handed in its depiction of class. In it, the rich exploit the poor; it's as straightforward as the continuously-running train. "Parasite" is more steeply layered. The upstairs-downstairs class stratification is reflected in Seoul's geography. The Kims live in a semi-basement in a crowded urban area. We only ever see them arrive home by descending stairs, whereas they ascend them to work for the Parks in their luxurious suburban estate with a backyard. While it rains at the Park's home, that of the Kims is also flooded by sewage, including feces raining on them from the toilet. A drunk urinates outside their window and even tries to literally piss on them at one point. Others of poverty turn out to inhabit spaces even lower--in a hidden bomb shelter below another flight of stairs. This further references the larger line of demarcation separating North and South Korea, which itself mirrors Mr. Park's condemnation of "crossing the line." Even the hope of upward mobility is represented in the landscape--by a stone.
Besides reflecting the message, all of this geography also serves the narrative. What begins as a black comedy and con-artist film, with actors playing actors, turns into a mix of suspense thriller and old-dark-house horror beginning with one stormy night. Characteristic of the haunted-house subgenre, there's already the aforementioned secret bunker, and there's also a ghostly, mysterious assailant (and the figure of the youngest Park's supposed trauma reflected in his artwork). There's even fantasy in the Kims' son's dream of upward mobility and a grand guignol finale. It's also a well-composed picture, with an exciting score and amusing performances. And, to top off this multi-layered message movie, there's the Morse-code messaging. Messages inside a message... genres upon genres, actors within actors, characters within characters, haves among the have-nots--all underlined geographically.
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
It seems odd that it takes so long for anyone in the film to point out that the kid is ripping off Pink Floyd, but, then, Noah Baumbach has been making "his own interpretation" of Woody Allen for over a decade now without much objection.
I suppose one big difference is that Baumbach puts the pseudo in his (pseudo-)intellectual characters, and the personal, semi-autobiographical stamp he places on his oeuvre as of yet doesn't seem to extend far beyond lamenting how egocentric his parents made him. This breakthough film of his, "The Squid and the Whale," focuses on their divorce. Indeed, the characters tend to be degenerates, but I don't really care about that. What I try to grasp a hold of in Baumbach's best work is the role of artistic creation, of storytelling, in his characters. Here, the father is an author whose recent failure in the field is reflected in losing control of his marriage. It also coincides with the success of the mother's writing. Case in point, they announce their divorce after an argument that begins with her rejecting his notes on her novel. In Baumbach's most recent movie on divorce, "Marriage Story" (2019), something similar is done with a husband who is a director of his actress wife until she resumes her own, separate career, which includes directing. See, directing motion pictures and her own life and, here, writing her own story in both senses as well.
That the film is told from the perspectives of the two sexually-confused teenage sons, however, dilutes this effect. The Squid and the Whale metaphor is bland, as well as his running to it echoing Allen's panting in "Manhattan" (1979), which was already a twist on the romantic race in "The Graduate" (1967), which itself reworked Harold Lloyd's "Girl Shy" (1924) (See, pa, I'm not a philistine, either; I like interesting films). Besides the diorama reflecting the marriage-turned-divorce, it symbolizes the son's seeing the world for what it is rather than as his sea-beast-like quarreling parents describe it. In reality, the son grew up to write the narrative, but that isn't reflected well here. It's divorced. The dual focus on the parents in "Marriage Story" does better.
Marriage Story (2019)
Cinema as Theatre; Theatre as Life
There are a couple potential problems with making such semi-autobiographical, personal pictures as Noah Baumbach does. One, you probably either need to relate to or be intrigued by the familial squabbling of such middle-to-upper-class New York artists and intellectuals, pretentious or otherwise. Having seen a few of his movies now, from one Baumbach episode to the next, I've found that it gets tiresome fast. Second and encompassing the first hindrance is the underlying philosophy of art as simply being a reflection of one's life. An obvious antecedent for this writer-director is Woody Allen, but say what you will about Allen, artistically his oeuvre isn't that rudimentary. Consequently, perhaps, there's no substantial distinction made in Baumbach's outlook between cinema and theatre (that is, besides the either hypocritical or self-deprecating snootiness within the movie)--both are for Baumbach to play life on a stage, including this second installment, after "The Squid and the Whale" (2005), in his intimately cathartic stories of divorce. "Marriage Story" is likely his best picture yet, though, because of how it integrates storytelling in life, plays and movies. While the actual story here is about divorce, the structure is about the union of those three stages of narratives; it's a marriage story, after all.
Indeed, as the couple's attorneys outline, their divorce battle is over the construction of the narrative. Are they a New York family or a Los Angeles one? Is the theme that he's a philanderer or that she's a lush, he a liar who trapped her in the Big Apple or she a felonious hacker who tricked him into allowing her an upperhand in the custody case over their son? In a relatively even-handed manner, the plot serves both narratives with a dual focus alternating between the perspective of the husband-father (Adam Driver) and that of the wife-mother (Scarlett Johansson). He begins as a director, casting her as the actress in his life, but her move to Hollywood includes her branching into directing, as well, both motion pictures and her life. Legally, meanwhile, the expensive lawyers form the couples' perspectives to be enacted, including on the courtroom stage.
While this divorce proceeds, these protagonists introduced as theatrical people, him a director and her an actress, are pulled from (off) Broadway to Hollywood. Aesthetically, there were already indications of this in their ridiculous-looking play, as it included recorded moving images of her beside the actress in the flesh. It's a multimedia performance, which in the larger scheme is a play-within-a-play and a movie-within-the-movie that we're watching. A brief search of Baumbach's biography will suffice to point out the obvious parallels here with his life. Like the male lead, he married an actress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose big break in Hollywood was a role in a raunchy teen comedy ("Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982)). Both couples, then, had a child and divorced. Baumbach similarly fictionalized his parents' breakup in "The Squid and the Whale."
Unfortunately, however, it's not cinema and theatre that divorce in the picture. For the most part, the acting and writing are engaging enough, but some of the blocking and monologues are as conspicuously stagy as Johansson being carried in the play-within-the-play. The long, steady framings and fades to black compound this. Driver's song at the end was ineffective for me because of its theatricality. Likewise, Johansson's first speech to her attorney, what with her walking around while pontificating, came off as especially affected (it works somewhat better when Alan Alda basically does the same thing later in his first scene with Driver). On the other hand, Laura Dern and Ray Liotta are impressive at getting to the point of the story when it's their turn to tell it. The fawning letters the protagonists write of each other that frames the movie's narrative overall is effective, as well. Regardless, it's not the story or the characters here that interest me, let alone how it reflects life and issues of divorce; it's the structure that matters. The case is built and won or lost based on who is directing and how the narrative is constructed.
Halloween II (1981)
The Bogeyman Strikes Back
The first "Halloween" is elegant in its simplicity; these sequels seem to do little else but muddy it up. At least, in this one, there remains some of the association of the camera's gaze with that of Michael Myers--placing the spectator in the unnerving position of identifying with the murderous monster through a series of point-of-view shots. The pull between Michael and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) for control of the gaze is absent for much of the picture, as Laurie recovers from the last go around. Security cameras unseen by any character stand in as counter shots for much of his movements until Laurie gets on her feet again. The eventual confrontation, however, between Laurie and Michael includes a novel solution to the conflict. In the last film, Laurie overcame him by nearly removing his mask and, thus, exposing his face to the camera's gaze. This time, she shoots him in the eyes--definitively removing his ability to control what we see through the shared eye of the camera.
Otherwise, this is a flawed sequel. There's a genetic plot twist straight out of ripping off last year's "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), which allegedly John Carpenter came up with in an inebriated state to solve the problem of adding more scenes to the 1978 film for its TV broadcasts (the inadequate runtime being a result of the gorier stuff being cut) and which is recycled here. Moving Michael's killing spree to a hospital also has the dubious benefit of a series of sexcaspades involving nurses and one pesky paramedic hitting on Laurie while she recovers from the trauma of almost being murdered a short while ago. Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis goes to school to add some mumbo-jumbo background mythology to Myers' bogeyman, which, I guess, is reflected in the fiery climax. Something to do with Celts supposedly burning people, and the doc and the maniac both knowing and referencing the Gaelic festival of "Samhain," implausible and inconsequential though it may be. To make things worse, Carpenter's original iconic score is made grating by sending it through a synthesizer, and whooshing sound effects are ridiculously added to Michael's arm and knife waving. I mean, cut it out, he's not holding a lightsaber, for crying out loud.
The original "Halloween" (1978) is a consummate slasher film for a simple reason, which nonetheless appears to allude some, including those making its numerous sequels and, now, this retconned direct follow-up. The first film worked because of the role of the camera. The horror was based in the control of its gaze. The jump scare was one manifestation of this, and the effectiveness of the score another. This 2018 adulteration abandons that and so the jump scares are ineffectual and, to fill in the gaps, listless filler is added to Carpenter's original musical masterpiece. It's franchise engineering lacking an identity for the camera; the only frightening thing about it is its success at the box office, which means the sequels will keep coming. This bogeyman truly cannot be stopped.
As per Film Theory 101, the spectator (that is, we, the audience) shares their gaze with that of the camera; we see what the camera sees. In turn, the camera's gaze may be associated with that of another character, or multiple characters, or it may be omniscient or be something of a character or spectator itself. The 1978 film is a struggle for that gaze between two characters, Michael Myers and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). The camera is first and primarily linked through the eyes of Michael, which is established in the opening point-of-view shot where he kills his sister. (Note in the replaying of this shot in this sequel how different it is from any of the new footage.) Indeed, the camera sharing his perspective is only interrupted when his mask is removed, and he is revealed to be a child. Throughout the rest of the picture, he wears a mask to avoid a repeat of his being gazed upon, while he fights for the control to gaze upon others. In effect, the cinematic gaze becomes a murderous, penetrating, knife-wielding Shape. And why not? That's why we watched it, to see the madman's killing spree.
Even more clever, perhaps, was that the film, then, began sharing the gaze with Laurie. The shifts between the perspectives of these two characters created the jump scares, and, as underscored by the music, was responsible for all of the actual horror--not merely the gory blood splatter. There was also a psycho-sexual dimension to all of this, as Michael continually hunted sexually-promiscuous teenagers, like his sister, while masking his own incestuous disgust, and Laurie, the virgin, combating his gaze by seeking to unmask him.
So, what does this 2018 movie do, then? The opening scene seemed promising, as Myers resisted the gaze by us never getting a good look at his unmasked face, but from there we get just about the most boring camera perspective imaginable: the usual, hapless unrestricted variation untied to any character or intelligent aesthetic--shapeless. It's a picture intrigued by characters--four this time--but that shares its gaze with none of them. Instead, the spectator is supposed to be content gazing upon them as much of the movie is concerned with backstory. Basically, we're in the position of the inept podcasters pontificating rubbish about character psychologies and bogeyman mythology.
Later, we get stupid character and plot twists, as well as a pathetic rehashing of scenes from the first film. Take the long tracking shots of Myers's murders; they're all the more unnerving in the original because the gaze is through his eyes, but here it's merely a glazed look with no particular direction or interest and imbued with no particular character. Consequently, the sexual pathology is severely sacrificed, too. This is a "Halloween" for the age of franchise filmmaking: tiresome mythologies and mind-numbing backstories based around likable actors and characters, scary monsters turned unkillable terminators pitted against tough, crafty (super)heroes. It has no soul; it's pure evil.
J'ai perdu mon corps (2019)
Arty French animation "I Lost My Body" contains some lovely imagery, and others have applauded it for its poetic dramatization, but I want to focus on its clever self-reflexive construction. The story involves a character whose hand is severed, whereupon the plot mostly assumes a dual focus of that character with his remaining body and of that of his disembodied limb, the latter of which assumes an independent agency and movement. There's also a girl, who plays an important role in one respect, but the hero's journey is predominantly concerned with the boy and the hand. The foundational obstacle for both the boy and hand is to overcome a past tragedy of separation: the death of the boy's parents and, in the other case, the loss of the hand's body. All of which is congruent with the picture's self-referential pulse of the disconnection of modern animated movies, such as this one, from traditional hand-drawn animated cinema.
This is more than a handy pun. Most of the primary elements of creating animation are included in the narrative. It has music--the boy's mother played the cello, and he and a blind man play the piano. The boy also collected audio on a cassette recorder (a device which also serves a critical function in the overcoming of the heroes' obstacles). Also notice the focus in the story on disembodied dialogue (e.g. the pizza delivery scene), which is what voice acting consists of, and on sound effects (e.g. the sound of wind from pressing one's hand to their ear). Besides the promise of a generic romantic coupling, the girl's role here also is in the writing department. She's a librarian and recommends to him a novel, "The World According to Garp," which itself is a piece of multi-layered, self-referential fiction about a writer and writing. Additionally, the boy borrows books about igloos from the library, which provides him with inspiration for his architectural designs. Thus, we have design (architectural and written), a soundtrack and a score. All that's left is to build the visuals of the animation. For that, he becomes a carpenter's apprentice--using, as his employer gives a helping hand, tools, accessories and instruments to transform the material, wood, which comes from the same stuff the paper animators used to draw films on did.
Note that only then does the hand's separate story begin, from an "accident" of carpentry. Film is a process of reanimation; in live action especially, but also, through inspiration or as reference, in animation as well, film captures something alive--something animated--then kills and makes it inanimate as still images before, finally, reanimating what was once captured as the projected (or Netflix streamed, as the case may be) motion picture that the spectator views. Likewise, the hand's individual adventure begins when he is captured by the electric saw; next, the hand lies dead before becoming reanimated as something entirely different from what it once was. In other words, the disembodied hand here is a metaphor for film and, specifically, animated film. It's the film-within-the-film, the hand's journey nested between the outer story of the boy's making of that story, along with the girl as being something of our on-screen surrogate spectator.
Unlike in live action, these drawn compositions don't necessitate a physical camera. This provides a free hand to the perspective of the picture, the theoretical camera's eye, which in turn becomes the spectator's shared vantage point, to be limited only by the filmmakers' imagination. The handling of that camera here is where "I Lost My Body" most excels visually in my estimation. In addition to alternating between color and black-and-white palettes and 2D and 3D computer animation, there's some shifting in perspectives. We and the camera are sometimes like a fly--oblivious, perhaps, to the characters when we're at a distance on a wall, but a nuisance when we swoop in or rest too close upon them. Other times, we share the point of view of this or that character--both what they see in the outside world and, through memories and fantasies, what they imagine with their mind's eye. At one point, we're just a disembodied eyeball resting on a floor. We may even be a reflection in a subway mirror as we witness a hand hiding under a ravioli can scurrying by. (By the way, does anyone else sense a dig at Pixar--specifically "Ratatouille" (2007) with this sequence involving rats, but with other scenes, too, such as floating through the wind (albeit it with an umbrella instead of balloons) between cars, and I can't think of any better reason for the astronaut business here. It would be fitting since, after all, Pixar largely killed traditional animation.)
Even better here is the attempt, which seems specifically more suited to animation because of how it's made, to expand the sensory stimuli by adding texture and a motif of the hand feeling the physical world around it. We experience movies, to paraphrase Charlie Chaplin, as movement, two planes and a suggestion of depth; it's something we've always seen and, later, also heard. Of course, we also feel emotionally and physically in response to the audio-visual experience. Thus, sure, "I Lost My Body" is touching, but, moreover, its tactile focus, hand-in-hand with its self-reflexive framework, almost gives the impression that it's a movie we can feel, to reach out and touch back.