Tag Archives: review

PARASITE (2019) (W)

My fellow attendees walked out of the cinema with grins on their faces — “a superb black comedy!” “uplifting!” “they were resilient!” — while I left in a fug of depression, convinced both families were locked into their respective prisons (one gilded, one grimy) doomed to fight their private battles in the tight limitations of capitalism. It seems Bong had ambitions of provoking both responses, a serious commentary and a work of farce. Clearly he has succeeded. But, as you may also feel about the cultural appropriation of native American tropes near the end, I have reservations.

PARASITE’s key shortcoming is its failure to properly engage with the poor family’s poverty. They are so hard up as to have had all their phones disconnected, and so beaten down by their situation that they lie around their semi-basement in a stupor. Then, when the plot-driving opportunity to tutor a rich student presents itself, they suddenly have access to a hair and wardrobe department — actually, the daughter’s locks are fabulous from the first scene — and the iron confidence of high-stakes scammers. At that benighted level of society, tasks like getting a new phone contract take on Herculean impossibility, let alone showing up at a prospective employer’s workplace with a suit, a tie, and a memorised script to convince the rich man you belong in the support structure of his world.

I never believed their situation was as desperate as it looked because they were able to extract themselves from it so easily. When they do literally lose everything, they are back on their feet within hours. It’s too convenient.

Pity, because so much about this film is compelling. I could almost feel the impersonal chill of that art gallery of a home, the expensive fabric draped around the rich mother’s shoulders — who, incidentally, is the most complete and consistent character, also in a stupor when introduced. The schemes to establish the illusion are superbly executed. A scene in which a character smokes a cigarette on a toilet achieves a rare and ugly beauty. The film’s final lines beautifully express the fantasy of overcoming poverty while also addressing how much easier it ought to be.

I just wish it had tried harder to examine the reality of life in the underclass, especially as it tosses the rich family to the curb in its final act. Which suggests Bong, himself a rich man, is on the side of the poor, disinterested in telling the full story of what our society does to the wealthy, desperate to present how it keeps so many people down, but not sufficiently motivated to tackle the paralysing breadth of their predicament.

Originally posted as a ★★★½ review of Parasite on Letterboxd https://boxd.it/XfYz7

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Empathic pain response: Green Room (2015)

Green Room chessboard floor

Image by Angela Wolf (Flickr)

There are many more gruesome deaths in Green Room, but for some reason — I can’t explain why — the one that really got me was the machete to the throat. This poor sucker, whose red laces mark him out as a neo-Nazi redshirt, gets one shotgun blast away before being incapacitated by a mic stand. One of our heroes charges at him, blade in hand, and strikes one vicious blow to the left side of his neck. The shotgun falls to the floor, and as blood drains from the wound, his body follows.

A few seconds after the machete struck his flesh, I felt a pain in the exact same spot on my neck. Left side, about four inches across. The pain lingered through the rest of the film, through the drive home — through the rest of the night until I went to bed and fell asleep. As I write this, a full 24 hours after leaving the theatre, recollection of that scene brings the pain back. It’s the first time a film has provoked such a strong mirror neuron response in me.

But why that particular wounding? To a minor character, and in a comparatively minor fashion? I don’t know. That’s the sort of response Green Room wrings from you: visceral, unexpected, disorienting. It expertly builds and maintains tension, populates the screen with memorable and believable characters, and shows you the ‘how’ of what’s happening without muddying the waters with the ‘why’. It delivers the thrills you expect without pandering. It’s a genre classic.

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The greatest love of all: Toni Erdmann (2016)

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Image via jvc (Flickr)

I’m reminded of the efforts to sell The Death of Mr Lazarescu as a comedy because it didn’t fit into any other marketable box. Toni Erdmann is not a comedy, and the ‘prankster’ father present in every synopsis barely resembles the Winfried/Toni Erdmann we meet in the film. No, this is a deeply depressed and bitter film, filled with frustration at what market forces and globalisation are doing to people of all ages and at all levels of society.

As the father and daughter, Sinonischek and Huller give us two of the saddest characters of 21st Century film. The seams that hold their lives could tear at any moment, and they can keep from falling apart for a while, but the time will come when they realise there is no point trying any more and they might as well have a full breakdown. Winfried is a failed husband and failed father, blundering through one encounter after another, his alienation becoming his defining characteristic. Ines is an exceptionally competent business consultant, capable of turning her own blunders into leverage in a heartbeat, and the fact that she is so good at her job has stripped away everything else, turned her into an emotional husk, alternately raw and unfeeling. They both need a hug.

Thankfully, director Ade has a lot of warmth towards these characters. Perhaps it would have been more of a comedy if she didn’t. But she works so hard to make you care about them, and the actors give all they have, especially Huller. You so want them to connect with each other, or with anything, really, and it’s so hard to see them keep missing. It’s a better, more excruciating film for that warmth.

Did I say it wasn’t funny? Oh, no, it’s funny. It’s piss-funny in places, especially in the final hour. The situations are funny, expertly written and performed to get the laughs, but you’re relieved as much as amused. A few moments are profoundly moving and funny at the same time.

Will they be okay, though? Probably not. The world isn’t getting any friendlier. Toni Erdmann is a remarkable film for our times, one that I may one day call great.

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Respect: Tower (2016)

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Image via wattsbw2004 (Flickr)

I spent a lot of the running time of Tower wondering: why make this film? A terrible mass murder happened 50 years ago, and in the reporting of the outstanding Texas Monthly journalist Pamela Colloff, definitive records of the events already exist. So why film one of those pieces? And why animate it? And why drag the survivors through it one more time?

In retrospect, I can put a lot of those questions to the side. My suspicion of director Maitland and his team has given way to a kind of grudging respect. Though his treatment of this dreadful subject is a little showy, the extended animated sequences make it seem far more real than straight re-enactments would have, and he takes you inside a mass shooting in a way that no other film I’ve seen has. (The obvious comparison is with Elephant, which is a lesser film by comparison.)

Most importantly, Maitland’s focus is squarely on the survivors. The ultimate point is the correct number of times for this story to be told — Colloff or not — is however many times the survivors are willing to tell it. This film witnesses their suffering and bravery, something they were largely denied at the time. That alone makes it worthwhile.

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No budget, no genre, no problem: Chronesthesia (2016)

Chronesthesia

Image by glix (Flickr)

I found lots to like about Chronesthesia.

The high-concept premise seems like a gimmick at first, but it earns its big climax and all the editing trickery along the way. The ‘mental time travel’ idea is both a way into the story and an effective means of pushing it forward.

The characters are well-realised people, from youngest to oldest, and their conversations feel authentic, whether they’re meeting cute or arguing, whether or not they’re generations apart. You really feel an emotional investment by actor/director/editor/writer Weal in all of them, even in the smaller supporting roles, and he deserves extra credit for that, especially as he is the star of the film and in nearly every scene. It could so easily have been a straight-up vanity project. Perhaps he realised the quality of the talent opposite him and decided to give them room to do their thing.

Wellington looks marvellous. We already knew that, but Duncombe’s cinematography shows it off in style. Because this is a no-budget film, I also have to mention the sound quality, which is impeccable.

This is a rare film that takes mental illness seriously, to the point that large chunks of dialogue explore its effects on and place in society. A character with mental illness is treated with consistent respect, despite at times being a potential danger to the people around him. Not just a plot device after all!

The only thing I would change is the title. Being a New Zealand film, and hence a product of British English, it should be ‘Chronaesthesia’. But I’ll give them a pass if it gets them an American distribution deal.

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The audacity of hope: Tanna (2015)

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Photo by sydneydawg2006 (Flickr)

The Romeo and Juliet comparison is obligatory, so let’s get that out of the way.

But no, really, Tanna is a lot like Romeo and Juliet. Except it’s set in tribal lands in Vanuatu, where residents have rejected money, Christianity, democracy, and t-shirts, instead choosing a traditional life. And this story really happened, only a few decades ago.

And instead of going all in with the tragedy, it ends with hope — the hope that if you look at the consequences of certain customs, and see how tragic they can be, you can find another way. The hope of charismatic and thoughtful leadership, with speeches backed by action. The hope that minds can change.

It’s so easy to be cynical about such sentiments. You hear them so often from politicians and they so rarely amount to anything tangible. But that’s truly how Tanna made me feel! I would never want to live the way the Yakel do, but I think we can all learn something from them, or at least be reminded of how we are capable of learning.

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Desert island dudes: The Red Turtle (2016)

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Image by chaitanyak (Flickr)

A very interesting test.

Here is a film that looks stunning, boldly limits itself (there is no dialogue) but still succeeds narratively and thematically, and tells a moving and memorable story.

A quarter of the way through, the protagonist flies into a rage and commits a surprisingly cruel act of violence. The other characters in the film forgive him for this, and he attempts to atone for what he has done.

But can you, the audience member, forgive him? Can you accept that act, or put it to the side, and enjoy the rest of the film on its own terms? Can you look at him go on living and loving without shaking your head and tutting?

I’m kind of on the fence, which probably means no, I can’t forgive him. Even though it’s all a fantasy, and even though I was genuinely touched by the lifelong love at the film’s core.

You should forget all this and just see it. It’s worth seeing. Then let me know what you think.

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Manifest destinies: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

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The church. Image via drmvm1 (Flickr)

Altman’s thoughts on the American Dream, so fully realised in Nashville, are also central to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In their efforts to find fortune at the frontier, Beatty’s McCabe and Christie’s Mrs. Miller are two sides of the same flawed coin: one a projection of self-belief with few smarts to back it up, the other jaded (and drug-addicted) but knowledgeable and streetwise. Their manifest destinies lie not in ever-expanding fortunes but at the end of a gun wielded by a more ruthless and powerful man, and at the end of an opium pipe.

The American Dream theme goes beyond the business partnership at the film’s core. Sheehan, proprietor of the local tavern, is a committed small-timer, quick to cosy up to any man who acts a little bigger or smarter than he is. All the women in the film are ultimately objects, but within that limited scope of their possible lives, they find value in themselves and in each other. There’s even a moment in which the town’s only black residents, having just joined in a community effort to put out a fire, shuffle hastily away as raucous celebrations begin. Better not stick around in case things get ugly.

And as a whole, McCabe & Mrs. Miller feels cobbled together, as though Altman didn’t quite get all the shots he needed and had to improvise in the editing. But whatever limitations were imposed on his production — whether by the weather, the studio, or the disgruntled star — ultimately serve to improve the film as an artistic statement.

I recall being enchanted by this film when I first saw it, despite its deep sadness. And I found it just as enchanting on a second viewing — not only for the perfect marriage between Vilmos Zsigmond’s images and Leonard Cohen’s music, but also for the lighter touches. The town drunk dances sloppily on a frozen pond. The barman muses about how best to groom his beard. Everyone’s got to kill time somehow.

That’s the way it goes. You work and you kill time until your number’s up, and along the way, you try to find some beauty in it all. Some meaning. This film has both, in spades.

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A study in disappointment: Tokyo Story (1953)

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Sake. Photo by cleber (Flickr)

It is our nature to disappoint ourselves, and each other; to fall short of expectations, over and over, until we accept our flaws and lower the bar. We cannot bank on others to be there when we need them; to act nobly and selflessly in times of trial. Likewise, we cannot hold ourselves up as paragons of humanity because in the end, we all have a limit at which we give up and go back to looking out for ourselves. Everyone has to go back to work eventually.

***

So, there were three guys sitting next to each other in the front row. Two of them knew each other, the third was a stranger. For the first half hour or so, the older guy of the two who knew each other kept murmuring comments to his friend, and eventually, the third guy shushed him loudly. The older guy stopped murmuring and stared at the third guy, the guy he didn’t know, in what I judged to be a mixture of disbelief and rage. I readied myself to jump the row of seats and wade into the fight, but he calmed down and went back to watching the movie, and he didn’t talk again.

***

The classic, knockout, heartbreaker exchange in Tokyo Story comes near the end, between the naive and good-natured youngest sister and the ceaselessly graceful and understanding sister-in-law, who is ultimately the core of the film.

“Isn’t life disappointing?” says the younger sister.
“Yes, it is,” says the sister-in-law with a smile.

I waited for the subtly momentous emotional release of these lines throughout the film. I looked forward to the encapsulation of the entire film in Setsuko Hara’s beatific smile. And when they arrived, about half the audience laughed, including the guy right next to me.

I suppose it is kind of amusing, in an absurd way. The total acceptance of the sister-in-law is so at odds with our base nature that it seems unbelievable. And there’s the culture clash between 1950s Japan and 2010s NZ, one concerned with long working hours and emotional reserve, the other with mental health days and instant gratification.

And I suppose it was fitting that my expectations for that scene were disappointed by the reaction of my fellow cinema patrons.

***

I first saw Tokyo Story when I was 19 and didn’t really get it, though I could acknowledge how formally magnificent it was; a perfect technical expression of an artist’s vision within the limits of the medium. I’m now 31 and have a lot more first-hand knowledge of the various disappointments we are destined to experience, and of my own inherently flawed nature. The film’s central premise is therefore closer to my grasp, and exquisitely expressed in the writing, and by the actors, who perform their roles with a rare mix of functionality and precision.

This is a great film in every way.

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AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE: The Observer

(via nziff.co.nz)AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE
directed by Gerard Smyth
Interview on Radio New Zealand Nine to Noon, 23 July 2014

The film opens with Jean Watson, eighty, her face creased with river-like wrinkles, wandering around the streets of Kanyakumari and lowering herself into the ocean as dozens of young Indian boys (and a camera) look on. My first thought — I couldn’t help myself — was ‘I’ve swum in that ocean!’ And I had, a strange trip in 2009 during which my then-girlfriend was groped repeatedly and I lacerated my feet on sharp underwater rocks. It’s a beautiful location, revered by many as the point where three seas meet, but my memories of it aren’t entirely positive. No such problems for Jean Aunty, though, who wanders through it all with the same inscrutable expression on her face, and who emerges from the water cleansed and energised, ready for the next challenge.

I hadn’t heard of Jean Watson before seeing AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE, and I expect many New Zealanders won’t have heard of her either, despite her many published novels, her long romance with Barry Crump, and her considerable humanitarian work in India. Watson is one of life’s observers, regularly found at the extreme right or left of group photographs, peering into the camera with the same watchful eye she casts over her surroundings. She is an intrepid,  self-effacing realist, moving through life without fanfare; even in a South Indian village, where any foreigner is met with prolonged stares and chatter, she seems capable of blending into the background. Her decades of involvement in improving young boys’ and girls’ lives in India prove that you don’t need to be romantic to be idealistic; she sees the world as it is, not for what it could be, and tries to make it better.

Watson is the chief benefactor of Karunai Illam, which was set up in the late 1980s and which offers orphaned children the value of routine. Rather than being left to scratch around the streets on their own, or bounced from orphanage to orphanage, Karunai Illam gets them out of bed and brushing their teeth at the same time every day before filling them up with a hot meal and sending them off to school. These are children for whom deceased parents are merely a fact of life. But they look healthy, and happy, and show an abundance of curiosity about the world.

In fact, given their aspirations to become doctors and engineers, it’s slightly frustrating that so many of director Gerard Smyth’s questions to the girls revolve around marriage. This feels like a missed opportunity to gain more insight into their deeper thoughts. But marriage and reproduction are also a huge factor in the kids’ lives, an inevitability for many, and probably at a young age; it’s understandable that it might be at the forefront of their minds. And apart from this, Smyth does a fine job of taking us inside Watson’s two worlds: her anonymous writer’s life in Wellington and her status as life-changer for hundreds of children in Nilakkottai.

Apart from Watson and the kids, the other person seen most often in AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE is Joy Cowley, an old friend of Watson’s and — through her innumerable and widely popular children’s books — a friend to almost every New Zealander. Where Watson’s insights are plain-spoken and straightforward, Cowley’s are effortlessly elegant and warm. She has a gift for language and, apparently, great reserves of empathy and generosity. She is a joy to spend a little time with. I can’t wait for the film about her.

Learn more about Karunai Illam — and, if you like, donate to the organisation — here.

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