Archive for the ‘foreign’ category

Speak No Evil

September 11, 2022

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The Americanized title Speak No Evil only really makes sense after you’ve watched the film; the original Danish title is Gæsterne, or Guests, which has some of the same deadpan wit as the movie itself. Either way it’s a creepy and needling thriller that takes the premise of something like 1981’s Neighbors — these people seem hostile and strange, but we must maintain our politesse — right up to the edge of horror and then pushes it over. Directed by Christian Tafdrup, who has a reputation for social commentary, Speak No Evil would fall apart if its protagonists were crass and unconcerned with hurting others’ feelings or with being seen as insensitive. It’s the movie’s observation of mores and behavior that makes it so unsettling and, in the end, such a sharp knock in the chops.

It may go without saying that the lead couple, Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), are upper-middle-class; they can afford a vacation in Tuscany, and only a little while later they can afford to travel to visit a Dutch couple they met in Tuscany. The Dutch couple, Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders), seem warm and welcoming at first. But almost right away, they start transgressing good manners. Louise has said she’s a vegetarian, yet Patrick practically forces her to nibble a piece of beef he’s just cooked. There are other weirdnesses, and when we look back on the script, by Tafdrup and his brother Mads, we may realize just how tight it is, how many details are there right from the start. If Bjørn had been less laid-back about Patrick taking the pool chair, the movie would probably end there.

It doesn’t, and after a while we may also realize that Bjørn is an ideal mark, if that’s what he is. He isn’t just polite; he finds himself drawn to what he perceives as Patrick’s wilder existence. How right Bjørn’s instincts turn out to be is one of the dark jokes of the movie, which unfolds with an elegant malevolence, heightened now and then by ominous rumbles and stabs of Sune Kølster’s score. (The way the music sometimes surges up, seemingly apropos of nothing at all onscreen, is yet another way Tafdrup keeps us disoriented.) At a certain point, we may think Bjørn and Louise — and their little daughter Agnes — are in the clear, but their hosts lure them back in. Back into what, though? Are Patrick and Karin not just eager hosts, if a little unconventional? Are we not betraying some class prejudice towards them (their house is nice if a little small and cluttered) as well as some ableist bigotry because they have a little son, Abel, who was born without most of his tongue?

Well, it’s that sort of thinking that Christian Tafdrup wants to incinerate, or at least to throw back in our faces. Like many effective horror-thrillers, Speak No Evil is not remotely nice — in its universe, giving people the benefit of the doubt leads nowhere good. The acting is natural and pulls you along on a leash of credibility. Van Huêt and Smulders are particularly adept at making Patrick and Karin seem misunderstood; their customs are just a little different, that’s all. Right? They’re so nice, and they’d be so sad to see you go; why would you want to hurt them by leaving? Nobody wants to say no, nobody wants to look like a jerk. They would rather die a slow, brutal death than be seen as stuck-up and rude.

Little Vampire

September 5, 2021

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Sometimes we want a movie that isn’t going to make us worry too much, and the amiable French animated all-ages fantasy Little Vampire falls squarely in that category. It’s good-hearted and has abundant charm, though not a lot seems to be at stake (no pun intended). Essentially it’s about friendship and finding one’s way, packed with enough monsters and goth beauty to keep fans of (early) Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro happy for a while. At times it feels like a pilot for a TV cartoon, as indeed it was, in 2004; it began life as a comic by Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat) and has nothing to do with the books of the same name that spawned a 2000 comedy (with Jonathan Lipnicki) and its 2017 animated remake.

Aside from the comics, all of those adaptations, including the 2004 series, seem to take the vantage point of the human boy who befriends the vampire boy. Here, the vampire boy is front and center, going back to the comics’ perspective. We begin with Pandora and her little boy pursued by the arrogant Le Gibbous, who wants to sacrifice them to a giant monster. They’re saved by the skeletal Captain of the Dead, turned into vampires, and taken to a big house full of monsters. The house is hidden from Le Gibbous by a magic dome, and no one can leave. After a while, the Little Vampire gets bored and meets an orphan boy by way of doing his homework — which takes him out of the Captain’s protective dome.

There’s always something to look at, and the narrative never stops moving; occasionally the film pauses to take in the spectral elegance of the Captain’s pirate ship floating across the sky, but mainly Little Vampire is paced and structured to hold kids’ attention. Sometimes I was reminded of Adventure Time, whose menagerie included vampires and other beasties. The imagination on view here is playful, prodigious. The monsters, including a Frankenstein’s-monster-like critter named Marguerite (voiced by Sfar himself), aren’t really scary — they’re ooky and spooky in the Addams Family mold, the sort of mischief-loving ghoulies any right-minded kid would love to hang out with.

Sfar and cowriter Sandrina Jardel have plenty of affection for all their characters (well, except maybe the giant slimy behemoth at the beginning). There’s a happy ending for just about everyone, and that’s never in doubt. And again, if you’re in the mood not to be challenged or stressed out by what’s meant to be a slight, friendly light-dark fantasy (the vampires don’t kill, they steal blood bags from the hospital), Little Vampire may just be your cup of ichor. Sometimes we can tell where the animation has to cut corners, and sometimes we see where the money went. There’s some fine swashbuckling between the Captain of the Dead and Le Gibbous. Sfar and his team originally envisioned a digitally-animated feature, but they ran out of money, and had to fall back on traditional cel animation, which has (there’s that word again) considerable charm.

If this feature does well enough to justify it, I’d be glad to see a streaming series along these lines and revisit this family of misfits and monsters. I won’t mind if Sfar dials down the fart and poop humor a notch, but this branch of Sfar’s creativity has powered 52 episodes of French TV. It could well provide fertile ground for another series. There’s unspoken personal pain in it, too: Sfar, who lost his own mother when he was four, has created a reality in which the young hero gets to live with his ageless, immortal mother for all time — along with all sorts of weirdies that seem designed to give kids from 8 to 80 the giggles.

Oxygen

May 16, 2021

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If Oxygen, which started principal photography in July 2020, isn’t the ultimate quarantine film, I don’t know what is. There are flashbacks, but most of the movie is a matter of one actress, Mélanie Laurent, alone inside a cryogenic pod with nobody to interact with except voices. Oxygen is an American-French co-production, and is showing on Netflix in a dubbed English version or in its original French with subtitles, and I heartily recommend the French — you get the benefit of Laurent’s legitimate emoting (in English, Cherami Leigh substitutes the voice, and is directed to sound somewhat whiny), as well as Mathieu Amalric as MILO, this film’s HAL, an implacable AI who frequently points out, with neither malice nor mercy, just how much air Laurent’s character has left.

Laurent, as a woman named Elizabeth Hansen, wakes up in this cryogenic pod with no memory of how she got there, where she is, or where she’s headed, if anywhere. I say “a woman named Elizabeth Hansen” not because I don’t know what she does for a living but because we share Liz’s disorientation. We learn her situation along with her, and Christie LeBlanc’s script, a one-time Black List entry, stays close to Liz’s terror and rage to live. As directed by horror neo-maestro Alexandre Aja, who was originally only going to produce, Oxygen manages to change up its visuals and pace often enough so that its claustrophobic milieu doesn’t present as too tedious. Besides, when you have a futuristic pod that can be sweetened by CGI to jazz the eye, you’re already one up on something like Buried or Open Water.

Also suggested: don’t scrutinize the script too closely from a scientific angle, as some have done to their chagrin; don’t focus too much on the measurements and numbers (twelve years, 42,735 miles, etc.). Oxygen works mainly on the emotional/experiential level, trapping us in close quarters and treating our thirst for information with a maddening slow drip of data, not all of which may actually be sound. This is now two basically-one-location films in a row for Aja, who last bedeviled us with the alligator-in-a-flooded-basement thriller Crawl in 2019. On the evidence, Aja likes a challenge; even his first film to gain international notice, High Tension, runs on a huge twist that invalidates everything that went before it (…or does it?). Here he has a cramped space and essentially one face (Liz’s may-or-may-not-be husband, played by Malik Zidi, turns up on occasion), and we are invited to consider every line and pore in Laurent’s visage more closely than she might be comfortable with.

It’s tasty, savory meat for an actor, and Laurent rips into it, by turns despairing, hopeful, mordant, credulous or skeptical. (The role was previously attached to Anne Hathaway and then Noomi Rapace, either of whom would have done brittle magic with it.) When a future book is written about sci-fi movies that run on a specific trope I’ll not mention here, Oxygen may sit near the top of the list due to Laurent, who finds the terrifying weirdness in it. The trope has been done (and even used as a twist) innumerable times, but Laurent’s prickly humanity sets it apart. Meanwhile, that great reptilian actor Mathieu Amalric, fresh from giving Riz Ahmed a hard time in Sound of Metal, keeps offering data without comfort, sounding at times like a bored functionary. “Would you like a sedative?” MILO keeps asking, like an insistent date-rapist, and Liz instinctively refuses.

I enjoyed Oxygen while periodically feeling the pull and pinch of boredom, a perhaps unavoidable trap of such a confined narrative. I suspect, though, it works better viewed alongside its siblings in Aja’s portfolio, which is heavy on genre stuff, than viewed in and of itself. It’s artier than some of his others (Horns, the Hills Have Eyes remake, and so on) but still contains shards of wincing auto-violence: nobody’s around to violate Liz, other than a persistent syringe, so she has to mangle herself, yanking things out of her body and then painfully re-inserting them. Aja can sardonically spotlight the penetrative, eros/thanatos pain that powers so much horror with only a cast of one. I don’t think Aja needs to challenge himself again on this how-small-can-I-go? level. He’s done all anyone can. As it is, he probably wants his next film to unfold during Mardi Gras.

About Endlessness

May 9, 2021

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It is the common fatigue. That’s what my ears thought they heard during a scene in Roy Andersson’s typically deadpan About Endlessness. What I was really hearing was a priest delivering communion in Swedish: The body of Christ broken for you, or Kristi kropp bruten för dig. But, in a lot of ways, Andersson’s first film in five years, and possibly his last, is all about the common fatigue. The priest, as it happens, is going through the motions, administering the ritual with a heavy heart and hollow soul — we have just seen him in the church kitchen, swigging from the same bottle that pours the blood of Christ. He appears several times in the film, often on the edge of tears as he admits he has lost his faith. But nobody much cares, even his psychiatrist.

Sounds heavy, especially if this is your first tour through the bemusement park of Andersson (best known for his “Living” trilogy: Songs from the Second Floor, 2000; You, the Living, 2007; A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, 2014). But About Endlessness, in the sort of irony remarked on by legions of critics by now, is in and out in 76 minutes. Andersson, who spent a long hiatus from feature filmmaking directing commercials (Ingmar Bergman was a fan of them), knows that the type and mode of story he wants to tell is best achieved with brevity. (His only film to exceed two hours, 1975’s Giliap, tanked hard and drove him out of features for 25 years.) The movie is an anthology of moments: some dreary, some distressing, some carefree. The anecdotes add up to a meditation on life as experienced individually and specifically by each subject.

Sometimes the placement of scenes does a lot of the work. Early in the movie, and then not long before the end credits, a man grumbles to the camera that a former schoolmate has been ignoring him because of something unspecified he did to the schoolmate, way back then. That this man is the second, and then second-to-last, person we hear from — bracketing a collection of vignettes ranging from the mundane to the apocalyptic — makes a quietly funny point about the ridiculousness of long-running grievances. Motifs announce themselves: water or wine pouring into glasses, overflowing the glass, or filling a vase for flowers at a dead soldier’s grave; the reality of death captured just before or just after its arrival. If there is despair here, though, there is also joy. Andersson knows that a vision without one or the other is false. The joy whisks away despair, insisting that despair doesn’t last. The despair infects our enjoyment, murmuring that joy won’t last, either. And on and on in a loop.

About Endlessness features Hitler his own bad self, in his bunker being dusted by bomb-loosened plaster and barely acknowledged by exhausted old generals who can’t even muster a decent sieg heil. The straight-faced absurdism of the segment recalls some of Monty Python’s “historical” sketches; the flatness of the style is a wicked rebuke to Leni Riefenstahl’s voluptuous portfolio of lies, Triumph of the Will. So we meet the Devil, and he’s this dull clerk celebrated by half-dead flunkies in the most banal-looking crypt any soon-to-perish despot ever had. Where’s God? Oh, I saw Him here and there, despite the plaints of the priest. He was there in the spontaneous dancing of teenage girls and in the fatal knife wounds of another — the A to Z of human experience. 

The movie leaves us talking back to it — we don’t want it to go just yet. The brevity sometimes verges on a taunt: most of the people we meet, we’ll never see again. The rare exception, aside from the recurring faithless priest, is a dentist who gets two segments — two consecutive segments, which nobody else gets. We first see him in a sketch that seems to be making a point about how emotions can get in the way of how we engage with people personally and professionally, leaving them hurt. The next bit finds the dentist in a bar, with a gentle snowfall visible out the windows — the cozy warm comfort of the scene is palpable, and it seems to nudge one of the customers into blurting “Everything is fantastic.” As Kurt Vonnegut said, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” But Andersson isn’t finished, and the last two anecdotes are bitter and desolate, respectively — yet still with glimmers of mitigation. If this isn’t life, I don’t know what is. 

Minari

April 11, 2021

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Minari is a modest film about big things — ambition, family, immigration and assimilation. It’s based loosely on writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s experiences in a South Korean family living in rural America. In 1983, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) brings his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and two kids, and all their belongings, to what looks like a godforsaken five acres of Arkansas land, with a forlorn trailer sitting atop the dry grass. Monica hates the place on sight; Jacob hopes to raise a farm here, and one day have fifty acres. I’m not sure we understand Jacob’s life choice any more than Monica does, but it’s his dream, so we go with it, hoping for the best.

Jacob sees what others don’t: the soil is actually a rich color that tells him it may yield the crop of his fantasies. He hopes to grow all Korean fruits and vegetables, and sell them to fellow Korean transplants. In brief, Jacob has a foot in each world; he has the gumption of a dust-bowl American but seeks to bring some of his home country into his adopted country. Monica would rather go back to the city, or at least back to California, where Steven was a top chicken sexer. Which is how the Yis keep the lights on in Arkansas until the crops come in. 

Monica decides to bring her own home to this new place — her mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), who watches the kids but doesn’t act enough like a grandma for the liking of the youngest child David. (As probably the director’s avatar, David gets a lot of screen time without necessarily seeming like the central character — it’s really an ensemble piece — and he has a sister Anne, who it’s easy to forget exists.) Minari is appealing, though short on moviemaking electricity; it’s quietly pictorial, satisfying — along with fellow Best Picture nominee Nomadland — our desire to see America as a big broad land with endless pockets of beauty.

Jacob and Monica go at each other quite a lot, the eternal clash of the pragmatic wife and the dreamer husband. Even so, the film is good-natured; even a couple of blinkered white kids who encounter David and Anne just blurt out highly inappropriate-even-in-1983 questions (“Why is your face so flat?”) not out of malice but just out of blunt curiosity. David gets a sleepover with his new friend; if Anne does, we don’t see it. Anyway, even the film’s Americans who initially set off our radar turn out okay — like ol’ Paul (Will Patton), who invokes Jesus constantly, speaks in tongues, and hauls a life-size cross around a dirt road as “his church.” Refreshingly, Paul stays a loyal farmhand to Jacob, and doesn’t turn out to be a villain. The Yis don’t encounter much racism that we can see. Minari isn’t about that; it centers on how hard it is for a foreigner to follow the American dream, how remarkable it is when they can find any kind of success. 

We are all, of course, foreigners here if we go back far enough, unless we have indigenous lineage. But Chung doesn’t make the mistake of saying we’re all the same under the skin. These are closely specific characters. Soon-ja, for instance, seems like a whole and authentic person with quirks and preferences. She isn’t ennobled, though; Chung sees her fondly but not sentimentally. Whatever way you might expect her to be drawn — strict, disapproving, old-school, secretly soft-hearted, the usual clichés — Yeun Yuh-jung steers clear of it. Her Soon-ja seems more easygoing than her daughter; she’d be a good grandma to have, cussing and teaching you card games and getting a little too involved in TV wrestling. Yet the performance is subtle, not an example of the life force, or “when I am an old woman I shall wear purple,” or any of that.

Chung avoids the trap of turning his experience into an omnibus of tropes. Toxic as this concept seems now, when Jacob and Monica argue, we can legitimately see both sides. Neither one is judged for their flaws or blind spots. Minari is named after an edible plant that grows wild; Soon-ja, perhaps out of solidarity with Jacob, plants some minari seeds at a nearby stream. Much is made of water in the film, the need for it, the lack of it, and finally an event that demands it. We could put on our professor hats and note the symbolism and subtext, but that doesn’t seem like an organic way to respond to a slice-of-life story whose teller wants to pay respects to his parents and grandma, who weren’t larger than life, just people playing the hand they were dealt — or dealt themselves.

The Painted Bird

July 26, 2020

painted-bird-3 An intense and prolonged experience about the inhumanity of war, The Painted Bird might take its rightful place as the most prestigious endurance test since 1985’s Come and See. The point of the story, hammered home again and again over the course of two hours and forty-nine minutes, is that war destroys the soul, makes even non-combatants callous and vicious — the subsidiary point, perhaps, being that in war there are no non-combatants. Everyone is drawn into the madness, including our young protagonist (Petr Kotlár), nameless for most of the film. We begin in medias res, with the boy running through woods, carrying a small fuzzy animal (a ferret?). Some young bullies catch up to the boy; they beat him and incinerate the animal. Welcome to The Painted Bird, where even small gestures of mercy and kindness are tainted and ambiguous. Mostly, people are beasts to one another.

The movie is based on the much-debated 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński, whose World War II experiences, it turned out, did not inform the book; some even doubted that he himself wrote it. Still, Kosiński — like Come and See’s Elem Klimov after him — fashioned a ghastly rat-trap reality that ground innocence under the treads of tanks. The eerie thing about the movie is that so many of its settings are rural and almost primeval it’s jarring when a plane or jeep or even a train shows up. The boy wanders through endless villages and is set upon by peasants, perverts (pedophiles of both genders), and fellow castaways of the war. The closest thing to a laugh in the entire epic is when the boy performs an act of animal cruelty to get even with a teenage girl who has abused him.

But then the whole enterprise is about cruelty in all its forms. At the risk of sounding impatient, I think The Painted Bird might have dealt subtler and sharper damage to our psyche less about 45 minutes; the constant and endless litany of offenses to our young hero becomes numbing and borderline ludicrous, which is a problem inherent in an anecdotal structure allowed to stretch out at epic length. The boy meets someone new, and you sigh and wonder how this person is going to screw him over, literally or figuratively. Occasionally someone like a kindly if clueless priest (Harvey Keitel) or a Russian sniper (Barry Pepper) happens along and takes the boy under his wing. (The American actors seem to be sounding out their dialogue phonetically in Interslav or Russian or whatever, and then someone else dubs them over. It works; it gets us away from Barry Pepper attempting a Russian accent, anyway.) Aleksei Kravchenko, once the 16-year-old star of Come and See, turns up as a Russian officer and seems to be passing the baton of suffering on to Petr Kotlár, a Czech-Romani newcomer who spent his tenth and eleventh years on the set. Kotlár holds this fierce beast of a movie together despite almost no dialogue.

Unlike Elem Klimov, the Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul allows us mitigating artistry and even beauty to offset the human ugliness. (Udo Kier comes in to do his thing, using a spoon.) Vladimír Smutný’s black-and-white photography is sumptuous, even bucolic at times; the restful country landscapes, if anything, are more chilling for the sense they give of turning their backs on carnage and sadism. You can die out there in the open air and nobody will care; you’ll be rolled into a grave or become a toy for crows. The title refers to a bit where a man daubs white paint onto a bird and lets it fly off, whereupon its fellows peck it to death in mid-air. Humans, nature — the portrait of indifference to pain and need is distressingly complete. The Painted Bird is artful, if not quite art — it needs finer threads in its tapestry than just “People suck” — but it’s without a doubt a masterwork that you will most likely give exactly one evening of your life, if that.

Come and See

February 23, 2020

come-and-see“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity,” wrote World War I poet Wilfred Owen, not long before he was killed in action at age 25. This also is the subject of the 1985 Russian World War II film Come and See, now touring the country in a newly restored print. Come and See, the fifth and final movie by director Elem Klimov, has a reputation for being hard to endure, but not because of any violence. There is some, near the end, and it is repulsive. But most of the film zeroes in on the grime and filth and desperation of war, the despairing moments in between the spasms of brutality, and the intolerable dread of inevitable apocalypse.

We’re in Belarus, 1943, and the ragtag resistance is doing what it can against the Nazi machine. We experience almost all of the nightmare through the eyes of Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko), a 14-year-old who gets conscripted into the partisan ranks. Flyora doesn’t say much, but his features, dumbstruck with terror and disbelief, speak eloquently for him. He meets, and for a while accompanies, a girl named Glasha (Olga Mironova). They seem to bond solely by virtue of the agonizing and absurd reality they share. There’s no romance or even infatuation in store. War steamrolls over everything warm and comforting. Glasha may or may not even exist, except as a phantasm of grace and innocence in Flyora’s head.

Again and again we are shown how war reduces victims and victimizers alike to animals, except that animals are generally not so cruel. The narrative is anecdotal and splintered, though smoothly photographed (largely via Steadicam); there’s a bit towards the end, when an SS brigade goes from being boisterously evil and triumphant to being sniveling captives of the partisans, that takes us out of the movie — the part where the Nazis actually get defeated, which happens outside Flyora’s view, is just skipped over. I think Elem Klimov is ruthlessly efficient about what precisely he wants to show and convey. The important part of that whole section of the film — which incorporates the semi-climactic genocidal rage directed at a Belarusian village — isn’t who wins or loses, and how. Everyone loses. It’s the pity of war.

Shot in a squarish aspect ratio, with no concessions made to our need for catharsis or narrative tidiness, Come and See attempts no stylistic dazzlement whatsoever; it barely even has a style. The camera just stares at human faces creased in disgust or fear or devastation. “That is war,” Klimov might be saying, “no more, no less.” It shares more DNA with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc than with any standard war picture (at times, young Aleksei Kravchenko exudes the same frozen torment as Maria Falconetti in the Dreyer film). It’s not overtly political, either. Nobody sits around discussing how inhumane Hitler is, because the entirety of the film’s two hours and sixteen minutes is devoted to moment-to-moment survival. And yet all this stylelessness resolves into a stubborn vision of war as filth and waste, something to be strenuously depicted as the polar opposite of macho, righteous, cool. At its showiest, the filmmaking recreates an idea put forth in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, probably the most unheroic WWII novel ever written, and probably the greatest.

Aside from its 35th anniversary this year, we might wonder why Come and See is being revisited now. It may be a tale of Russian revolt against fascism, but it’s certainly not pro-Russia (or pro-anything). It paints the Nazis as degenerate primate sadists, which is fine, but seems to go a little past the usual such portrayal into caricature, almost. Then you find out the Nazis in the film are based on the real Dirlewanger Brigade, whose atrocities were so extreme that even some fellow Nazis found them over the top. These psychos burn an entire village alive inside a church, then get drunk or stuff their faces, as if at a tailgate party, in between bouts of rape and other assorted cruelties. When the tables are turned, they promptly throw each other under the bus and beg for their lives, while the saturnine partisan leader (Liubomiras Laucevičius, looking like Oscar Isaac in a bad mood) glowers — there are not very fine people on both sides here. The stoic commander is the one instance that Klimov allows himself some conventional war iconography, but at that point, I have to say, he has earned it. Most of the movie comes as close to what war must be like for the civilians caught in its midst as we would ever want to get.

Parasite

January 5, 2020

parasitefilm It’s clear pretty early on that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite — which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes and may yet claim more trophies this awards season — isn’t meant to be taken literally. Taken seriously, yes, but not literally. The narrative has many, many moving parts, but the parts are also combustible, and they’re all arranged to detonate on cue for maximum damage. Bong makes you feel as though you’d damn well better catch every little detail, every flourish and filigree, because it’s all inexorably marching towards something. But that destination can’t be guessed at or controlled — it’s chaotic and brutal, and only retrospectively makes sense.

Parasite is yet another movie that demands to be evoked, not described (as a plot synopsis would just ruin the experience). Put simply, it’s the story of two families. One family, just scraping by, lives cramped together in a “semi-basement” apartment of the sort common in urban Korea. The other family is wealthy, and one of their bedrooms would probably take up as much space as the poorer family’s entire living area. Each family is perfectly nuclear — man, woman, boy, girl — and the son from the poor family gets himself hired to tutor the daughter from the rich family. And it doesn’t stop there; in short order, each member of the poor family ends up working for the rich family, none of whom realize their new employees are all related.

Okay, that’s a little far-fetched. It’s also narratively convenient; some of it depends on just the right character hearing just the right bit of information. But the point Bong wants us to get is how the families respond to each opening. Nitpick Parasite if you must, but you’ll be watching a different movie from the one Bong has made. The actual movie underneath all the ornate plot scaffolding has a lot of questions, some of which it can’t answer, though art isn’t built to answer questions but to pose them. Bong asks, first and foremost, what prosperity is built on, and how far down the hierarchy goes (not how far up). You may feel the boot of the oppressor on your neck, but are you also oppressing someone just by virtue of what you have and what they don’t? You may not intend to oppress, but in truth, few actively seek to do so — the ones who have more, and who oppress more, just benefit from a certain moral laxity, a willingness to tune out the screams and wails coming from below. In our culture of late, we have discussed white privilege, and how it doesn’t mean a white person’s life is easy in every way, just that it’s easier in every way than a comparable person of color’s life is. And there are privileges among the less privileged, too: a hetero African-American man enjoys freedoms that a gay African-American woman does not. And both have it easier than a disabled African-American does. They share one aspect of experience, blackness, but in other respects are not alike.

So that’s what Parasite is about, but it’s also about the duelling production designs of the poor family’s packed but lived-in pad and the rich family’s expansive but sparse rooms, including a vast living room whose vast window looks out onto a vast backyard, where the climax unfolds in such an abrupt series of feints and jabs that we may want to stop the film and go back — we don’t feel ready for it, even though we know we’re on an accelerating ride into the inferno. One action during the climax isn’t readable at first glance because, in the moment, we see the father of the poor family the way the father of the rich family sees him: not as a father but as a driver. But then we say, No, he’s a father, and what he does makes some sort of sense.

Parasite will drive the literal-minded around the bend, because its events pile up and sometimes recall the ruthless structure of a sitcom, or a slamming-door farce like Noises Off. Much is made of the smell of the underclass, or the rich little boy’s American Indian fantasies into which the grown men of both families are conscripted, or water as a harbinger of disaster and forestalled revelation. The movie is also a lot of smooth fun to watch, Bong being an entertainer above most else. Parasite flips through about ten different genres and takes the best bits of each; it feels like a relaxing buffet that expresses and sparks a love of cinema. Some of the suspense and incidents rubbed me the wrong way while I was watching, but in memory they gain stature and gravitas. Finally, it stakes its claim as a Juvenalian satire in which products are more than once praised because “we ordered it from America,” but we Americans probably shouldn’t take that as a compliment.

Roma

January 27, 2019

roma Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, considered the front-runner among the eight films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, comes pre-packaged with all sorts of hype about how personal and autobiographical it is for Cuarón and how artfully it has been realized. Every frame of the film could be isolated and hung on a wall, and maybe that’s what should be done with it. Roma is a beautiful boring movie. Cuarón’s laborious technique gets between us and the emotions we’re supposed to be drawing from the screen. What’s sad is that, after the accolades and awards, a fair number of people who actually sit through the thing may feel they’re the ones at fault, not refined enough to appreciate such a monumental work. To such viewers I can only say, It’s not your fault.

In outline it’s a nostalgic sketch set in 1970, when Cuarón was eight or nine, based on his family’s life in Colonia Roma, an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City. The movie is dedicated to the family’s maid back then, named Cleo here and played (well and honestly) by novice actress Yalitza Aparicio. Cleo works for an educated, professional couple, whose relationship is on the rocks, and their four kids. She gets pregnant by a ne’er-do-well who, when she tells him the news, ditches her in a movie theater; the drama between them is upstaged by the far less fancy film showing on the screen (La Grande Vadrouille, a French war comedy) — my attention kept wandering to it. At least the movie within the movie moves.

Most of Roma is photographed (by Cuarón himself) in long shot, in lengthy takes. Some of the press has identified various aesthetic reasons for this, but it just keeps everything at a literal distance from us, and there’s a practical reason for the glacial pace — Cuarón wants you to see Roma in massive 70mm, the film fetishist’s preferred format (well, that or 16mm), and when you compose and edit for an image that large, the cuts can’t come too fast and furious or the movie will make everyone throw up. Meanwhile, on the home screen, which is where most of us will see Roma, it just feels pompously, pointlessly long. “Why are we watching Cleo walking this whole goddamn way,” I would gripe to myself, or “Oh goody, another slow pan across nothing much happening while yet another airplane passes meaningfully overhead.” There’s a scene where Cleo goes to find her slimy baby daddy at a martial-arts training class, and I swear we have to sit through what feels like 45 minutes of a bunch of guys doing wrathful martial-arts poses before we get to the point of the scene, which is him saying he wants nothing to do with the baby. The scene could’ve unfolded in a Burger King bathroom, but that wouldn’t have been as visually, Oscar-baitingly impressive.

I’m sorry; this all sounds harsh. Roma is, for me, a failure, but one on a higher level than a superhero movie or romcom that fails. It swings for the fences and whiffs, a big whistling whiff, but at least it swings. It’s not a cowardly bunt, and the emotionally transparent Yalitza Aparicio sustains us through a lot of it, with Marina de Tavira picking up slack as the family’s sad and angry mother. Roma has its too-facile plot points, like the revelation immediately preceding Cleo’s water breaking, and the dramatic sequence following it is blunted by, once again, Cuarón being extremely artful and clever with the camera placement. The water breaking is part of the film’s rampant water imagery, starting with the opening titles, with a window reflected off wet floor tiles — the movie is visually grandiloquent before it’s two minutes old. Every director has a polished nostalgic turd like this in them, and Roma is Cuarón’s. Now, perhaps, he can stop telling us what an artist he is and return to proving it.

Cold War

December 30, 2018

coldwar Together with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Paweł Pawlikowski’s latest work of beauty Cold War reminds modern viewers how lovely and, yes, roomy a film shot in the old, squarish Academy ratio can look. Towards the end, when the film’s star-crossed lovers are dropped off by a bus beneath a massive tree, they are dwarfed by it in a way they couldn’t be in a more conventional rectangular composition. Events global and intimate weigh on the protagonists, and the images (with the help of cinematographer Łukasz Żal), with their cavernous head room, imply that the very atmosphere itself is pressing down on the people.

Cold War, loosely inspired by the story of Pawlikowski’s parents, runs a brisk 88 minutes (including six or so minutes of end credits) and spans fifteen years. The next time some hot-shot blockbuster director brings a superhero movie in at north of two (or even two and a half) hours and tries to tell you the epic length is necessary, show them Cold War, which despite its brevity allows itself plenty of breathing room for ambiguity and elliptical storytelling. The couple, singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), run across each other various times over the decade and a half, in Poland, in Moscow, in Berlin and Yugoslavia and Paris. Each encounter seems to make the same point about how they’re not meant for anyone else but can’t live together either.

The film’s approach to the romance (if that is the word) is a bit distanced, as though Pawlikowski had no idea what drew and bound together his own disputatious parents. Maybe he made the movie in order to find out, but I don’t think he succeeded, if so. The movie makes better sense as a metaphor for conflicting values or temperaments; she is art, he is business, she is confidence, he is fear, she is flexible, he is rigid. Most importantly, he defects to France and becomes a peripatetic session musician, while she legally goes wherever her ensemble goes and eventually builds a solo career. During all this, the music starts with peasant-authentic folk, then shifts to state-approved odes to authority, then jazz, then rock and roll; we see the evolution (or devolution, as some at the time would have said) of pop music in the mid-20th century.

Cold War has a classical old-Hollywood chiaroscuro sheen. Its black-and-white images heighten the starkness of the European settings during the titular era (1949-1964). It has its thematic and aesthetic ducks in a row; it’s an understated achievement of great elegance and awareness of the intractable illogic of people. As cinema, it’s near perfect, but there’s many another schlockier romance that actually makes us care about its lovers. Maybe if you go too far down the road of art you have to leave the basics of manipulation and pathos behind, the narrative beats that pull emotions out of us whether or not we want them to. Cold War doesn’t do that. It leaves us with a vague sadness about what might have been, and we sort of have to climb into the movie and flesh it out — imagine the dialogue we’re not privy to, the connective scenes of standard affection and attraction Pawlikowski artfully leaves out. In brief, Cold War rings the bells that respond to a gorgeous brushstroke, but ignores the basic matinee-goer’s desire to know why the boy and the girl get together, should be together, are destined to stay together.