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Review: Knives Out

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, (Hey stop! Quit shouting and throwing things!) “Knives Out” is a murder mystery throwback to the Agatha Christie style of such stories. This is a film that is wholeheartedly enamored with the classic ‘Whodunnit?‘ It’s also very aware of it’s place and relation to the genre classics, though while the film revels in the usual machinations of a murder mystery- it doesn’t hold itself to those rules and is keen to take a different tact whenever given the opportunity. As with most stories within the genre, it begins with a dead body. Who just so happens to be Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) the incredibly successful mystery author who had just turned 85 the night of his death. Thus, the game is afoot. With the whole Thrombey family still in town due to the birthday celebrations, a mysteriously hired gentleman Detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) digging around, and the quiet yet warm home nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) there to help pick up the pieces, there’s an awful lot of suspects and heck of a lotta suspicion in the air.

The Thrombey clan isn’t exactly one forged in humility or solidarity. First there’s Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon), eldest son of the author who runs the publishing company that sells Harlan’s books. He’s been trying to convince his father to sell the books rights for film and television adaptions for years, and that night Harlan effectively fired his son from the publishing company. Next is Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette), former wife of one of Harlan’s sons who had passed on years ago and in that time she’s become a member of the Woo-Woo society, and instagram influencer of sorts. She’d been getting allowances from Harlan for her daughter Meg’s university (and also skimming a bit off the top to boot), though Harlan made it clear that he intended to cut her off that same day as well. Then there’s Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), the playboy and black-sheep of the family. He’d gotten into the biggest argument with Harlan that day out of anyone and stormed off early in the night when he learned that he was getting cut from the will. There’s a lot of combative energy and spiteful angst going to and from all of the Thrombeys as each and every one are interviewed by the inimitable gentleman sleuth himself, LeBlanc. There’s something incredibly exciting about an infamous Detective with a southern drawl questioning a bunch of rich entitled ne’er do wells in a massive country mansion that feels ripped from the Clue film. So much so that several characters feel the need to point these things out, and that’s part of the fun of this film- Rian Johnson’s contagious entusiasm practically bleeds off the screen.

There’s a whole bunch of twists and turns that the film’s mystery takes, and just when you think you’ve got it pinned down there will be another flashback from a different perspective or a return to certain events but with new information. “Knives Out” is an excellent film in a genre that has all but evaporated from cinema today, and we’re lucky to have such an entertaining resurgence with this film. The writing is playful and inventive and the characters are all a treat, but the cast of high caliber actors within this film is the reason to see this one. If you’re into a solid throwback to the classic ‘Whodunnit?‘ structure of a murder mystery- give this one a shot!

Final Score: 1 Chris Evans in a White-Knit Sweater

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Review: Parasite

*Warning! In order to discuss this film, I will be spoiling large aspects of the plot- I highly recommend this one though!*

Written by Han Jin-won and Bong Joon-ho, and directed by Bong Joon-ho, “Parasite” is a social satire that greatly benefits from the audience knowing as little as possible for your first viewing. Being the first film from South Korea to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this year, it seemed like a perfectly good reason to check this one out. That, and the fact that Bong Joon-ho is an excellent director. Personally, I’ve only seen a few of his films, namely “Snowpiercer” and “The Host”, both of which were quite enjoyable and fun genre films that housed aspects of a critical eye towards society. This film, however, is far more critical of society and it’s financial machinations. If you want nothing more than my recommendation to see this film, then you have it already. It’s easily one of the best films of the year, and as already mentioned, the less you know, the better… I suspect. “Parasite” focuses on two families, the Kims, and the Parks. The Kims are in dire financial straits, a family of four adults living in a small, cramped, and sunken, apartment. They fold cardboard pizza boxes for income and allow street fumagation to freely blow through their windows- free fumagation is better than none, and besides, it will get rid of their bug problem. Eventually Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), the son of the family, is offered a lucrative job by a close friend as an English tutor for the daughter of a rich family in town. Ki-woo’s friend is heading out of the country for awhile and he doesn’t want just anybody mentoring this girl, none of his collegiate peers were up to the task though, as they might simply fawn over the young girl instead of actually teaching her. After his interview is a success Ki-woo begins to analyze the Park family’s situation and assess how he may fit his other family members into the high life as well. It isn’t long before the Kim family brutally excises the other working class people that earn their livings from the Park family and replace them with a member of the Kim family, extravagantly performing an act, or scheme, to fool the Parks into accepting them into their realm with high dollar luxury positions such as Art Therapist or Handmaid.

A lot of the film tells its story purely through the visuals displayed onscreen. Through the staging and direction, we can see how differently the two families operate and how each family’s financial status orients their needs for certain skillsets. The two families are staged in near complete opposites, the Kims are almost always physically close together onscreen and working efficiently as a group. The Parks on the other hand are barely in any shots with other members of their family, and when they are there are large empty spaces inbetween them. This division extends to a multitude of layers that separate the two families. The Parks can afford to outsource skills that the Kims couldn’t live without, cooking, cleaning, understanding the needs and idosyncracies of their closest family members etc. The film even wisely showcases how even simple things can affect the families in wildly different ways. When a rainstorm ruins the Park’s camping trip and they have to come home early, they complain that it was “a disaster”. However, when the Kims return to their home at the bottom of the city, the rain that the Parks so quaintly admire in the night sky, has actually caused the Kims a real disaster in flooding their home. “Parasite” even goes so far as to show that while the Parks are very particular about their maids, housekeepers, and drivers “crossing the line” between work and their family life- they have no qualms about reaching out to the Kims while they’re off duty to request a litany of demands.

The writing and complexity of this film are at the core of why it works on so many levels. Literally involving levels to be exact. There’s a lot to be said of the imagery involving staircases throughout the film too. The Parks ascend stairways while the Kims descend, fearing a misstep into the abyss below. Keep an eye out for stairs, they’re all over the film, who goes up them, and who falls down them. I think one particualrly small aspect that could get overlooked, is actually one aspect that I respect the hell out of, creatively speaking. Bong Joon-ho has an opinion about the world and what it does to people, but he doesn’t lay any judgement on the characters. Neither the Parks or the Kims are full-fledged stereotypes, the film doesn’t even seem to embrace each family’s perception of the other. The Parks are not villains or naive, nor are the Kims triumphant protagonists or simple helpers. There are societal criticisms to be had for sure, but these events unfold plainly before us, without a wagging finger or an opinionated slant with a heavy-handed message. If you haven’t seen the message of the film yet, it seems, to me at least, to be about capitalism and how it can turn anyone into Parasites. The film cleverly makes an argument for how daily competition can get cutthroat, but more importantly it dives into how the poor can get lost in the chaos by trying to smother each other in an attempt to climb into the higher class. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is also its most depressing. I’ll leave the specifics to the third act, but when Ki-woo allows himself to be filled with hope at the thought of eventually saving his Father from isolation through the power of money.. it is this hope that has infected him, it is what continues the cycle of poverty and despair. Ki-Woo even has a plan. Which is even worse when considering what his father pointed out earlier in the film when revealing that lives with laid out plans are never lived that way.

I’d be a fool not to point out the crucial performances of all the actors in the film, the movie wouldn’t work without the skills on display and comittment to the craft. Kang-ho Song, as Ki-taek (the father of the Kim family), in particular was a fascinating performance to watch evolve over the course of the film, he did so much with even the smallest facial expressions. Everyone though put in standout performances. “Parasite” is a unique and powerful drama/thriller that I highly recommend to everyone. This movie should win Best Picture, it’s got my vote! (If I were voting for the Oscars that is…)

Final Score: 4 Parks, 4 Kims

*For fun, check out this video that further analyzes the film, be warned though, it contains ALL THE SPOILERS!

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Old School Review: "They Live" (1988)

Written and directed by John Carpenter, “They Live” is genre filmmaking at it’s finest. Overtly political and eerily prescient with it’s themes and imagery, this film from Carpenter is one that could (or should) be remade or rebooted (or however you want to phrase it) with today’s issues and politics. Famous Wrestling star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays as the lead here, John Nada, a wandering vagrant looking for work. As Nada enters Los Angeles, he’s optimistic about his opportunities despite his standing in life. Eventually he’s hired as a construction worker and one of his fellow homeless workers, Frank (Keith David), offers to show him where he and others in similar situations live, a small community of ramshackle housing just outside of downtown L.A. After he’s accepted by the multiracial and marginalized people, Nada begins to notice a few strange things taking place.

In the homeless community there’s a couple television sets strewn about with a few people aimlessly watching them. Though when alternative programming begins to break through the static, a man’s face appears as he tries to bring the truth to the people. He warns of the ruling class who own us, using humanity as cattle, and taking advantage of our fondness for wealth for the loss of the human race. No, these aren’t Wall Street Executives, Politicians, or Industrial Tycoons- they’re an alien race hiding amongst us and using these positions of power to subjugate the masses. The allegory isn’t subtle, but it sure is a fun concept, and Carpenter squeezes every drop of vile ichor of defiance against his real world targets as he can. Not long after the revolutionary programming is cut from the air, Nada witnesses one of the homeless men hurrying off to a church just on the outskirts of the shantytown. Piquing Nada’s interest, he decides to go check it out. As he enters into the back of the church, he sees cardboard boxes all over the place alongside a chemical lab of some sort. After he accidentally trips into a breakaway wall, he quickly puts the fake wall back into place and heads back to the shantytown. Things rapidly escalate out of control after this with helicopters hovering over the revolutionaries’ church hideout before they get paranoid and escape just before an army of police and SWAT teams descend upon the church. When they don’t find their victims, they turn to the homeless shantytown and swiftly destroy it with brutality and efficiency. The next morning after the demolition, Nada heads back to the church and stumbles across the one cardboard box left inside the fake wall he’d fallen into before. Inside are a bunch of black sunglasses, curiously, he takes the box and heads into downtown L.A. before tying on a pair. The result is a profound awakening for Nada as the sunglasses allow him to see the true meanings of all the advertisements throughout the city in black and white.

As he wanders about the city in sheer awe, he also realizes that the glasses allow him to see which people are disgusting aliens in hiding, and which are simply humans. Notably, most of the upper class and people in positions of privilege are alien impostors enjoying the finer things in life. After he reveals to a few aliens that he can see them, they immediately (and creepily) all turn towards him from across crowds and stores and speak into their watches describing Nada’s appearance and reporting it like a hivemind collective. “We’ve got one that can see“. So after causing a bunch of raucous and gaining a whole lot of attention for himself, Nada takes up arms and openly starts killing any impostor aliens that he can find. After this backfires when he finds a human he (wrongly) thinks he can trust, Holly (Meg Foster) one of the TV executive personalities in L.A., Nada searches for Frank. Which brings me to one of the silliest yet most memorable fight scenes in film to this day. Frank wants nothing to do with the danger and notoriety that Nada’s earned, but Nada desperately wants to convince the only person that’s been a friend to him in the city to see the truth and neither will back down. Thus resulting in a six minute long fight scene in a Los Angeles alley, every time you think it’s over, it just keeps going. Apparently, Roddy Piper and Keith David choreographed the whole fight themselves and mostly fought it out as you saw it onscreen, with the exception of those groin shots and the obvious work that goes into fight scenes in films to avoid actual harm. Finally, when Nada forces the glasses onto Frank’s face and he sees the truth, he is shocked and energized to fight against the system with Nada. The third act gets silly with it’s level of over the top violence and Nada’s one-liners are typical of many 1980’s action stars, but it’s all in good fun. Eventually the two escape using the aliens teleportation to find a hidden bunker of self congratulating aliens and the humans that got rich off of the cooperation and further enslavement of humanity. It’s another on-the-nose commentary about those who help to enable the rich and elite to control the majority of people, and I enjoyed the anti-establishment tone and messaging Carpenter was going for throughout the film.

As the two work their way through the compound, they discover that the aliens are using a broadcasting signal that emits waves that mask their appearance to the masses. So, obviously, they head towards the tower on top of the building to destroy it. On the way there they’re met by one of the men at the homeless encampment who was actually a human mole in the shantytown who congratulates them for being accepted into the big leagues and shows them around. Eventually the two out themselves and make a last ditch effort to scale the skyscraper’s stairwells to the roof. Once there, Holly tries to stop Nada, but he declines and destroys the broadcasting device and is unceremoniously gunned down, but not before he gives the aliens one last middle finger. As the signal fades, the aliens begin to appear in their true forms across the globe and the disgust on the humans’ faces everywhere reveal an optimistic note to end on.

“They Live” is ripe with potential for a sequel in today’s world. If the Reaganomics of the 1980’s had enough potential for cinematic mockery and criticism than the Trump era is perfect for a sequel of this kind. All of the social commentary that made “They Live” work so well could be applied here tenfold. Income inequality has skyrocketed since the 1980’s, Trump himself is the epitome of a stooge impostor that enforces policies and executive orders that pit the middle class against each other based on race and hatred, I mean, the material for this basically writes itself. Just toss John Cena in for the Nada archetype of Middle-America everyman and team him up with Lakeith Stanfield or Daniel Kaluuya and have them end up taking on the elite alien overlords and call it “We Sleep”. You could do so much with this concept in today’s world, just think of the examination of social media and smartphones as tools of the subjugation of the masses- I mean, this needs to happen.

Final Score: Six Minutes of Street Fighting

*A quick note: I don’t usually get too political in my reviews or analysis of films- but as this film is uniquely political in nature, I felt that it was vital to the discussion. Please be kind and courteous if you leave comments, lets have a civil discourse if we must disagree. Hell, disagreeing about politics is about the most American thing you can do, let’s just not turn to name calling or personal attacks- it’s just a movie after all. Thanks for reading!

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My 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2020

Now that we’re in the new year and the new decade, it’s time to look forward to the movies expected to release this year and hope for the best. 2020 will have a long way to go to outdo 2019, the latter half was filled with excellent additions to Cinema and honestly, I had a great time with those films! Good luck 2020, you’re gonna need it!

10 Wonder Woman 1984

I’m glad DC took the time to really invest in Wonder Woman because she’s probably their best character as far as the films go. It’s gonna get weird being a prequel to the “Justice league”, a sequel to her origin movie, and a trip back in time. I’m not sure how they’ll resolve the notion of Steve Trevor being alive after that crucial third act sacrifice in the first film, but hey, I guess if Captain America can do it… so can a random pilot from World War One? Oh well, I trust the filmmakers on this one- they wouldn’t deliberately fuck up their best character’s second outing (I hope).

9 Tenet

That first trailer for “Tenet” puts Christopher Nolan’s next film in the same category of sci-fi as “Inception”, and that rules. I’ve really enjoyed most of Nolan’s films, even though “Interstellar” left me a little cold, I still think he’s one of our best working filmmakers. This one looks to take the concept of time and play with it until we can no longer tell how or why we perceive things happening in any category of order. Should get real weird, and I like that.

8 The Dune Remake

While the original “Dune” made by David Lynch in the 1980’s wasn’t exactly a success critically or financially, I still get a kick out of it. More importantly though, Denis Villeneuve is directing this film, and if he could make an outstanding sequel to “Blade Runner” then I’m sure he can tackle a remake of “Dune”, especially with the cast he’s assembled. Really looking forward to this one!

7 Top Gun: Maverick

I’m not a particularly gigantic fan of the original “Top Gun” but I did enjoy it for the most part. The reason I’m excited to see this one is because of the version of Tom Cruise that we have for it. He’s evolved and matured and gotten so phenomenally good at being an Action Film Star since the first one that I legitimately don’t know how he’s going to pull this one off. The man himself is a Maverick all his own so I can only imagine how insane his stunt work and dedication to delivering white knuckle sequences is gonna be this time around, and I appreciate him all the more for it.

6 007 No Time to Die

This is it. The last chance for Daniel Craig’s Bond to cap off his film series on a high note. I’ve particularly loved Craig’s Bond. Granted, “Quantum of Solace” was abysmal and “Spectre” was somewhat lacking, but “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall” were two of the best Bond films out of the whole series. It’ll be fascinating to see how this Bond ends his era of films.

5 Bill and Ted Face The Music

The two “Bill and Ted” movies we got in the early 1990’s are some of my favorite films to throw on in the background. They’re inherently silly and full of 1990’s slacker-isms and the obsession with Rock and Roll and the power that comes with it is just, so good. This little corner of film is a favorite of mine, “Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny” is another similar one, and these epic/corny odes to the power of music is close to my celluloid loving heart. That and who doesn’t want more Keanu Reeves? Over the next two years we’re getting this, another “Matrix” movie, and the next “John Wick”, man, life’s good for Keanu these days. Whoa indeed.

4 Last Night in SoHo

This is the film on the list I know least about. All I needed to hear was “This is the next film Edgar Wright’s making” for it to get on the list, however, I’ve heard it gets a little slippery with a time travel concept thrown in the mix. Yeah, I’m in.

3 Halloween Kills

Personally, I loved the “Halloween” reboot from 2018. That movie ruled and I loved the idea of rewriting the horror icon’s history to lean into the supernatural aspect of Michael Myers. Plus, the opening credits of that film get me so pumped for that mass-murdering psycho to run all over Haddonfield IL brutally killing anyone he can get his hands on. Can’t wait!

2 Marvel’s Eternals

All I know about this one is that it’s a Space Opera-like setting and style, playing with the larger than life characters that inhabit Marvel’s deep space. Last time I heard anything like that we got “The Guardians of The Galaxy”, yep, I’m here for that. I mean, I’m a sucker for a good sci-fi movie, so this one’s for you to win Marvel!

1 Godzilla VS Kong

I have absolutely no shame in being INCREDIBLY hyped for this movie. Now that Godzilla’s had an excellent sequel and Kong with a superb origin film- I am firmly devout in my obsession with this one. I adore Kaiju movies, and Godzilla and King Kong are my two favorites (sorry Gamera). This movie will, probably, be pure spectacle, action, and terror! I go to the movies to feel things, see compelling stories unfold, be surprised, engaged, and made to connect with characters both moral and horrific. I truly hope this film has an intelligent script, smart characters, all the usual ingredients for a solid film- That being said, I just wanna see these two Legendary characters fight in an epic battle and I don’t care if it’s seen as trivial garbage by some, this one’s completely for fun and I don’t care I’m just so excited for it!

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Review: Uncut Gems

Written by Ronald Bronstein, & Josh and Benny Safdie, and directed by The Safdie Brothers, “Uncut Gems” is the ultimate anxiety inducing film. The film seems designed to put viewers on edge, to drag them into the world of New York City Jewelers and more specifically into the realm of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). Howard’s a man of conflict and obsession. As a New York City Jewel salesman that makes every ill-conceived, high risk, and unwise choice possible with his life, Howard is a man whose entire existence is at the boiling point. Howard’s relationship with addiction, stress, and the next big score is incredibly dangerous. As soon as the film begins we’re introduced to Howard putting the funding from several loans and gambling rackets immediately into even more high risk bets on the NBA. Which is where Kevin Garnett comes in. The Boston Celtics star athlete is brought in from one of Howard’s many lures he’s thrown out into the abyss and right when Howard receives an extremely rare opal from Ethiopia his pure passion for the rock explodes and he decides to show Garnett. Unfortunately for Howard, Garnett immediately has a sort of vision or soul bond with the rare rock and wants to buy it from Howard. The thing is, Howard’s already several steps into another financial scam to sell the opal at an auction for an incredibly inflated price. His admiration for the basketball player outshines his reasoning and he allows Garnett to “borrow” the Opal for his championship game. This is but one of many, MANY, poor decisions that Howard makes over the course of several days.

I’ll leave the details about the plot points for those of you interested enough to check this one out, it’s definitely a film I recommend if you’re okay with a near constant assault on your nerve endings, but it was an exhilarating and unique movie-going experience. The specifics aren’t exactly the point of the film anyways, at least as I view it. It’s more about the onslaught of noise, the squirming in your seat when Howard does the exact opposite thing that any sane person would do, but Sandler’s performance keeps you entrenched in the fury and downward spiral of Howard’s actions. Dressed in his best Lando Calrissian attire, Howard is always on the move, always hustling whether he’s on the streets, walking through hallways, lobbies, he never stops talking and never stops moving to the next step in his countless plans already in motion. The score really stood out to me, it’s a cacophony of juxtaposing heavy synth sounds not unlike that of “Blade Runner”‘s score mixed with Saxophone solos and an eight-person choir. The mix of an incredibly fast-paced and unsettling narrative with the slow and almost cosmic transcendence of the score was eerie and a brilliant choice in my opinion. There’s also the dialogue. It’s mixed and directed to be more realistic. Everybody talks over each other and no one stops to listen to each other until their profits are endangered. It’s a bit gross, but refreshing, it reflects the choice to showcase New York like the sleazy and hustling place that it is, seemingly a throwback to the 1970’s filmmaking done in New York.

“Uncut Gems” is almost more of an assault on your senses than a narrative based film. The experiential flurry that is this film is recommended, but with a warning to those weak of heart. This is a film wherein a flawed, but somehow endearing (thanks to Sandler’s performance), man schemes, gambles, and risks everything in his life. It’s a cycle of mutual grime, but it’s an interesting way to start the year, and the decade. Happy New Year people!

Final Score: 1 Uncut Gem

*For fun, check out this “Actors on Actors” discussion Variety put together between Brad Pitt and Adam Sandler who both chat each other up on their recent performances:

*Also, here’s an NPR article on the score of the film, definitely worth a read:

https://www.npr.org/2019/12/28/791473556/inside-uncut-gems-a-cosmic-score-in-a-frantic-film