Category Archives: Movie Reviews: 2019

Movie Review: Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

Portrait Lady Fire

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a story about a painter, played by Noemie Merlant (right) and her hurting subject, played by Adele Haenel (left).

With all this free time thanks to the COVID pandemic, it gave me a good chance to catch up on a lot of things undone. One of which was write reviews for films I didn’t review soon enough the first time. One such film is Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. I saw it in its entirety shortly after the Oscars. It’s a film that’s intriguing to watch.

The film begins with a painting class for young women. The teacher is Marianne, an acclaimed painter. The students are to paint a portrait of her. One of her students notices one of her paintings: that of a woman with her dress on fire. She asks Marianne what it’s titled. She responds “Portrait of a lady on fire.”

The film flashes to years earlier, when a man in a rowboat rows Marianne to a remote island in Brittany. She is commissioned to paint a portrait of a noblewoman named Heloise who is to be married off to Milanese nobleman. Her mother, the Countess, will allow her to stay in the building and be served by the maid Sophie. Painting Heloise will be a tricky thing. She does not want to pose for paintings as she does not want to be married off. She attended a convent, but her sister’s suicide prompted her return and her engagement.

Marianne decides it is possible. She just has to act as her companion and remember her features in order to paint her in secret. However Marianne notices the hurt inside Heloise as Heloise tries to jump off a cliff to her death. Marianne successfully stops her. Over time, Heloise learns of Marianne’s artistic passions including playing on the harpsichord. Marianne plays her the Presto of summer for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Heloise is captivated with it.

Marianne finishes the portrait, but feels she has to let Heloise know the truth of why she’s here. Heloise is critical of the painting and Marianne destroys it promptly. To the surprise of her mother, who is about to leave for Italy for some time, Heloise is willing to have Marianne do a portrait of her.

Over time as Marianne paints the portrait of Heloise, their bond grows. Especially over the reading of Orpheus and Eurydice. The maid Sophie reveals she’s pregnant and doesn’t want the baby. The two help her have an abortion through violent exercise. Sophie is included in the friendship with the two. The three go to a bonfire surrounded by women as they sing. It’s there Marianne sees Heloise with her dress on fire. Overnight, Marianne is haunted by images of Heloise in a wedding dress.

It’s when the two are alone together in a cave that Marianne confesses her love to Heloise. The two share their first kiss. The romance grows as Marianne continues with the portrait of Heloise. Marianne does other artwork too like sketching the performing of the abortion on Sophie and even sketching a naked picture of herself on page 28 in one of Heloise’s books, by her request. However the fun is cut short as Heloise’s mother returns. The portrait is completed and both Heloise and the Countess are happy with what they see.

SPOILER WARNING: Ending Revealed In This Paragraph. Marianne is about to leave with her work being completed, but then sees Heloise one last time: in a wedding dress just like in her dream. Marianne says she did see her twice since. The first time in a painting of her with her child and a book open to page 28. The second time was from a distance at a symphony concert. She could see from a distance she was overcome with emotion when the Summer suite of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was played.

There’s no question the film is LGBT themed. The film is a fictional story. Nevertheless it does tell a lot in what it shows. It’s a chance meeting between a painter and her reluctant hurting subject. It’s after the mother leaves that the place goes from a place under control to the place the three women can live out the lives they were meant to live. It’s there Heloise can reveal she’s a lesbian like Marianne and she loves her. It’s there when a pregnant Sophie can have her baby aborted at her will. It’s also a place where the common women all gather together at a bonfire and sing. It almost feels like a ‘womyn’s’ film. However it tells more. The women know that once the mother returns, everything will be back to the way it was. Marianne knows her love that was meant to be can’t be. And so does Heloise. We shouldn’t forget that even though this is a fictional story, this was a time when same-sex love was criminalized and abortion was illegal.

Another element of the film is how the story tells itself through art. It may be about a painter who’s hired to paint her subject, but it’s like art of all kind is important for the storytelling. It’s also music that stirs emotion. It’s the discussion about Orpheus and Eurydice between the two. It’s the various drawings Marianne did. It’s of the painting of Heloise that would reveal who her true love was. The mix of various forms of art and feeling, both of passion and of hurt, come into telling the story of this film. Even the bonfire song where the women celebrate, but Heloise makes obvious is still hurting inside, plays an important role. The scene where Heloise’s dress is burning, but she acts like she’s unaffected will remind you why it’s not the dress on fire but the lady on fire.

This film was out during the VIFF. I only saw the last half of it because I was busy during ushering during the first half. That’s why I don’t include it as part of my VIFF reviews. It was only in February just after the Oscars that I finally saw it in its entirety. I’m glad there was a second chance to see it. It’s too bad it was completely snubbed out of the Oscars. For those wondering what France’s entry for the Oscar of Best Foreign Language Film was, it was Les Miserables and it was nominated. This film however was a nominee for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Best Screenplay Award.

Top acclaim should be given to director/writer Celine Sciamma. A lesbian herself, she did a very good job not just bringing her story to life but also creating an array of imagery and adding an atmosphere to it. It’s quite an experience to watch. The acting from the two main actresses, Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel were excellent too. You could tell as much from their moments of silence as you can from their moments of dialogue. It will also leave you undecided which of the two is the lead actress, or if they’re both the lead actresses. Luama Bajrami is also a good addition to the film. She slowly makes her presence in. The biggest quality of the film is the cinematography from Claire Mathon. Her cinematography added the color and the feel to the film and has a lot to do with its excellence.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a one-of-a-kind film that showcases great cinematography and allows for the images to contribute a lot to the storytelling. It’s a fictional story that’s very picturesque and worth admiring.

Oscars 2019 Shorts Review: Animation, Live-Action and Documentary

Cinema

This year marked another year I was able to see the Oscar-nominated shorts in the Animation and Live-Action categories. This year was also the very first year I was able to see the nominated Documentary shorts. That’s my Oscar milestone for this year. Here are my reviews of the films:

LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILMS

Two films are set in Middle eastern countries. One is set in Central America. One is set in Belgium while one is set in New York City. Three are dramas from start to finish. One starts as a comedy, but ends in dramatic fashion. One is a comedy from start to finish. Here are my thoughts on the live-action shorts nominees:

Brotherhood: dirs. Meryam Joobeur and Maria Gracia Turgeon – This is a story set in Tunisia. Two brothers are awaiting their older brother Aladinne to return from Syria. The father Muhamad appears to be looking forward to this. The brother returns. However he reveals Aladinne’s now married to a teenaged Syrian woman who is pregnant. The father is suspicious of Aladinne, fearing he may have joined ISIL in Syria. Muhamad makes a phone call Over time though, truths come out from both Aladinne to his other brothers over by the beach and to Muhamad though the wife. Including the truth about her pregnancy. The ending will leave one asking questions.

This is a relevant story as it is a situation that’s possibly happening in families in the Middle East now. It leads one thinking which brotherhood Aladinne is part of: his blood brothers or the ‘brotherhood’ of a terrorist group. It’s a story that gets one thinking. That’s why I predict it as my Will Win pick.

Nefta Football Club: dirs. Yves Piat and Damien Megherbi – The film begins with two men in the hills of Algeria who lost a donkey. It then leads into two brothers on a motor bike arguing over who the best footballer is. Then to a group of boys playing in a nearby football club. The boys get into an argument where the out-of-bounds is as there are no lines. The younger brother has to stop to urinate. After he’s finished, he notices the stray donkey who has earphones tuned into Saharan music. The older brother notices bags of cocaine with the donkey. The older brother decides to sell it but keep it secret. The two men are baffled. Especially one man who put the music onto Hadel instead of Adele. The older brother tries to sell it but something goes wrong. The ending will leave all surprised, and delighted.

This short was actually the last of the five that were shown. Knowing how the previous four had dark or tragic stories, you will expect something terrible or tragic to happen. You might even anticipate a social message out of this. I think those of us watching all needed some comic relief! It will make you glad this film is last in running order. End on a positive note.

The Neighbors’ Window: dir. Marshall Curry – Alli and Jacob are a middle-aged couple with two preschool-aged children and expecting a third soon. They live in a block of apartments in New York. They notice there is a young couple that moved into the apartment right across from them. Their window is a view to their apartment and they notice the two naked and making love. Did they forget to put up the drapes already? Three months pass. Alli gave birth to their third child. Jacob works from home and has a perfect view to watch the couple from the window as he works. That gets on Alli’s nerves. During Christmas, the Alli and Jacob have a family Christmas while that couple have a big party. Soon Alli becomes the voyeur. She notices the man has a bald head. Jacob thinks she shaved it. Soon it becomes evident he’s sick as he can be seen from his bed. Eventually Alli and the woman connect, but through unfortunate circumstances.

This is a film of a story where time elapses over eighteen months. It starts simply as a story of two voyeurs. Then it leads into a story of a couple who get reminded how much they miss their young-and-stupid days when they see those two having fun. The fun ends when sadder truths become obvious. I think the point of the story is to remind us of our own judgementality and even how prone we are to compare ourselves to others and making ourselves feel inferior without knowing the truth. It speaks volumes.

Saria: dirs. Bryan Buckley and Matt Lefebvre – The film begins in an orphanage one day in March 2017 in Guatemala. The fifty-one girls are woken up by the leader. The leader acts as the teacher. Before classes Saria learns that her sister has fallen in love with a male from the orphanage named Appo. During class Saria says a comment of defiance. This angers the teacher so much, she commands her to the guard who has her raped and beaten. Ximena learns from Saria that she and Appo have a plan to escape and walk to the United States for freedom. The opportunity arises when the girls hold a protest over the dirty and unsafe conditions of the orphanage. During police action, Saria and Ximena make their escape with Appo. However it’s a hopeless cause as the police have then cornered by dogs. Appo decides to throw himself to the dogs for the girls’ safety. All the 51 girls are brought back into a single room with just mattresses and the woman guarding. Two girls plan an escape by using fire, but it fails as the guard ignores them all.

This is a story based on real events. There was a protest over the conditions of the orphanage on March 7, 2017 and there was a planned escape. The girls were locked in that room and there was an escape plan that involved fire. The guard, who was a female, ignored them all until after ten minutes. 41 girls died. There were only ten girls who survived and they exposed the story. It’s not meant to be a true story. Instead it gives the girls who were victims characters and personalities. It exposes a truth of what’s happening in Guatemala while also reminding us these orphan girls were girls with hopes and dreams. I like the humanistic approach to the story. That’s why I call it my Should Win pick.

A Sister: dir. Delphine Girard – The film begins inside a car. The man is driving and the woman appears to be a passenger making a phone call to her sister. The film then goes to the emergency call centre. A woman is picking p this very call. She sorts out the confusion. It’s evident the woman in the car is making an emergency call and disguising it to look like it’s a call to her sister. The woman on the other end tries to work with her and even poses as the sister when the man talks on the line. This sets up for a climactic, but positive, end.

This is a film that keeps the viewer in the moment. There’s what one knows at the start and then what one knows as time goes on. At the same time, it puts the viewer in the intensity of the situation. You know it’s an abduction but the last thing you want is the worst. Throughout the film it’s a case of scenes of the woman and the man in the car and the woman at emergency control. It’s a story that will get you interested once you fully understand it and then keep you in the intensity of the story until the end.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM

Interesting how not a single nominated short is 3D computerized animation. Even the computerized ones are 2D. The 3D ones are all stop-motion. All of them are unique in the stories they have to tell and the styles of animation they display.

Dcera (Daughter): dir. Daria Kashcheeva – The daughter watches her ailing father from his hospital bed. Suddenly a bird crashes through the window of the room. That still bird reminds her of the time she saw a dying bird and tried to get her father to resuscitate it. He was too busy cooking. She was in tears, but it inspired her to make a bird mask. She then remembers the time she was on a subway to a festival where she had to wear red makeup. She refuted and left the subway. He has the mask she made and decides to wear it. Then the film flashes to the present. He’s not in his bed. She then notices he slept with the mask she made. She goes to meet up with her father, who is being taken to surgery. Suddenly he becomes all better and the bird that crashed through is alive, just like that bird in her childhood.

I think the motif of birds can be interpreted in one of two ways: either the girl loves birds or she want to be free as a bird in her life pursuits. The story is told with marvelous artistry through stop motion on knit dolls and paper eyes. The animation style makes the artistry of the film and magnifies the beauty of the story.

Hair Love: dirs. Matthew Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver – A young African-American girl in an apartment wants to style her hair just like the woman in the YouTube video styles it. The man, a neighbor, however tries to style it differently. The girl leaves crying. It isn’t until he sees the drawing and learning that the woman in the instruction video is the girl’s mother that he agrees to do it that way. He watches and does her hair at the same time, and the result is perfection. Then he takes the girl to see her mother in the hospital, in a wheelchair, and bald from chemotherapy.

This is a story that starts as being entertaining during the first half. Then you see the human moments at the very end of the story. The story goes from fun to touching deep down inside with surprising results. This is definitely a heart-warmer for anyone. You have to be hard-hearted not to like it. It will touch anyone who has gone through cancer or knows someone close who is going through cancer. That’s why I give it my Will Win pick.

Kitbull: dirs. Rosanna Sullivan and Kathryn Hendrickson – The film starts with a black stray kitten going throughout the neighborhood. He finds an area near a house full of boxes and wood blocks to make his own shelter. He also learns the owners own a big vicious dog and they keep him chained outside. The dog first wants to make food out of the kitten, but the kitten shows the dog he stands his ground and can fight vicious when provoked. Soon the kitten notices the dog is being abused by the owner. The kitten then sends the message to the dog that he can help him find a way out. Then the two plan their escape together. Soon the dog’s wounds heal and they find themselves adopted by an interracial couple.

This is a film from Pixar that was on the Disney+ channel. I find it surprising that Pixar created a 2D story! Usually they do 3D, but I still like it nevertheless. I’ve seen stories in animation before of how the cat and the dog go from enemies to the best of pals. This is unique as it tells that story with the theme of interracial relations. I admire how they do that in this story. It makes for a story that crosses from the humorous to the serious. However it still ends on a happy note, as we all hope it will.

Memorable: dirs. Bruno Collet and Jean-Francois le Corre – A painter gets into an argument with his wife, or so it appears. It turns out he has either dementia or Alzheimers and his wife has died. The conversations he has with his wife are in his mind. He still continues to paint, but it’s not easy to do. Then one day he decides to do a simple painting of simple unattached strokes. The strokes come alive and it’s in the shape of his wife. They even speak with her voice. It’s like she’s alive through the painting. The two share one dance together and it’s a dance full of color.

This is a dark story. However it’s told in touching form and even through a positive tone through the animation. This animation style is claymation and brush-stroke on glass. It’s like the story about the painting is trying to be like paintings themselves. It’s as much about the style in which the story is told as it is about the story. I make this my Should Win pick because this is the most unique and colorful of the nominees.

Sister: dir. Siqi Song – This is a story told by an adult male of how he experienced his baby sister: when she was born and when she was growing up. Boy did she have bratty behavior. Then you learn this is just a story of his. The sister he was supposed to have was aborted because of China’s One-Child policy. The story is just his story of how he fantasizes of what his baby sister would have been like. Somehow the film ends on a positive note.

Some would rush to dismiss this story as pro-life propaganda. I won’t state my stance but I don’t consider this propaganda. Keep in mind the sister was aborted because of China’s One-Child policy. The abortion was not the mother’s choice. The story is told in a unique way as it’s told through stop-motion animation and through knitted dolls. I have seen similar animation. At first I didn’t think an Oscar-nominated film could come through this style of animation, but it does here. I find it unique for the animator to tell a dark story with some humor into it. It’s worth admiring.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

Some of you may ask why haven’t I seen the Documentary Shorts in past year? It’s hard to say. Money? Lack of interest? Time? Those were the most likely reasons. However I did have the time and money this year, and I made myself interested in them. So here are my thoughts of this year’s nominated documentary shorts:

In The Absence: dirs. Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam – This is a story that focuses on the sinking of the Sewol ferry off the waters off the coast of South Korea on April 16, 2014. 304 people of the 476 on board perished. Most were high school students. The documentary shows a lot of film footage from the day of the accident which includes news footage, rescue footage and footage from passenger smartphones. The film includes hearing dialogue between the Coast Guard, the transportation office and President Park Geun-hye. The film also includes footage of the inquiry and of footage when the Sewol was raised out of the sea three years later.

This film is good in letting the moments of the accident tell the story as well as expose a lot of ugly truths that people already knew. The film showcases the root of the problem: negligence on many parts. It shows the negligence and lack of action of the coast guards, the negligence of the transportation board, the negligence of the captain who instructed passengers to stay in before he escaped, and the negligence of the government. There are some interviews with parents of fatalities, survivors, and volunteer divers who dove to bring bodies up. I liked how this film used a combined set of video, film and audio to expose the truth of the matter. It also proved insightful as I believe this is the first disaster I know of leading to the overthrow of a world leader. That’s why I pick it as my Should Win pick.

Learning To Skate In A Warzone (If You’re A Girl): dirs. Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva – The film shows girls in Kabul, Afghanistan who attend a school privately after boys leave the school. This is in an area of Afghanistan that is strongly against girls going to school. Not only do they go to school, they also learn skateboarding at a park called Skateistan. The film interviews the young girls about their family background, what they like about school and what their ambitions are. The film also interviews the teachers and instructors throughout the whole year.

This is an excellent documentary reminding us of the threats women in Afghanistan still face. However it also shows us the hope of a better tomorrow. The film shows the girls as they learn the five basics of skateboarding over time. It also shows how their skateboarding lessons aren’t simply for fun. They’re life skills along with their education for a better tomorrow. The film includes the interviews as well as footage of the girls at school and at their skateboarding lessons. The film also includes audio of news stories of bomb blasts in Kabul reminding us that they still face threats to their future. The film then ends with an image of hope. Overall an excellent short documentary, which is why I make it my Will Win pick.

Life Overtakes Me: dirs. John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson – This film is of a dark subject matter: Resignation Syndrome. It’s a coma-like psychological problem that mostly happens in children and is common in Sweden. The film shows three children who have suffered this syndrome for many months. All lay in bed most of the time and are fed by tubes and syringes. The film also shows how the families work to resuscitate the child out of the illness by giving them exercises and taking them out in the open. The film allows the parents to tell the stories of what led them to flee their countries. The film also includes doctors showing their insights into the problem.

This film is good at exposing a problem that exists in many countries but is rarely talked about. It presents the examples and even shows how the syndrome happens most when the parents are facing a distressful situation regarding their refugee status. The film shows the children and their families in one time setting and the follow-up many months later. Two of the children show progress in their recovery while the other shows that her sister is showing signs she will soon suffer from it too. The main child at the start is given a third filming where she’s seen fully recovered. The film also presents a puzzling situation of why Sweden is the country with the highest rate of of Resignation Syndrome. This is a very insightful informative film that ends with a ray of hope.

St. Louis Superman: dirs. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan – The film opens with Bruce Franks Jr. talking with his son who’s about to turn five. The son was born on the same day African-American Michael Brown was shot to death by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri: a suburb of St. Louis. That event shapes Bruce into joining the St. Louis chapter of Black Lives Matter. That also made Bruce run as a State Representative and win. As Bruce is now a lawmaker and judges laws being passed in state congress, Bruce now has a new battle as he seeks to have passed laws labeling youth violence as a public epidemic and having Christopher Harris Day on June 7: the day in 1992 Christopher, his nine-year-old brother, was shot by someone using him as a human shield.

The film is a telling of Bruce’s life. It shows him as a congressman, a lawmaker, a rapper by night, an activist, a youth leader, and a family man. It showcases the many battles he goes through with getting his bill passed both by debate through the opposition and even other African-Americans who see him as a conformist to ‘the system.’ This film is also a ray of hope and a reminder at even in the days of Trump’s America where there appears to be a lot of ignorance and red tape, that efforts for the better can happen and that the marginalized can have a hope for a better future. Excellently done.

Walk Run Cha-Cha: dirs. Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt – The film begins with a Cha-Cha lesson taught in a dance hall in a Los Angeles neighborhood. The students are Asian and middle-aged and the teachers are Ukrainian emigres Maksym Kapitanchuka and Elena Krifuks. The film focuses on the couple Paul and Millie Cao. Paul and Millie first met each other in Vietnam back in the 1970’s. Communism took over and both had to leave for the United States, albeit six years apart. They’ve become successful professionals but have taken dance as a way to rediscover themselves. Maksym and Elena even work with them privately for a competition dance.

This is a story where we get to learn about a couple and their life experience about what brought them to the United States. We learn about their love back home, their loss of connection as both left Vietnam at different times, their families who also emigrated to the United States to their dance number. This film reminds us that for many, dance is more than just a hobby or an activity. It’s a chance for one to rediscover themselves. The film doesn’t end with the Caos in a competition. Instead it ends with their performance to a cover of We’ve Only Just Begun. Even though the two were reunited decades earlier, the film makes the dance performance look like the two are truly reunited at that moment. Not just a delight to watch, but insightful.

It’s interesting watching the documentary nominees for the first time. They all tell a lot in their limited time. Even for those that focus on a certain issue, it makes its point very well in that time. It even adds the human element to add to their point. Usually I’m skeptical to documentary films because all too often, it shows an issue through one side and one side only. You can thank Michael Moore for that suspicion of mine. However I was impressed with what I saw. It was hard to detect them as one-sided. They all made their point well.

And there you have it! Those are my reviews and predictions of the short films nominated at this year’s Academy Awards. It should be interesting to see the winners. Also it will be interesting to see how far these directors go in the future.

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: 1917

1917 Chapman mackay

A journey to deliver a message to stop a battle during World War I leads to an intriguing drama in 1917.

There has been a lot of anticipation of what will win Best Picture for the past two months. Lately the recently-released 1917 has become the front-runner. Does it have what it takes to win it?

One thing we should keep in mind is that this is not a completely true story that takes place during World War I on April 6, 1917. This is a story about a messenger delivering a message during the war. According to Sam Mendes, this is a story that has been lodged with him as a child. It’s quite likely the stories came while listening to the tales his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes, would tell. In fact he dedicates the film to him ‘for telling us the stories.’

Another thing we should remember about World War I is not just how it would be the most brutal war in history before World War II, but also of how it changed how wars are fought. In the past, soldiers would fight on horses with swords. Here in World War I, it was mostly ammunition related which made horse fighting useless from this point on. Also with the airplane being invented back in 1903, this was the first war ever that would involve airfighting. That would present a new danger for soldiers fighting on the ground as they would also have to avoid shooting from the air.

We should also take into account that despite the advances in warfare, communication between infantries were limited. It seems odd to see the need for a message to stop a battle to be sent through two men. I remember seeing messages submitted in such fashion in Lincoln which was set during the Civil War. One in today’s modern world would find ‘walking’ this message from the trenches to former enemy territory to the infantry to be an odd thing, considering the technologies we now have. We shouldn’t forget that during World War I, the most communication they had was either Morse Code or landline telephone. As you would see when the scene approaches, the infantry of which the leader would need to receive the message would have no access to any of those forms of communication. Telephone lines were cut out in the field and ‘walking’ the message to the infantry would be the only way they can be reached.

We’ve seen war movies in the past. Most war movies consist of frequent battles and action scenes. Mostly to stir up excitement for the purpose of being an action movie. This is a different story. This is a message of two men who are given the responsibility to deliver a message to a battalion to cease fighting and prevent huge loss. This is not just a message a soldier has to relay to prevent a devastating battle, but one in which threatens his brother. Blake not only must deliver the message but have someone else as the second should one die. He chooses his best friend Schofield who’s reluctant at first. The two put themselves out in the mission but encounter danger after danger. Blake is stabbed to death and then it becomes Schofield’s mission to deliver the message. This is a story that focuses less on battles and more on getting a task done. If you get into the story, you will see this is a task which will put one in the middle of the horrors of war. This being a war movie, there are scenes of action and intensity. Those are scenes that can’t be compromised in a war movie and there’s no compromise here. This film also shows a lot of the horrors and devastations caused during World War I like a devastated town, a brutal plane crash, rat-infested areas, bodies left around decaying, and even how every soldier had to see people from another army as the enemy. No exceptions. This story is a telling account of what those fighting in the war had to deal with.

I know I’ve seen many films by Steven Spielberg where he not only tells a war story but also shows how the war was done back then. Often when he does his story that occurs during times of war, it’s like we receive a lesson of how war was done and are even reminded of the politics and hostilities of the time. Sam Mendes takes a different approach in telling his story in 1917. It’s not as telling as how World War I was done as a Spielberg movie would be, but it does remind you of many horrors a soldier would endure. Keep in mind, this is a single story of a message to be delivered and the treacherous journey to deliver it. One can go through enough horrors in that one journey to know how much war is hell. Even the stories from one person is enough to be a telling account.

Mendes does do something in which Spielberg never did in any of his war movies. Mendes makes this a ‘follow-around’ story. I’ve seen films which have been cases where the story is told by following the lead protagonist around. It’s added to the story in most cases. Here in this film, it not only tells the story but makes one part of the journey. It makes the audience experience the horrors and dangers as they happen. Another addition to the story is how it makes like this film is all one take. It’s not really a single take for almost two hours. In fact I saw in Birdman how they’re able to make a film set in real-time appear to be only one take through some cinematography and editing angles. This is the same here where it does an excellent job of making it look like one take from start to finish. There are many times in which the story is done in real-time and there are time elapses where the audience won’t notice. Nevertheless it works for the film and for the storytelling.

Top acclaim has to go to Sam Mendes. I have something to tell you all. Back when I first arrived in Vancouver, I celebrated my first weekend there watching American Beauty in the movie theatres. It left me captivated from start to finish and I never checked my watch once! Which was rarely the case for me back then. That film, as well as other films that made 1999 a landmark year for film, and the Oscar race that followed would kick-start my enthusiasm for film and the Oscar Race.

Mendes does an excellent job in directing the story and using multiple angles that add to the story instead of distract. The story in which he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns is actually the very first feature-length film script both have written! Wilson-Cairns however has had more experience as she’s written for television and various short films. This is a unique story and a unique way in filmmaking of telling the story. The story succeeds in delivering excitement and intensity as the viewer watches it. The journey ends in a manner different from how the viewer would expect it to end, but it ends on the right note. It even ends on a personal note as Schofield confronts Blake with the bad news. The ending is possibly the most human note of the film and it reminds you of the dignity of the soldiers who sacrificed their lives to fight or prevent tyranny. I admire Mendes and Wilson-Cairns for incorporating that in the story.

As for acting, this is a film that doesn’t allow too much in terms of a developed ensemble cast. Many action films and war films usually don’t have room for well-developed acting; it’s mostly action-oriented. Even the role of the protagonist Schofield, played by George MacKay, is not exactly a role with too much dimension. I do give it credit as the film is more about the story than it is about the characters. Nevertheless I do admire for MacKay delivering a solid performance with a role that lacked dimension. Actually he succeeds in giving the role its most feeling at the very end. The acting of the main supporting role of Dean-Charles Chapman was also very good. His role was given more feeling as this was the character’s brother he was most concerned about. Chapman also does a good job with his role. Most of the other supporting roles had minimal screen time in the film. Nevertheless the performances of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Maaser and Richard Madden were well-acted despite how limited their roles were.

The film also has a lot of stand-out technical efforts too. First is the cinematography of Roger Deakins which is unique for a war-film and it adds to the thrills and excitement. Next is the film editing by Lee Smith who successfully makes it look like a single take. Next is set designers Lee Sandales and Dennis Gassner for recreating the trenches, battlefields and sunken bridges of the war. Another of top acclaim is the score from Thomas Newman. Newman has composed scores for six of Mendes’ seven films and this is his fourth Oscar nomination for a score for a Mendes film. The score fits the intensity of the story and moments of action. Finally the visual effects team did an excellent job of recreating the war and the battle scenes.

1917 isn’t your typical war movie. It’s a movie that takes you on the journey and involves you in the drama. It even reminds you of the horror while restoring your belief in humanity.

And there you have it! That’s the last of my reviews of the Best Picture nominees! This makes it nineteen straight years of seeing all the Best Picture nominees before Oscar Night! Just a review of the Oscar Shorts and my Oscar-winner predictions yet to come.

Movie Review: Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało)

Corpus Christi

Bartosz Bielenia plays a parolee who poses as a priest in a small town in Corpus Christi.

Just around this time with the Oscars drawing closer, you would’ve thought my interest in the foreign films would be finished, right? When I saw Polish film Corpus Christi was playing, it caught my intrigue with the story. I thought it was worth seeing.

The film begins in a juvenile prison. Prisoners are prone to the same harsh actions, beatings and retaliations of other prisoners. 20 year-old Daniel knows he could be one. He killed someone when he was a teenager and was sentenced to juvenile prison, or ‘juvie’ as it’s commonly called, for manslaughter. Daniel has found a personal escape in religion. A priest, Father Tomasz, performs mass at the prison every Sunday. Daniel is the most willing participant as he even sings Psalm 23 for the mass. Every night he prays the rosary. Parole is nearing for him, which is a relief as one of his fellow prisoners named ‘Pinczer’ is threatening him. He wants to become a priest, but Father Tomasz says he can’t because of his criminal past. They’re not allowed in the seminary. As soon as Daniel achieves parole, it’s obvious he’s not ready for the priesthood as he happily does drugs and has sex at parties. He does however own a priest’s shirt.

For his parole, Daniel has to do sawmill work at a mill in a small Polish town specifically for parolees. He notices a church and introduces himself as ‘Father Tomasz’ to a young girl praying named Eliza and introduces himself as ‘Father Tomasz.’ He’s then introduced to her mother Lidia, the church secretary, and the ailing priest. Daniel is given the job to perform priestly duties. Daniel’s first mass goes excellently, and people believe him to be the temporary priest. Daniel soon notices as he walks around town people praying to a memorial to six young people. They died in a car accident which the driver hit them head-on. The image of the driver, who also died, is not on the memorial.

Over time, Daniel becomes more involved in the community with each mass he serves. He even wins the liking of the town mayor. Daniel even takes the opportunity to help those that constantly pray by the memorial to help overcome their feelings. Eliza and Lidia are among those as Jakub, Lidia’s son and Eliza’s brother, was one of the fatalities. He also notices how some people shout ‘the whore’ when dealing with their grief. He finds out people have been directing their anger to the driver’s widow. When meeting with the widow, he learns that people have been sending her hate-mail.

Daniel tries to think of a solution, but he later learns Pinczer, one of his rivals from prison who was called ‘Bonus,’ knows he’s posing as a priest. He demands 5000 Euros or else he will expose the truth of ‘Father Tomasz.’ Daniel tries to continue on as a priest and even works at making the town confront their unnecessary anger to the widow by showing them all the hate-mail they sent her. Soon her husband is given a proper burial and is attended by all: even those that lost a child in the accident. However it soon becomes apparent that Daniel’s secret will be exposed. It does happen and the aftermath becomes a case where you can watch and draw your own conclusions about the town, Eliza and Daniel.

One thing that caught my attention is that this film is based on true events. It may not be a true story, but it is of a collection of true events. Director Jan Komasa made mention in a Los Angeles Times interview that he has taken notice that there are several unordained men who have posed as priests. Many of those men believe they are doing priestly duties for the right reasons. The issue of fake priests is one that the clergy in Poland know of, but they sweep the issue under the rug. Scriptwriter Mateusz Pacewicz said in the same interview that he became very fixated about the idea of these fake priests and their spiritual passion. He even wrote a short story of it and that would lead him to write the screenplay for this film.

This is a film that will cause a lot of people with strong Catholic values to think a lot about. Some may even be outraged of a positive depiction of a fake priest. What we have here is a young man who found himself in God possibly through prison ministry. Daniel has this problem with him as he’s a killer and he’s reminded his past crimes will not allow him into the seminary. However he sees the town where he is to do his parole duties as his chance to be a priest. We should remember during his short time as a priest, he didn’t do anything to hurt the citizens of the town. He didn’t rob from the people, he didn’t disturb any masses. Instead he became a symbol of help and hope. He helped the townspeople overcome the losses they were enduring. He got the people to stop with their unnecessary hostilities towards the widow of the killer. He even helped the widow get back to being accepted rather than be the subject of a town’s wrath.

The film allows to both question and even make your own judgments about what happens in the story. First off it makes you wonder if Daniel posed as a priest because he feels he was meant to be one or to avoid an act of vengeance from the other parolees at the sawmill. It’s not made obvious but one can even sense in the film that Eliza always knew Daniel was not ‘Father Tomasz.’ I sensed that in the scene where Daniel was asked for his priest card and she says it’s in the laundry she was working with. Even that sex scene between Eliza and Daniel suggests that; an ordained priest would not have sex or else we would be forced to resign. However Eliza knew Daniel was the right man to bring peace to the town. Eliza also wanted healing along with the people of the town, including hard-hearted Lidia. Eliza felt she knew Tomasz could bring healing and was the only other person who felt making peace with the killer’s widow and allowing a dignified burial of his ashes can make the town heal.

The ending will especially get one thinking as what has happened and what has happened next for Eliza and Daniel. Even as Daniel learns after being recaptured that he was meant to be a criminal, he should be thankful he was able to be a priest and had the chance to do the right things while doing so. It’s possible being a priest during that time brought out his best personal traits while prison brought out his worst traits. It’s interesting to see that a killer who poses as a priest was the one that got the town to heal from the tragedy.

I commend the direction of the film by Komasa and the script by Pacewicz. This is a story that will keep you interested from start to finish. It has a lot to say and will allow one to draw their own conclusions of what the overall message of the film is. I don’t think the film is too critical of religion. We should remember Poland is a very religious country and the only European country where more than half of the population (65% to be exact) attends religious service at least once a month. Showing an anti-Catholic film in Poland is sure to spark outrage. I do feel both Komasa and Pacewicz were trying to make a critical statement without being disrespectful to the Roman Catholic Church. The statement being in Poland, anyone can be a priest.

Also excellent acting from Bartosz Bielenia. He did a great job as a man with immense faith but had something to hide. Eliza Rycembel was also very good at playing Eliza. She was good at knowing the truth of Daniel but being supportive in silent manner. Also very good was Alexandra Konieczna. Her best parts were the moments where she didn’t speak, but you call tell her emotions by her body language. Actually the acting from all involved was very believable and very good at telling the story. They were all very good at showing extreme emotion without going over the top.

Corpus Christi is the twelfth film representing Poland to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film (formerly Best Foreign Language Film).’ It was a highlight at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, it won the Edipo Re Award at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and Bielenia won the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Actor at this past Palm Springs Film Festival as well as the Best Actor award at the Stockholm Film Festival.

Corpus Christi is remarkable as it’s a film that will leave you asking more questions than giving you answers about the story. The film will also get you thinking about morality and how people judge others, or how flawed people deal with their feelings. You will be left thinking at the end.

WORK CITED:

Ellwood, Gregory. “Scammers or spiritually motivated, fake priests figure in Poland’s ‘Corpus Christi.'” Los Angeles Times. 1 Jan 2020. <https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2020-01-01/corpus-christi-delves-into-fake-priest-trend-in-poland>

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Jojo Rabbit

Jojo rabbit

A young Hitler youth (played by Roman Griffin Davis) seeks guidance from an imaginary Adolf Hitler (played by director Taika Waititi) in Jojo Rabbit.

“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”

You’ll think that now is not a good time for a film like Jojo Rabbit. A film about a Hitler youth who has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend? I mean you have the rise of neo-Nazi groups and alt-right factions creeping up as well as the ‘woke’ people on the internet getting offended and hostile over things. Is this the right film to have out now?

The film begins in Berlin in the latter years of World War II. A ten year-old boy named Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler is all dress for the weekend at Hitler Youth, or Hitlerjugend, camp. He’s not confident he can do this; he’s socially awkward and can’t even tie his shoelaces right. However he does receive encouragement from his imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler. Hitler hypes him up with so much excitement, Jojo goes running down the street shouting “Heil Hitler” like a maniac! That is until he meets up with his best friend Yorki just before arriving for what he expects to be the ‘best weekend ever.’

The camp is being taught by former army officer Captain Klenzendorf and assisted with Fraulein Rahm who’s dedicated to the Third Reich and even gave birth to fifteen children! The boys are taught all sorts of attack games and they end the first night with a book burning rally. The next day during a training session, some older boys give a lecture to the younger boys about being brutal and having no mercy when killing. They hand-pick Jojo to kill a rabbit with his bare hands. Despite all the boys except Yorki urging Jojo to kill it, he doesn’t have what it takes. The older boy then snaps the rabbit’s neck and calls Jojo ‘Jojo Rabbit’ which all the other boys except Yorki do. Hitler spots Jojo alone crying. Hitler then reminds Jojo of the cunning feisty traits of the rabbit and encourages him to ‘be the rabbit.’ This pumps Jojo up so much, he’s““` all in to try the next exercise, which is throwing a Stielhandgranate. Jojo yanks it out of Klenzendorf’s hand and throws it without fear. Thing is the grenade bounces off a tree and lands by Jojo’s feet which Hitler runs off from. The grenade explodes with Jojo alone!

After months of hospitalization, Jojo has mostly recovered but his left face has visible facial scars and walks with a limp on his left leg. His mother Rosie is happy to take him home for some time. However Rosie does bring him to the office where she kicks Klenzendorf for allowing Jojo to be exposed to something so dangerous. Klenzendorf has been demoted to the office and is given the task by Rosie to make Jojo feel included. Klenzendorf agrees to let Jojo spread propaganda leaflets and collect scrap metal for the war effort, which Jojo does wearing a cardboard robot outfit and carry a wagon!

Jojo comes home one day expecting his mother. Instead he hears a rattle in the house. He senses it’s coming from the room of his older sister Inge, who died of an illness years ago. Jojo later finds out a teenage girl is hiding between the walls. The girl is a Jewish girl his mother is hiding and is a former classmate of Inge’s. Jojo threatens to expose her to the Gestapo but the girl named Elsa reminds him if he does, his mother will be executed. Hitler is shocked when he hears a Jew is hiding in the house. Hitler asks Jojo to work something out. Jojo works out he will keep Elsa a secret as long as she helps him with a book he’s writing: a book about Jews. Elsa agrees to do the writing and drawing. Elsa makes up things like Jews having horns and mind-reading. That especially shocks Hitler to learn about this girl and her powers. The book impresses Klenzendorf as he meets Jojo at the army pool as Jojo undergoes physical rehab.

This puts a strain on the relationship between Jojo and his mother, which Hitler slyly observes at the dinner table. Jojo accuses Rosie of being unpatriotic and his angry that his father has been away for a long time. Rosie tries to reassure Jojo of having a positive attitude, even as she knows the truth of what happened to her husband. There’s even one day Rosie gets Jojo out of his Nazi uniform and into real clothes for a nice day out and a fun bike ride home, much to Hitler’s chagrin! As time passes, Jojo continues to ask Elsa questions and even tries to deliver fake letters in the name of Elsa’s boyfriend Nathan. Elsa helps Jojo with his book and Jojo realizes he’s in love with Elsa. This gets on Hitler’s nerves as he’s insisting to Jojo that she’s evil.

One day the Gestapo search Jojo’s house along with Klenzendorf. They come across Elsa and she poses as Inge. She even answers the question about Inge’s birthday properly. The Gestapo decide to leave them alone. However it doesn’t stop Elsa from fearing she will die soon. That day out while collecting metal, Jojo is mesmerized when he sees a butterfly, but soon sees his mother hanged. He tries to take his heartbreak out on Elsa with a knife, but fails. Elsa nevertheless hugs Jojo as he’s crying. As the two watch the city get bombed, they both learn that they’re both orphans who lost all their family.

As the city lays in ruins, war action have to be carried out. Jojo is shocked to see Yorki as a soldier and given military actions. All the Hitler Youth have to become soldiers now! He’s even shocked to learn from Yorki that Hitler committed suicide and Germany’s being attacked by almost every front. The boys are given military actions by Fraulein Rahm including Yorki as a sniper and Jojo given a soldier’s coat to disguise himself. Jojo is shocked at everything he sees from dead civilians to children firing guns off to an explosion that kills Rahm. At first Jojo is imprisoned by Soviet soldiers. However he bumps into Klenzendorf. As he knows he will be executed by the Soviets, Klenzendorf tells Jojo he has an admiration for his late mother’s courage. He also tries to get Jojo out of any Soviet mistreatment and has him passed off as a Jew.

As the war ends, Jojo is relieved that Yorki survived the warfare. He just won’t die! However with the war over, it might mean saying goodbye to Elsa, which Jojo doesn’t want to do. Jojo gets that message as Elsa has the book completed with an image of Jojo next to a rabbit in a cage. Before he could, Hitler returns with a bullet-wound in his head. He’s lost it all, but Jojo has had it with him. Hitler tries to get one last piece of appreciation from him, but fails in grand style. The film ends on a positive uplifting note that’s fun to watch.

Now a lot of people have the attitude that Hitler and Nazism and the harms they caused should not be parodized. Especially in a time when even the slightest off-color comment from a well-known person can unleash a wave of wrath on social media like Twitter and could pave their way to their downfall. We should not forget that there have been parodies of Adolf Hitler in the past. There was animation like Looney Tunes’ The Ducktator, Walt Disney’s Stop That Tank and even Der Fuehrer’s Face where Donald Duck poses as Hitler. There has been live action film, especially from some Mel Brooks’ movies like The Producers and To Be Or Not To Be, and even recent examples like in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The most famous film parody of Hitler is 1940’s The Great Dictator. Charlie Chaplin didn’t exactly play Hitler but its obvious who he’s parodizing in his character of Adenoid Hynkel. Actually it was around World War II where Hollywood unleashed possibly released the most parodies of Hitler. And rightly so because Hitler wanted to take over the world, including the USA.

We should also keep in mind that this parody is not an original creation of Taika Waititi. Jojo is actually based off of a book by New Zealand-Belgian author Christina Leunens titled Caging Spies. The novel caught the attention of Waititi and he took a liking to it, especially since he himself is half-Jewish and half-Maori. Waititi has frequently described New Zealand as a racist country and a lot of negative comments about Jews you hear in this film are comments Waititi himself heard. So if anyone is alarmed with the Anti-Semitism they hear, basically it’s what has been said in the past and what was common belief in the past. Both the film and the novel also touch on a lot of things and experiments the Nazis used to do in the past. They may not have successfully cloned humans, but they did experiment with it. Fraulein Rahm may have shocked us in saying she had fifteen children, but there were women who bred constantly for creating more Aryan children. That scene where Yorki becomes a soldier and the scenes where the children have to fight as Germany was losing is also a disturbing truth. The Hitlerjugend was created to raise the boys to become soldiers as they reach adulthood but when it became clear Germany was losing, the Hitlerjugend became soldiers in vain to keep the Nazi regime alive. Those scenes were possibly the biggest non-comedic scenes of the film.

This film concept of a Hitler Youth having Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend is a concept that’s supposed to fail, but somehow it works like a charm. One thing we should keep in mind is that the Adolf Hitler we see on the screen is not the Adolf Hitler we know but the Adolf Hitler in Jojo’s mind. This Adolf who’s idiotic, incompetent, immature and even jealous represents the boy’s feelings of nationalism and there are many times he’s pushed to confront his feelings or even question them. In the end it’s clear Adolf is nothing but a bad influence on him. The film does not shy away from the anti-Semitic attitudes most of the Hitler Youth had, albeit making it look comedic.

The story is also a case where that grenade accident is the best thing to happen to Jojo. Being too injured to be involved with the Hitler Youth, it’s his mother Rosie that reminds him of the truth about love and beauty and what being a child should be. It’s also Elsa who is best at teaching Jojo about love and how it helps to overcome prejudices. Not to mention that Jews are people too with similar feelings like Jojo. It’s also where we learn the true heroes are Jews like Elsa who survived and Rosie who was hanged for being part of the resistance. Even that scene where Klenzendorf is captured by the Russians and about to face execution is powerful. There he admits to Jojo that being left out of the Nazi Youth was the best thing for him and his mother is the true brave one, and Jojo should have no part in any of the imprisonment or executions the Nazis like him are about to face.

SPOILER WARNING: This paragraph has details of the end. The ending is a unique situation. Elsa experiences the freedom she never thought she’d get in her lifetime. Even though she learns Jojo lied about who won. That dance scene is important as you have two children. One is Jewish and the other was a Nazi boy who first saw her as someone to bully but fell in love with her. Elsa lucked out from being captive from the Nazis. Jojo lucked out as he isn’t seen as a Nazi and he’s spared by Russian and American soldiers. Elsa lost her family and the boy she loves. Jojo lost his family. They have nothing but each other but they dance together. That’s a powerful scene, especially as Rosie talks of how dancing means freedom. The dance represents those two free orphans who lost a lot but both won in the end.

I have to give top acclaim to director/writer Taika Waititi. He takes an oddball story about a Hitler-obsessed Nazi child and turns it into a story with both humor and heart. He doesn’t shy away from humor that punches. It doesn’t punch as brutal as some of the humor from South Park or The Family Guy, but it does punch and somehow can even make those that claim they’re ‘woke’ laugh. Even the Anti-Semitic comments. I would describe this as ‘evil genius,’ but it’s the ‘evil genius’ of the best kind! Also deserving of acclaim is Roman Griffin Davis playing the little protagonist. This is his first-ever film role but he holds the film together from start to finish and masters it with near-perfect comedic charm. I expect to see more of him in the future. Back to Waititi, he was also excellent in playing the idiotic Hitler. Playing Hitler as an idiot is a big gamble in any film. I’ve seen portrayals of idiot-Hitlers before and most fail. Waititi’s Hitler works like a charm in this film.

Also worthy of acclaim is Scarlett Johannson. She does an excellent job of portraying a mother who’s hurting of loss of her husband and daughter, knows that her days are numbers as being a member of the resistance, and trying to get her son to adopt human values and lose his Nazi ways. Thomasin McKenzie is also excellent as Elsa, the girl who is determined to make Jojo see the light, but knows she’s up for a big challenge. Archie Yates is also a delight as Yorki, Jojo’s best friend, who adds in the right comedic touches. Additional humorous performances include Sam Rockwell as the depressed Captain Klenzendorf and Rebel Wilson as the ruthless, but colorful, Fraulein Lahm.

Jojo Rabbit also has a lot of standout technical efforts too. There’s the editing from Tom Eagles, the costuming from Mayes Rubio, the set designs from Ra Vincent and Nora Sopkova and the music from Michael Giacchino. Actually the mix of Giacchino’s score and classic rock songs, including some with a German-language version from the original artist, fit the film perfectly.

At the end, you will be convinced that Jojo Rabbit is the ideal comedy to be having in a hostile time right now. I will guarantee that even the ‘superwoke’ on Twitter who are set out to vilify any famous person who makes even the slightest off-color comment will be laughing too.

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: The Irishman

Irishman

Robert de Niro (second from left)  plays Frank Sheeran and Al Pacino (second from right) plays Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. A story about loyalty and betrayal.

Just when you think Martin Scorsese has done everything he could in film, along comes The Irishman. This film may not be his best, but it adds to his stack of films one can call great works.

Martin Scorsese is undoubtedly the master of gangster films or Mafia films. We have sensed there would be successors in the likes of Quentin Tarantino, but that has not yet come to be. Tarantino has his own gangster style, but Scorsese films are the Mona Lisa’s of gangster movies, if you can truly call a gangster movie a Mona Lisa! Scorsese has shown his versatility in film making since the beginning of this century. His films since the new century began have taken a wide range of genres from epic to fantasy to a family film to business-scam drama to dark comedies to religious biopics. However when watching The Irishman, his first gangster movie since The Departed, it only seems natural that gangster movies were what Scorsese was born to do. Although films in the other genres he tackled are very good, it just seems natural that way. Even the excitement of having Scorsese ‘all-stars’ like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel adds to the excitement. Additions like Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Anna Paquin also add to the excitement.

Now the film has a lot of common elements you’ll expect from a Scorsese gangster movie. It tells of a man and his involvement with the mafia and of his daily duties. It also goes back to his past in how he developed the right type of insensitivity to become as consistent hitman. It also tells of some of his more legendary kills. The film also adds something different. It adds in the story of the ‘vacation of a lifetime.’ It’s not something you’d expect to be in a Scorsese film, but it’s done in a fashion you’d expect to see from Scorsese.

However it’s the aftermath that one would not expect to see in a Scorsese film. It’s like it almost shifts to a completely different film for the last half-hour. That’s what hit me about the film. It not only tells the story of a man who committed a lot of murders and also allegedly committed the murder of the man behind the most intriguing missing person case in the past half-century. It tells of the aftermath of how he would come to regret his actions over the years. Even of how he appeared to have it all and win it with fear during his lifetime, but would be doomed to die alone. You can pinpoint exactly where in the scene where Peggy ask Frank about Jo and Frank calls a distraught Jo up trying to comfort her, but knowing he’s the one who killed her husband. That’s a change of pace from Goodfellas about a mobster who lived the mob life, was imprisoned for it and regrets nothing. Even before the scene of the killing of Hoffa, there are freeze-frame montages that mention of the aftermaths of others involved in the Philly mob Frank Sheeran and Russell Bufalino were a part of, including those shot dead or imprisoned for life.  I think the whole theme of the movie wasn’t just mob life, but how everyone involved pays in the end.

Now one thing we should remember is that we should not completely embrace this story as a true story, even though it’s very accurate. The film is based off the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. Brandt is a former homicide prosecutor, investigator and defense attorney and he’s the man who interviewed Frank Sheeran shortly before his death. During the interview, Sheeran told of his life as a hitman and of his own involvement with Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran confessed it all to Brandt months earlier and saw a priest the last few months of his lives so he could die with a clear conscience in December of 2003. The case of Jimmy Hoffa is still unsolved and his body has never been found. The FBI have had a lot of stories and sources, but it’s Sheeran’s story that’s the one they’re most going with. However there are still some naysayers that are claiming that Sheeran lied in the interview. Whatever the situation, this missing case is still unclosed. I won’t completely call Sheeran’s story the whole truth, but I believe he makes a strong case and it’s hard for me to sense him lying.

Once again, Martin Scorsese proves himself to the be master of gangster movies. Quentin Tarantino may take ruthless killers to a new level, but Martin is still the master. This film that he directs with a script written by Steve Zaillian is a complex film to pack into 3 hours and 20 minutes. Usually if a film is that long, I would expect the director to justify it. Martin has delivered a lot of three-hour films in the past, but I’m convinced he has justified the time here. If you yourself are one of the people that has been fascinated by Jimmy Hoffa and his missing story, this will be a film that will intrigue you.

It’s not just the story that will intrigue you, but how the Scorsese/Zaillian creates it and arranges it from beginning to end. It starts as the audience visits a nursing home, tours around seeing family after family and comes across a lonely man: Frank Sheeran. Then it jumps into 1975 and the story of how Frank, his wife, his mob boss Russell Bufalino and Russ’ wife Carrie were going on a ‘trip of a lifetime’ from Philadelphia to Detroit. Then it paves on how it led to all this from Frank’s days of truck driving to introduction to the mob to being a hitman for hire to a close friend of Jimmy Hoffa. The story shows of Hoffa’s rise, downfall and attempted comeback. It also shows Frank’s struggle of who should he be loyal to: Hoffa or the mob? It slows the moment of the ‘big day’ down and it delivers the aftermath with feeling that cuts deep. Also it treats the film as if Sheeran is giving us an interview. Almost like we’re Charles Brandt! I have to say the format of the film works and will keep one intrigued whether they’re a fan of Scorsese films, fan of mob films, or just have an interest in Jimmy Hoffa. It’s interesting how the film begins with “In The Still Of The Night” and it’s nice to hear and is replayed at the end, but it sounds haunting at the end. The film and its layout of the story makes it work.

Big credit to Robert de Niro for playing the role of Frank Sheeran. To do Frank, he has to cut deep into the man and how he went from a fearless killer who was able to adopt the coldness of killing to being the man with regrets in the end and wants to die with a clear conscience. Robert does an excellent job of it. Also excellent is Joe Pesci playing the mob boss who wants to call the shots of Sheeran and Hoffa. Pesci really knew how to steal the scenes in the film. Al Pacino was also great as Hoffa. He did an excellent job in delivering a multi-dimensional and complex performance of a man in history who was just as complicated as he was a legend. There were a lot of good supporting performances from Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Harvey Keitel. However one of the biggest standout performances came from one with little dialogue: that of Anna Paquin. Her role of Peggy Sheeran required her to say with her physical actions and facial expressions and she did an excellent job. Even one of the few spoken lines she had in the film “Why haven’t you called Jo?” would pave the way to where the film changed from a story of mob work to the story of regret.

The film should also be admired for its technical merits too. There’s the visual effects team that did the top-notch CGI effects to take the ages of de Niro, Pesci and Pacino back 30 years without them needing heavy make-up. It’s not just the actors acting younger than their ages but the CGI too! There’s also the costuming of Sandy Powell and the set designs by Bob Shaw and Regina Graves to take the film back to the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. There’s also the inclusion of music into the film that takes the film back to its set times. The score from Robbie Robertson also ads to the film.

The Irishman may be a true story, or it may be one big lie. However you put it, it’s a very telling story that paints a vivid but dark picture of what might have happened in one of the most intriguing missing cases ever. It’s also another film Scorsese directs and puts together in excellent fashion. It’s easy to see why it’s another contender for this year’s Oscars.

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Once Upon A Time

Leonardo di Caprio (right) plays a legendary movie star and Brad Pitt (left) plays his stunt-double best friend in the surprising Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

Normally when one hears of another Quentin Tarantino film, some will look forward to it while others will think “Not more blood and guts!” Even when I heard Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was about the Manson murders, I too was expecting that and killers with no mercy and no regrets. Instead I got more than I thought. And you will too.

It’s interesting that this is a fictional story of a friendship taking place around a real murder that happened. We have a movie star whose heyday seems to be fading just like Hollywood’s Golden Era. Rick Dalton was part of that Golden Era too. If there’s one person that doesn’t leave Rick, it’s his best friend Cliff. Even Cliff has trouble finding work because of what he’s rumored to have committed. Not to mention getting fired for having Bruce Lee injured in a sparring competition on set. Also this happens around the time of the Manson murders. Some could argue that Hollywood’s Golden Era ended with the Manson murders. Others like Tarantino could argue it ended before.

On the subject of the murders, the film does a good job in presenting the Manson family as people that were brainwashed into being evil. It does seem that Manson created a cult of followers to carry out his evil deeds and were every bit as blood-thirsty as him. One thing we should remember is that the murders took place at the former home of record producer Terry Melcher. Charles Manson first came to California with the dreams of becoming a musician. He was first approached by Beach Boy Dennis Wilson who introduced him to Melcher. Melcher was the producer who took one of Manson’s songs and rearranged it for the Beach Boys. No doubt Manson was furious and that’s why he wanted blood. I always wondered why did they kill anyone in Melcher’s house? Why didn’t they save their attack on Melcher and Melcher alone? I always wondered that. However that scene where the girl from the Manson family talks how she wants blood and doesn’t care answers that question for me. It’s obvious they were blood-thirsty and they didn’t care if Melcher was no longer there. As far as they were concerned, the five at the house were worthy of being killed just by being there.

One thing people frequently think of when they hear of a ‘Tarantino Movie’ is ‘blood and guts.’ Tarantino has developed a reputation for that, and for ruthless merciless villains with no regrets. There wasn’t as much of that here in the film, but there were a lot of scenes which would make one nervous. The biggest of which was when Cliff visits Spahn Ranch just to simply drop off a girl who goes by the name Pussycat. Also that scene when Booth walks into Spahn’s house. Those scenes will make anyone nervous, especially those that know the story behind the Manson murders.

What a lot of people overlook in a Tarantino film is that Tarantino has a love for film as a whole. Many of his latest works, if you look closer, have a style of cinema mixed into his story. The two Kill Bills, Inglourious Basterds, Jackie Brown and the Deathproof part of Grindhouse show Tarantino paying tribute to cinema genres of decades past. The style can be a film noir style, or a cult move style from decades past or a spaghetti western style or even an Asian style. Just look closer. However he does his story, even his most brutal and bloodiest stories, with a style of film genre mixed in. Here, it’s obvious this film is about his passion for the old Hollywood: the Hollywood that was one glorious city. That was Hollywood before the Manson murders. However you can still see how Tarantino shows Hollywood in possibly the last of its golden age in this film. Tarantino himself talks about growing up as a child in Hollywood in the 60’s and being mesmerized by its charm. I think that’s what he’s trying to incorporate in this film.

I know I mentioned that Tarantino’s films are known for have ruthless, merciless villains and that you should not expect to see sentimentality in a Tarantino film. In fact I’ve sometimes joked that the ending of the Hateful Eight is the most sentimentality you’ll get out of a Tarantino film. Of course even in this film,  there will be some type of merciless bloodshed. We’re talking Quentin Tarantino! Despite the ending being as brutal as you’d expect of a Tarantino film,  there are some moments of feeling in the film. There’s that scene where Dalton is between shoots of Lancer and is sitting near his eight year-old co-star Trudi Fraser. He breaks down because he can’t remember his lines, but Trudi gives words of encouragement, which gives him the drive to deliver an excellent performance. I’ll admit I was not expecting that. Another thing I was not expecting in a Tarantino film was the depiction of Sharon Tate. There’s that scene where Sharon goes into the movie theatre to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew, a screening which Booth is attending too. She’s thrilled to see her face on the screen. She’s also happy to see the audience loves how she’s making a klutz of herself on screen. That scene of an actress and her dreams. That shows another side of Tarantino few knew.

SPOILER ALERT: Ending Revealed In This Paragraph. Now there was a lot of concern about the making of the film. The Tate family was especially concerned about Sharon’s murder being exploited. One can understand. Her murder has already been exploited enough with people’s intrigue of the Manson murders. Instead the murder doesn’t happen at all. For those that didn’t notice, the film also leaves out the marital troubles of Sharon and Roman Polanski as well as the fact Sharon was pregnant at the time of her murder. This story is more about the friendship of a fading Hollywood legend and his stuntman double who stays with him through think and thin. It takes place during the time of the Manson murders, but there’s a twist of plot which both Cliff and Rick are involved. In short, we don’t get what really happened in the film. This is another case where Tarantino plays around with history just like he did with Inglourious Basterds and with Django Unchained. Instead he gives us the history that we want. And right at the end, we see Rick go to Sharon Tate’s party. Sharon and her friends are happy and safe from harm, and you leave the theatre satisfied knowing that’s how it should be.

Quentin Tarantino does it again. I have to say this is the least blood and guts I’ve seen in a Tarantino film. Mind you this is is less about blood and guts than it is about a unique transition in Hollywood. It’s Golden Days were fading and Hollywood was going in a new path. Many major movie stars saw television as a domain of wash-ups back then. However Tarantino reminds you of a charm of Hollywood that didn’t leave, but just changed for a new era. It’s not the same, but it’s a charm all its own. As I mentioned previously, we’ve seen Tarantino incorporate many different past style of films when he tells his stories. He doesn’t just simply tell a story, he adds an atmosphere and a feel to his films. We see it here again as we get various feelings through various scenes.

Top acting credits have to go to Brad Pitt. Funny how he’s nominated for the Supporting acting category for the Oscars while Leo is nominated in Lead. The film does belong to Cliff Booth as it is mostly his story. He’s the friend of Rick’s through thick and thin, he’s the stuntman who has trouble finding a job, but he’s the right person when trouble arises near his house and has what it takes to stop it. Brad does an excellent job of creating the character of Booth and owning the film. Leonardo di Caprio was also excellent as a fading movie star. The role of Rick Dalton reminds you that behind the glamor of movie stars, they still faced difficulties such as pushy producers, demanding directors and an industry that considers even the most legendary actors disposable. Yes, even back then, the powers that be in Hollywood still believed an actor was only as good as their last opening weekend. Leo was good at showing the insecurities of Rick, but ending on a positive uplifting note. Leo’s performance as Rick was just as arresting as Brad’s performance as Cliff and the chemistry between the two were excellent.

It wasn’t just Brad and Leo that made the film. There was Margot Robbie who gave a 3D performance as Sharon Tate. She did a great job of showing Sharon as a girl with big dreams and big hopes. There’s also Mike Moh’s performance as Bruce Lee. Note that the Lee family were angered how Bruce was made to look egotistical. However Quentin stands by his claims. There’s the performance of Julia Butters as Trudi Fraser. She’s in the film for one brief scene, but she steals it. The actors who portrayed members of the Manson family were also good as a team. The film also has a lot of great technical efforts like Robert Richardson in cinematography, Arianne Phillips in costume design, and the production design team in setting up the various sets. The film also shows another Tarantino film trademark: excellent music. The film had to have excellent songs from that era to fit the film. Tarantino delivers an excellent selection of songs from the late-1960’s that fit the movie perfectly.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is less about Tarantino’s blood lust than it is about his love for cinema and the days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It also ends unlike any Tarantino film before. Which is what makes this film so unique and worth seeing.

Movie Review: Knives Out

Knives Out

A detective (played by Daniel Craig) tries to get to the bottom of a murder the deceased’s nurse (played by Ana de Armas) is under suspicion for in Knives Out.

Whodunit murder mysteries and movies used to be very popular a long time ago. Can it win crowds again? Knives Out is willing to take that risk.

This film takes the common classic styles of the ‘whodunit’ murder mysteries that used to be very common in Agatha Christie mysteries and in classic movies and television of the past. The film reminds you of that charm. It keeps you intrigued from start to finish of the whole story. The film also provides some comedic twists whether it be the main protagonist’s illness, the eccentricities of the late millionaire in his lifetime, or the characters of the family members Marta has to deal with. However the film does an excellent job in taking this classic style of thriller film to the modern world. It presents a situation in today’s world of a rich eccentric man who dies and people don’t know whether it’s a suicide or murder. To makes things even crazier, the deceased had willed everything to the nurse, leaving the family to suspect the nurse behind this all. It’s a difficult mix to do, but Johnson succeeds in delivering such a film.

One of the things I like about this film is that it’s a ‘whodunit’ film that succeeds in being comical. We all know it’s a suicide, but we are intrigues when we see Marta follow all of Harlan’s instructions so that she’s not framed for his death, that really is a suicide. It presents a bizarre situation where one wonders if Marta really does deserve all the money and the house in Harlan’s will. Over time, you learn that the Thrombeys are first-class lowlives. Even the most liberal of the Thrombeys are ready to exploit Marta’s status as the daughter of an illegal immigrant to get their piece of Harlan’s will. It’s easy to see that at the very end as Ransom is arrested and the whole family watches him being taken away while Marta watches from the balcony of the mansion. By that time, you can understand why it’s Marta looking down upon the surviving Thrombeys. They’re first-class vermin!

The interesting thing about this story is that it not only mixes in the modern along with the comical, but it has something political to say too. With the exception of Great Nana, it appears all of the Thrombey including the in-laws have been spoiled because of their father’s wealth. Linda may have become wealthy on her own, but she did it on a loan from Harlan and her husband is unapologetically adulterous. There’s Walt who’s a fail and feels he has to threaten Marta outside her apartment to get anywhere. There’s Joni, the widow of his son, who embezzled Harlan’s money from her niece’s education fund. There’s Donna, who tags along with Walt and appears to speak a lot of ‘Trump talk’ about illegal immigrants. And then the grandkids. There’s Meg who appears liberal, but becomes two-faced with Marta. There’s Jacob, a masturbating incel who speaks his alt-right mind, when not obsessing over his phone. And then there’s Ransom: the most irresponsible of the bunch and the lowest of all. He’s immature and incompetent and he’s willing to commit murders and even mix up drugs for the death of his own grandfather to get Marta framed. 

Now there’s Marta. At first Marta is beloved by the family as she’s the one taking care of Harlan during his last days. She was actually the one most loyal to Harlan during his last days. Then he dies. The family becomes comforting to Marta. But when it’s learned that Marta is the one person who will get Harlan’s major inheritances, the family either turns on her, backstabs her or attempts to blackmail her. She even gets hateful racist text messages from Jacob. The family knows they can get the inheritance is they expose Marta’s mother’s immigration status or if they expose her as committing medical malpractice, which she things she has. Even if Harlan committed suicide, the toxicology results can go against her and she could lose it all through the slayer rule. It’s funny how even the most liberal of the Thrombeys let their true colors out when they’re on Marta’s case. In the end it’s the housekeeper Fran who knows the truth and it’s the detective, whom ironically was hired by Ransom to expose a possible murder, that comes to the truth about what happened. It’s funny that it took a dying housekeeper and a detective from Texas to be the ones that knew Marta’s innocence.

That sends a message that’s fit for the time right now. There may be a lot of sacking of illegal immigrants, but this sends a message about illegals who do work heard in a society full of lazy entitled white people. The daughter of an illegal is the one who was most loyal to Harlan, while money has gotten to the heads of even the most liberal of Harlan’s family. You can see why Harlan would want to will everything to Marta. Money made his family privileged and entitled lowlives, and Harlan knew it. Marta was the only one he knew that worked hard. In the end, you are convinced that Marta, and only Marta, is the one deserving of the inheritances.

The top accolades has to go to writer/director Rian Johnson. He creates a story that reminds us of the charm of the ‘whodunit’ and even remind us that it can still win people to the box office. That’s a remarkable thing especially when it became newsworthy this year of how so many Oscar contenders spent a brief time at the box office and then made its way to NetFlix. As of now, it’s already grossed over $150 million in North America.  It takes the ‘whodunit,’ gives it a modern twist, adds a social message and comes off entertaining. It also possesses a unique classy style about it that not even Marta’s vomiting problem can ruin the classiness of the story.

The film possesses a great ensemble of acting performances from all who were involved from major roles like Marta and Detective Blanc who carried the story the most to Great Nana and Jacob who had very little screen time, but make you like Great Nana and hate Jacob. The two biggest standouts were Daniel Craig as the detective with a Texas accent. That’s a surprise; James Bond with a Texas accent? But he succeeds in being the main protagonist that holds the story from start to finish. Also adds a unique twist to the story how a Texas detective could be the one that sides with Marta. Ana de Armas is also excellent as Marta. She starts out well as the one most troubled by the death of Harlan. Then she becomes the victim, only to end up as the one that triumphs at the end.

In terms of supporting performances, the first of the two that stood out the biggest was Christopher Plummer. He was excellent as the millionaire who appeared eccentric, but actually had a brain to know what was going on and have the heart to find Marta the only one deserving of his wealth. The other supporting standout was Chris Evans. He really makes Ransom look like someone without a single positive quality and a complete lowlife who was easy to hate. Top technical accolades go to David Crank and Jeremy Woodward for the production design, Jenny Eagan for the costume design and Nathan Johnson for the musical score.

Knives Out is a modern day whodunit murder mystery that succeeds in charming people and keeping people intrigued. It also has a surprising social message to say, if you look close enough.

Documentary Review: Honeyland (Медена земја)

Honeyland

Turkish-Macedonian beekeeper Hatidze Muratova shows how she makes her livelihood in Honeyland.

Very rarely do I see documentaries, including around Oscar-time. However Honeyland caught my attention. I felt it was a documentary well worth seeing.

The film opens in Bekirlija, a village in North Macedonia that’s part of the Balkan mountain range. Near Bekirlija, a woman of Turkish descent named Hatidze Muratova comes to gather honey from the various beekeeping farms around her home. She’s what’s called a ‘wild beekeeper’ as she keeps bees in the traditional methods and traditional apiaries. Whenever she gathers honey and honeycomb, she always says “Half for me, half for you” as she believes it’s the right thing to leave some behind for the bees. With the honey she reaps, she’s able to sell it at the open air markets of Skopje. Her honey sells better at a higher cost than other honey farmers. She uses the money for goods and food for herself, her cat and dog, and her ailing mother. Her house has no electricity and no running water. However this is the traditional way of beekeeping she wants to do.

Things suddenly change. A Turkish farmer named Hussein Sam arrives. He intends to set up farm in the area near Hatidze. He brings with him his wife Ljutvie, six children, many trailers, a lot of clutter and a lot of cattle. He’s a cattle farmer but he also plans to do a lot of bee farmings as well. Although Hatidze confides to her mother she fears for her future, she does try to be friendly about it. Hatidze introduces herself to Hussein, Ljutvie and the children. They welcome her in, the wife spends time with her, the children find her fun to be around and look up to her. She even tries to be friendly with Hussein and informs him of her beekeeping. Even as he starts beekeeping of his own, she tells him to make sure his bees don’t attack her bees.

Time passes and Hatidze appears to be doing fine. She still continues to feed her mother and her pets, she continues to reap more honey. She’s still friendly with the Sams and even goes to a local Turkish festival with them. However it’s evident there are difficulties coming. First off the children are rowdy. Especially the boys who wrestle. Also Hussein has to up his beekeeping ways to fulfill expectations from contractors. That adds frustration to him. He has built lots of apiaries around the farm to fulfill the expectations. He even recommends that his children don’t learn beekeeping ways from Hatidze, despite how much they admire her.

That’s an added headache for Hatidze as all his farming is causing disorder. She goes to one of the apiaries she made and notices so many dead bees. She’s not making the honey she used to. He accidentally burns a bush. The bush is vital in luring the bees over to Hatidze’s farms. The Hussein cuts down one of the branches: a branch that contains one of Hatidze’s hives. Everything Hussein Sam has done has come at the expense of Hatidze’s way of life. But it’s not without a price on the Sams. Fifty of the cattle had died. Hussein was so fixated on getting honey for his contractors, he and his children neglected the cattle. That leads the Sams to leave the area and find another area to farm. Then one day shortly after, Hatidze’s mother dies. The film ends with Hatidze with her dog and cat all alone.

The message is clear in this film. It showcases a woman’s traditional way of life of making pure honey and shows how big business makes a mess of things. Especially an environmental mess. The film makes its point as it shows two different beekeepers. It shows Hatidze doing her beekeeping craft the traditional way humbly, and for the good of the land she lives in. It also shows the Sams who make honey in massive levels because of the demands of the contractors they work for. In the end, it becomes a case that neither win. Hatidze loses her business and the Sams have to move because of what they did to the land. In the end, it shows that the ‘half for me, half for you’ Hatidze does is the right thing.

The film is not just about a person trying to keep their beekeeping the way it is. It’s also about the person themselves. We learn of Hatidze and her loneliness. In accordance to tradition in her culture, the last-born female stays single to look after the parents. Any other younger sisters of Hatidze dies. You can understand the added problem when the Sams come in. She may face competition with the family in terms of farming and beekeeping, but the appearance of the Sams helps with her loneliness. Before they came, it was just her and her mother. When they came, the Sams made her feel like she was part of a family. I think that had a lot to do with the beekeeping issue because strife with the Sams could lead to her being lonely again. I think the filmmakers wanted to show that added difficulty with the problem. The inclusion of the song ‘You Are So Beautiful’ that we hear over radios also symbolizes that.

I also think the filmmakers wanted to send another message too. The Sam adults feuded with Hatidze over time, but the kids looked up to her and found her a delight to be around. They even had more appreciation for her way of beekeeping than their father’s, which irritated Hussein. I think they wanted to send the message of how children and adults view others differently.

It’s not just the message that makes the film. It’s the documentary itself. This documentary is filmed over a three-year period and there’s no narration. The film has Hatidze tell her story through the conversations she has with her mother and with others, including the Sams. Even silent moments with Hatidze tell a lot with the story. The film also tells a lot with the conversations Hussein Sam has, mostly with his wife and with the contractor he’s hired by. We learn that Hussein may do a lot and it’s intruding on Hatidze, but he’s put under a lot of demand and heavy expectation. The film also shows his side of the story too. Even as it tells each other’s sides of their story, the film does it in an excellent way. It also delivers a lot of great cinematographic images and shots, as well as excellent sound mixing. The story also gives you a feel for the land where this is happening.

The most unique thing about Honeyland is that it’s not only North Macedonia’s first nomination in the Best International Feature Film category in 25 years, but because it’s the first film to earn Oscar nominations in the Feature Film category and Best Documentary Feature! The film has won a wide number of awards including the documentary prize at the Sundance film festival, the Best First Documentary Feature at the Critics Choice Documentary awards, as well as the Best Cinematography in a Documentary at the American Society of Cinematographers Awards. Also interesting to note is that the money the filmmakers won at the Sarajevo Film Festival, they used it to buy a new house for Hatidze. In addition the film’s website is giving 30g jars of the honey from Hatidze and the Sams for the Donate For The Honeyland Community fundraising initiative at a minimum donation. All donated money with go to improve the lives of Hatidze, the Sams and the local community. You can do so yourself by clicking here.

Honeyland is a documentary without a narrator. Instead it’s a documentary where the protagonist tells the story by living their life. That’s enough to send a powerful message and remind you of others on the ‘other side of the world.’

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Parasite ( 기생충)

Parasite

Parasite is the story of the Kim family trying to break out of poverty by scamming their way together into serving an upper-class family.

NOTE: This review originally published January 27, 2020 has included many edits done on February 17th after watching this film again.

Foreign-language films have a habit of becoming catchy when you least expect it. This year’s hit foreign film comes from South Korea. It’s titled Parasite and done by renowned director Bong Joon-ho and it’s quite a telling story about the classes.

The Kim family have it hard as they live in a basement shack in a rough area of Seoul. Father Ki-Taek had good restaurant opportunities, but they all folded. Mother Chung-sook used to be a good hammer thrower. Son Ki-Woo is trying to get into a good college and their daughter Ki-Jeong is unsure of her future. They struggle with working menial jobs, have to roam near the windows for free Wifi, have a lot of bugs in their place and sometimes have no choice but to watch drunks urinate outside their window.

Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk visits with him before he leaves for college. Min-hyuk has been working as an English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy Park family. Min-hyuk recommends to Ki-woo he take over and even fake university credentials. Min-hyuk trusts Ki-woo way more than those other ‘drunken college boys’ to replace him in the tutoring job. Ki-woo is able to make a successful forgery and he’s hired to be the English tutor to the Park’s daughter Da-Hye. The Kim family hope to get jobs within the Park household. The Parks are hugely admiring about their 7-year-old son’s drawings and are looking for an ‘art tutor.’ Kim Ki-jeong, the daughter, is able to pose as a student from Illinois under the name of Jessica. Ki-jeong is hired and even able to successfully convince the mother something’s psychologically wrong with the son. Now that Ki-jeong is hired, it looks like there aren’t any more positions. Not unless they get the chauffeur and the maid fired. Which is exactly what the Kims do! The limo driver is ordered to drive Ki-jeong close to her block but without him knowing, she takes her panties off and leaves them to get him framed for having sex in the car. It works and the father Kim Ki-taek is hired as the limo driver. Then there’s the maid Moon-gwang. She’s a good servant, who even served the original tenant of the mansion who was the architect. She makes her allergy to peach aware which is perfect! The Kims shave peaches and throw it when she’s around to get her to think she’s come down with tuberculosis. Moon-gwang has to quit and the mother Kim Chung-sook is hired to replace her.

Although all four have jobs in the Park household, they have to disguise they’re not family. That’s not easy as the Park’s son, Park Da-song, notice they all have the same smell. Also all have to make their exact whereabouts secret to them not just so that it’s unknown they live in the same place, but so the Parks don’t know they live in a rutty area. Soon the Parks leave for a camping trip, which they will be using their own car and entrusting Chung-sook as the maid and leaving the others off. As the Parks are away, it’s perfect opportunity for the Kims to have their own party at the place. And they have every reason to. They all made it!

However during their fun on a rainy night, something unexpected happens. They have a visitor at the house. It’s the former maid Moon-gwang. She said she left something important in the bunker. The Kims didn’t know the Parks had a bunker. It’s a bunker a lot of rich people have either to avoid loan sharks or in case nuclear war happens. This bunker was ordered to be built by the first house-owner and something even the Parks don’t know about, but Moon-gwang does. In that hidden room at the bottom of the bunker, Chung-sook discovers Geun-sae, Moon-gwang’s husband, is in it. He has been hiding down there for years to avoid loan sharks over his failed restaurant. When the other Kims discover Moon-gwang and Geun-sae a fight ensues after Moon-gwang threatens to expose their scam. The family and couple use technology to fight for control. However the fight ends when Chung-sook learns the family is coming back sooner than expected because of the heavy rain and they expect ‘ramdon’ with cubed beef. Party’s over, right?

Not quite. The Kims have to hide and Chung-sook kicks Moon-gwang down the stairs for which she receives a fatal head blow. Chung-sook serves the Park family the ramdon after they arrive with the other Kims hiding under the furniture waiting to escape. It’s a long process as the parents sit on the sofa watching Park Da-song play ‘indian’ in his tent out in the rain. The Parks even get sexual on the couch and even talk about the smell of Kim Ki-taek, unknowing that he’s underneath the sofa and hears it all. The three Kims escape the mansion and return back to their home in the rain, only to find it’s almost completely flooded and they’re one of many people from the neighborhood that have to sleep in a makeshift shelter in a gymnasium. The next morning, Ki-woo and Ki-taek have a heart-to-heart talk about life and plans.

All appears not to be lost. The Parks are having the birthday party for Da-song and the staff are invited. All four Kims can assume their guises again. It’s based on the ‘indian’ theme that Da-song loves. It’s if party with family and friends. Ki-taek is to participate with Park Dong-ik in an ‘indian attack’ skit with the birthday cake and is reminded he’s a paid servant. The party goes well but just as Ki-woo returns to the bunker with the scholar’s rock, he encounters an angry Geun-sae. Geun-sae has had it that he’s been down there for so long and that he just lost his wife because of the Kim’s stupidity and selfishness. Geun-sae wants revenge and Ki-woo is first to get it as Geun-sae uses the scholar’s rock to hit him over the head. Then Geun-sae goes out in the yard where the party is and stabs Ki-jeong in the heart. That provokes a seizure from Da-song which Dong-ik orders Ki-Taek to drive him to the hospital. That leads to even bigger chaos as Chung-sook fatally stabs Geun-sae, but Geun-sae is alive long enough to look Dong-ik in the face and shout ‘respect.’ Angry with it all, Ki-taek stabs Dong-ik and runs away out of everyone’s sight.

The aftermath is that Ki-jeong died and Ki-woo was in a coma for weeks. Ki-woo came out of it, but it left him with a brain injury that causes him to laugh unexpectedly. He and Chung-sook were convicted of fraud and impersonation and Ki-taek is at large missing without a trace. The Park house has been resold to a German family who just arrived. Despite the deaths of Moon-gwang, Geun-sae, Kim Ki-jeong and Park Dong-ik, it sold. Even with new owners, Ki-woo notices a light from the bunker flash on and off. Ki-Taek is alive and hiding in the bunker and flashes a message of Morse Code every day hoping his son will see it. Ki-woo has a message of Morse code for his father he hopes to deliver one day. A message of a hope that they can be a family again and how they can live prosperously in that house, and done fairly.

The interesting thing of this film is that it’s very creative in showing the biases poor people have of rich people and the biases rich people have of poor people, and biases both have of certain peoples in general. For all intents and purposes, the Parks hired the Kims who disguise themselves as unrelated workers. The Parks appear to treat the adult Kims as people, but will also treat them as the hired hands they’re supposed to be, so there has to be a limit. With that, all that happens seems to send a message of the biases. We see it in the Park family as they common talk about the smell of poor people, especially Mr. Kim. It seems like poor people have a smell only the Parks can sense. We also see how the Parks seem to think the smallest instance of something wrong is a big problem and the wife believes whatever the Kim’s tell her! We see it in the Kims how they have the belief that the rich are very naive and all four are ready to take full advantage of it. Even at the ‘Kim party’ and how they talk of money being a solve-all.

The film also shows how both the Kims and the Parks can expose their own weaknesses. We see it at the beginning as the Kims think their only way into a better life or even a life of wealth is to scam their way into wealth. We see how Park Da-song likes to fantasize about being an ‘indian’ and the Park family toys around with Native Americans. We see it at events like the birthday party, we see it during the rainflood, we see how Mr. Park has a framed article from an American magazine where he’s named ‘Nathan Park.’ We sense it in the use of English words and phrases, English names and association with the United States like all these elements suggest something about class structure and importance. Even how when Mrs. Park hires Ki-woo, she wants to give him the name ‘Kevin.’ We even see how despite the Parks neglect Moon-gwang and Geun-sae, Geun says ‘respect’ to him. The rich Parks appear to marginalize, but the Kims and the couple still have regard to them. Even seeing how Ki-taek can’t mourn at his daughter’s urn but mourns at an obituary of Nathan says something.

Even without the theme of the wealth gap, this film is also interesting of how the story is constructed. At first you think the film will follow a basic linear path in therms of telling its story. There are even times in which even after one incident happens out of the ordinary, it appears it will still end in normal fashion. However it doesn’t. What you anticipate might be a good ending actually ends up being something totally bizarre. The first half of the film appears like a massacre is the last thing to expect the film to end with, but you’ll be surprised. One source mentions that it ended that way because Korean movies are known to be big on blood and gore, just like a lot of Japanese movies. However it does make one think whether the film and its scenes were done right or not. Sometimes you think it could have been done better if this was done that way. Then you think if it did, this would have to be left out. In the end, you’re left convinced the film was done the right way. Including the massacre scene when Kim Ki-jeong is killed, but Park Dong-ik cares about his son’s seizure instead. Even the scene where Moon-gwang falls and recieves her fatal concussion seems like the right thing to have. Also the aftermath looking like it ends the film right as a redemption of humanity at the end and actually makes you feel for the surviving Kim family, despite Ki-woo’s message of an against-all-odds hope.

I’ll also this film is a welcome reminder of the rich-poor gap in South Korea. If you remember years back, I saw a film called Nameless Gangster. That film showed the conditions of South Korea in the early 1980’s and the protagonist struggled with a limited wage as a fisherman. That’s why he chose to be an organized crime don. Because he felt it was the only way he could get ahead. The film also showed how things became better for South Korea as democracy was implemented just before the Seoul Olympics. I was left with the impression that life for residents got way better since democracy was introduced. Parasite reminds me it is, but there are still people in South Korea that slip through the cracks. On top of that, the gap of rich and poor is just as present in South Korea as it is in any developed nation.

Top accolades for the film go to director Bong Joon-ho. Bong is actually South Korea’s first director to break into North America. He had a good reputation in South Korea, but he expanded into North American film after people take note of 2009’s Mother. His English-language breakthrough came with 2013’s Snowpiercer and critics were impressed. Even after returning back to Korean films, Bong has still caught a lot of attention with films like Sea Fog (which he was producer) and Okja. This is possibly his best work.

This film is very complex as Bong’s not just simply working with a complex story he co-wrote with Han Jin-won, but even working with a lot of complex styles of scene. Bong got the idea from this story from an actual murder of rich people by their servants. It was 1933 in France and the two servants that killed their master were sisters. Bong does a good job in making a great story sending a message about the division of the classes. The little elements that add to the theme of the rich-poor gap like the ‘poor person smell,’ the use of English when they have something significant to say, the storm which makes the Kim family face the music about what they’re doing, the scholar’s rock which goes from a good-luck object to something Geun-sae attempted to kill Kim Ki-woo with before the massacre, the use of Morse Code, Nathan’s constant talk of crossing-the-line and the talk of plans between Ki-woo and Ki-taek, they all help add to the color of the story and to the theme.

Already there are a lot of videos on YouTube that talk of various elements of the film like the multi-leveled house and how the Kims are always beneath the Parks, the use of sunlight in the Park domain, the ending seen as false hope, and the use of bugs during certain scenes. There are scenes that get you wondering as well. Like the scene where Park Da-hye has sex with Kim Ki-woo. Some could say it’s sending the message the two classes aren’t that far apart. Others could say it’s where the rich like to screw the poor. You be the judge! Also you figured halfway into the film that the scam of the Kims would eventually be uncovered, but I bet you didn’t expect it during a massacre at a child’s birthday party!

The acting from all ten actors involved was excellent to see as they all had something to add and they did it all as one team rather than a single actor standing out. If there was anything close to a standout, it had to be Song Kang-ho as the Mr. Kim. He did an excellent job as playing a man who appears to be the one most caught in the middle. Choi Woo-shik was also good as the hopeful but insecure Kim son who starts it all and ends up the voice of reason at the end. The production design was also very good. It was excellent in showing off the modern rich-poor gap of the three classes very well. The cinematography of Hong Kyung-pyo was also excellent. The music from Jung Jae-il also added to the storytelling too.

Parasite begins in normal fashion, leads to a comedic middle, leads to the conclusion in bizarre fashion, and ends on a somber note. It does seem like an odd construction of a film, but Bong makes it work. Plus he has a lot to tell about the gap between rich and poor. It’s a gap we see all too well in our own lives.