Parasite

What’s so good about Parasite? Everything, really. It’s hard to find fault with the pitch-perfect ensemble acting of this Korean black comedy, the mischievous storyline and dialogue, the splendid visuals, set-pieces and score. Any disappointment will stem from the sky-high expectation that goes with a film that has swept all before it, the winner of 185 awards including Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for Bong Joon-ho. If you haven’t seen it yet, try to avoid the noise and fanfare. And stop reading this review now.

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The film can be enjoyed on many levels, from penthouse to pavement (and below) – as a class-war satire/thriller, a supernatural horror, a ‘life-swap’ comedy or an expertly choreographed farce, with designer house as stage-set.

Parasite starts with the camera at ‘semi-basement’ level, looking up onto the street past what looks like a lampshade of pegged socks, hanging from the ceiling to dry. This is the cramped home of the Kim family, piled high with towers of empty pizza boxes, in which the toilet is squeezed onto a ledge next to the kitchen sink. Their home is a favoured spot for by passing drunks, who piss against the window. More welcome are the fumes of pest fumigators which reduce their cockroach infestation.

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“We’re screwed,” says teenaged son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), bemoaning the loss of their ‘bounteous’ free wi-fi. His dad (Song Kan-ho) advises him to hold the phone high up and “stick it into every corner”.  This is a plan that could also roughly describe how the Kims later insinuate themselves into the lives of an unsuspecting rich family: they aim high, front it out and engineer a sort of parasitical takeover.

When a friend offers Ki-woo the opportunity to replace him as tutor to a rich girl, he enlists the help of his cunning sister (Park So-dam) to create the necessary fake CV and qualifications.  One thing leads to another and soon the Kims are all enjoying the Park family’s architect-designed home of as if it were their own.

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At this point writer-director Bong shifts the tone from comedy to horror, as the Parks’ former housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) rings on the doorbell to announce that she has left something in the cellar …

Amidst the film’s broad satire – the swipes at the rich, the sly digs at American consumerism and child-centred parenting – some of the best scenes are those that mix things up, the mash-ups of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. There is an erotic, funny and cringeworthy sex scene. And the stylish slo-mo dowsing of a pissing drunk with a bucket of water, accompanied by choral singing – like a soft-porn shampoo advert directed by Sam Peckinpah.

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What is it that separates the upper-class Parks from the lowly Kims? Certainly not intelligence, as the Kims run rings around their hosts. Finally, it comes down to smell. The Kims can fake it to make it, but they cannot wash the smells of the ‘semi-basement’ and subway out of their clothes. It is this smell that “crosses the line”, for Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), who twitches his nose in disgust and ultimately pays the price for his snootiness.

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The Lighthouse

This claustrophobic black and white psychological drama is a wild and salty cinematic treat. Set on a God-forsaken rock off the coast of 1890s Maine, it shines a light on the stormy relationship between two newly-stationed ‘wickies’ (or lighthouse keepers), as they try to survive being cooped up together for five weeks. Writer-director Robert Eggers, whose eerie debut The Witch (2015) was so atmospheric, uses these limitations to his advantage, ramping up tension through sound and shadow. By the end, with mental and physical storms raging, the camera is also climbing the walls.

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From the start The Lighthouse is unusual. Apart from the lack of colour, we notice that the screen size is more like the old TV ratio, boxed in like its warring characters. Out of a blank sepia sea there gradually appears the shape of an approaching ship. To the sound of shrieking gulls and foghorn blasts two men row ashore, then they stand next to each other, staring into the camera for what seems like a long time, as if they were posing for a Victorian photograph.

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They are grizzled old sea-dog Thomas Wake (Willem Defoe) and the younger Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), already owner of an exhausted thousand-yard stare and, we later learn, a murky past. As the two men unpack in their cramped attic bedroom they remain silent except for the exchange of a couple of farts and whistles, a gentle prelude to the buffeting winds ahead.

The dynamic between them is quickly established over one of many gas-lit meals. Wake dominates, rambling on like Captain Ahab in a kind of Old Testament West Country burr, his words a briny broth of maritime myths and allusions. ‘You do as I say,’ he tells the reserved Winslow, making him do the menial jobs like shovelling the coal and emptying the pisspots.

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The main bone of contention between them becomes the ‘lantern’, which Wake mysteriously refuses to let the other man tend. ‘The light is mine,’ he says, locking the trapdoor so that other man cannot climb up to the top to even look at it. When Winslow does climb the spiral staircase to spy on Wake, he sees him stripped to the waist as if he is sunbathing. We hear him talking to someone. Slime slithers through the grill of the metal floor and we glimpse a monstrous tentacle or tail.

As both men start to lose their grip on sanity Eggers expertly orchestrates the action and dialogue, so there is no danger of theatricality. We get squalls of black comedy that could have been written by Beckett or Pinter after reading Moby Dick, but these are mixed with the surreal – disturbing visions of Neptune, mermaids and sea-creatures.

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One of the script’s blackly-comic highlights (co-written by Eggers’ brother, Mac) is a drunken argument about Wake’s cooking, in which he turns into Neptune to deliver an epic fire-and-brimstone curse on the younger man. After a pause, Winslow says, ‘alright, have it your way. I like your cooking.’ Elsewhere, they repeatedly say ‘what?’ to each other, in what should be ridiculous pre-fight banter, but ends up funny and natural. The two actors push each other into memorably unhinged, elemental performances which seem more like an organic response to the challenging conditions they found themselves working in.

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With the rock’s hostile seagull, there is an echo of Hitchcock’s The Birds here. Something about the surreal atmosphere of this monochrome fiIm also made me think of Bunuel’s 1930 classic L’Age d’Or (close-up of a wooden carving found in Winslow’s pillow) and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).

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The Personal History of David Copperfield

Like Charles Dickens himself, this adaptation of David Copperfield is energetic fun, full of zest and effervescent comedy. Director Armando Iannucci’s film sweeps us along with a series of quickfire character sketches of the sort Dickens began with (Sketches by Boz), but it skims over the more serious parts of his autobiographical novel.

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A top-notch British cast relish the chance to join Dickens’ parade of eccentrics and it feels as if they often improvised and went ‘off-piste’. Much of the linguistic invention here is not taken from the book itself. For example, David describes the pistons at the factory where he works as ‘nodding like mad melancholy elephants.’

Everywhere you look there are memorable turns, with Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick, Tilda Swinton as Betsy Trotwood (‘she’s fierce, like a birthing badger’), Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep and Daisy May Cooper (This Country) as Peggotty.

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Traditionalists are likely to be irritated by the ways in which Armando Iannucci seeks to freshen up the fusty ‘heritage’ conventions of period costume drama. From the word go, an Asian Dickens/Copperfield (Dev Patel) finishes addressing his London theatre audience, then breaks the ‘fourth wall’ by striding straight out into the English countryside to witness his own birth. We later see a love-sick Davey’s flights of fancy, as everything turns into Dora – clouds, pub signs, St Paul’s Cathedral. When he goes out on the town with Steerforth and chums Iannucci presents their drunken shenanigans as a knockabout speeded-up silent movie, with piano accompaniment to match.

Fans of The Death of Stalin will know that we should not expect faithful, anodyne retelling of (literary) history. For the most part The Personal History of David Copperfield works, but there is little in the way of substance here. David’s bereavement is played for laughs and Mr. Murdstone, so dark and disturbing in the novel, is reduced to a ‘pair of eyebrows’.

The open-faced and open-hearted Dev Patel makes a splendid Dickens/David, amused and bewildered by what life throws at him. The film is concerned with the history of how Dickens became a writer, the way he memorises and writes down everything unusual, such as Peggoty’s daft sayings (‘a potato is a crocodile’), and stores the rogue’s gallery of characters in his head, entertaining his schoolmates with impressions.

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Perhaps the most affecting scene is the one that best mixes comedy and pathos. David finds a wonderfully imaginative cure for Mr. Dick’s delusion (that he is the beheaded Charles the First), gluing all the scraps of his written bad thoughts onto a kite, then going out to fly it – ‘releasing the troubling thoughts to the wind.’

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Whether this comedic ‘therapy’ flies your own kite, or indeed floats your boat, will depend upon taste. If you agree with Uriah Heep’s mother, who prefers ‘a heavy cake’ (a mountainous Christmas pudding-type creation), then the cheeky ‘light sponge’ of Iannucci’s confection might not quite hit the spot.

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1917

Likely to rank alongside the best war films ever made, 1917 is an immersive, visceral and moving cinematic experience. In what appears to be two long camera takes it propels us on a life-or-death mission into the trenches and battlefields of World War One. Amidst the carnage, writer-director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakin find unexpected beauty.  1917 shows us the terrible futility of the ‘Great War’, but also the quiet heroism and humanity that somehow survive the horror.

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The film is set on April 6th, 1917, with the German army seemingly in retreat and British soldiers waiting for a decisive ‘Big Push’ on the French frontline. Phone lines have been cut, so General Erinmore (Colin Firth) orders Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) to hand-deliver a critical message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment a few miles away. If the messengers don’t warn them to call off their planned attack, a massacre will happen. Blake’s brother belongs to the 2nd, so he has extra motivation.

Like Hans Zimmer’s ‘ticking clock’ in Dunkirk, Thomas Newman’s terrific score quickens the pulse and ramps up the tension: jittery Eastern-flavored percussion and zither accompany the soldiers as they push past their comrades to get to No Man’s Land. They make an endearing pair, Blake more talkative and jokey than his older friend, who has survived the Somme. Both actors were probably chosen for their baby-faced features; George MacKay (so likeable in Pride and Sunshine on Leith) looks a bit like Greta Thunberg and he becomes the plain-talking conscience of the film.

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‘There’s nothing like a scrap of ribbon to cheer up a widow’, he mutters sarcastically when Blake gets excited about the idea of getting a medal. Schofield tells him that he swapped his own medal for a bottle of wine: ‘it’s just a bit of bloody tin. It doesn’t make any difference.’ With its mud, rats, barbed wire, shellshock and industrial-scale slaughter, there’s no glory to be found here. Mendes shows us the corpses and devastation – trees reduced to burnt matchsticks – and has one of the soldiers sum up the pointlessness of trench warfare. ‘Look at it,’ he says incredulously, surveying the blasted landscape beyond the front, ‘we fought three years for this?’

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‘Time is the Enemy’, reads 1917‘s tagline. There are also the Germans to contend with. Interestingly, and perhaps unusually in our PC times, there is no light and shade in the film’s depiction of ‘the Bosch’.  They are the outright baddies, portrayed as a dishonourable, relentless and deviously nasty. Their soldiers have better food than the Brits, so they have ‘bigger rats than us’. Blake and Schofield marvel at their ability to construct underground dorms housing proper beds. But the retreating Germans leave booby traps behind. They have machine-gunned cows, chopped down fruit trees and sabotaged their own guns and trenches.

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Amidst the gloom there are glimmers of hope. Schofield chances upon a woman and baby hiding in the bombed-out village of Ecoust-Saint-Mein. In a lovely scene he gives them his food and drink, then tenderly recites Edward Lear’s The Jumblies to the baby, the poem’s words taking on added poignancy (‘And they went to sea in a sieve’).

Elsewhere, there is birdsong and blossom falling like snow. Nature bookends the film, showing its resilience. Mendes and Deakins take us to the gates of hell and back, but life will prevail. Given time, the poppies will raise their heads.

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Knives Out

“We had a blast making this movie,” says writer-director Rian Johnson in a pre-recorded intro to Knives Out. Alas, I did not have a blast watching it. The trailer promised a clever, waspish and stylised take on the whodunnit genre, but the film itself was overlong, curiously unengaging and only intermittently fun. There were a couple of laughs and twisty flourishes, but the starry ensemble cast struggle to breathe life into a disappointingly pedestrian script. “Something is afoot with this whole affair,” ponders private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). “This is a donut case.” No shit, Sherlock.

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When millionaire mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his turreted mansion, throat slit while reclining on his chaise longue, the police interview his family and nurse, aided by the eccentric Blanc. At first, “the last of the gentlemen sleuths” stays in the background – his only  contribution a few random ‘plinks’ on the piano.

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Who done it? Take your pick from a motley crew of selfish and conniving relatives, who all have motive. Most had arguments with Harlan while attending his 85th birthday party on the night of his death. Was it eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), or her Trumpish husband Richard (Don Johnson)? How about publisher son, Walt (Michael Shannon), peeved at Harlan’s refusal to sell film rights for his books to Netflix? Or lifestyle guru Joni (Toni Collette). Grandson Ransom is the black sheep of the family, who clashed with the old man before storming out – he seems like the obvious culprit.

Given that it is always the person you least suspect – often those who are featured least – could it have been Great Nana Thrombey, Harlan’s mother (K Callan)? The ancient matriarch lurks in the shadows, beady eye trained on the shenanigans. She looks like Maggie Smith’s Lady in the Van, with costume by the Cardinal of Wolsey.

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Amidst all the backbiting, warm-hearted Hispanic nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) is called upon by Blanc to help him figure things out. As luck would have it, she cannot lie without vomiting. Despite supposedly being “one of the family,” Marta was not invited to Harlan’s funeral. Johnson pokes fun at the Thrombeys’ racism and there is a running joke about her country of origin, with an ironic quote from the musical Hamilton thrown in for good measure: “immigrants – we get things done.”

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Daniel Craig has fun as the enigmatic Blanc, his gravelly Southern drawl sometimes redolent of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards. He is fond of embellishing his speech with long words, claiming “ma presence will be ornamental,” or boasting that his brain “arrives unerringly at the truth.” He is also fond of brandishing an even longer cigar – the size of a policeman’s truncheon.

The first half of Knives Out really drags. Despite the Cluedo board visuals there is no real atmosphere or tension to pull you in. With its tedious close-ups of faces and furniture, the film has a queasy ‘made-for-TV’ feel to it, with little sense of anything going on beneath the surfaces.

Thankfully, things do liven up when we escape the confines of the ancestral mansion and opulent estate, which we eventually learn, “was bought off a Pakistani in the ‘80s.”

Knives Out may all be an elaborate satirical game, of the sort beloved by its control-freak murder victim. But it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

Monos

This critically-acclaimed Columbian war drama about a guerrilla band of teenage soldiers fighting for survival has echoes of Lord of the Flies, Apocalypse Now and Deliverance. But Monos (‘Monkeys’ in Spanish) has its own unique atmosphere and style, one created in large part by its outstanding cinematography and score, but also by a welcome shift of gears half-way through in which campfire surrealism is replaced by primal Rambo-esque jungle action.

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Director Alejandro Landes’ film opens with a dark screen and we hear a scuffling sort of tinkling sound, difficult to make sense of. Eventually we see a group of blindfolded kids playing football with a homemade ball with a bell attached to it. They are on a mountain-top above the clouds, as if they were in a Caspar David Friedrich painting. But their home is weirdly unnatural – a flattened plateau with concrete bunkers.

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Why are they here? And what are they doing? Bits of the puzzle are gradually explained but the whole situation remains mysterious. The teenagers are called ‘The Monos’ by The Messenger, a sergeant-major dwarf who trains them. The kids go by nicknames like Smurf, Bigfoot, Lady, Boom-Boom and Rambo. They work for ‘The Organisation’, entrusted with guarding a prisoner-of-war (Julianne Nicholson) and a cow named Shakira.

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The Monos have their own rules and rituals, such as taking it in turns to beat someone with a belt on their birthday. They also have their own automatic rifles, which look huge next to them, and sound deafening when they go off. The different personalities jostle for position in the group and sexual passions cause rifts and resentments. Sensitive Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) increasingly feels like an outsider amongst the more macho types such as Bigfoot (Moises Arias) and Dog (Paul Cubides).

When things fall apart the Columbian jungle beckons. Monos then becomes a thrilling chase movie, a white-knuckle ride into the heart of darkness with a superbly vivid natural backdrop. Composer Mica Levi’s score, which had been a minimalistic breathy panpipe riff, becomes more explosive, with sonic booms and phased electronic ‘whap-whaps’ to evoke whirring helicopter blades.

Amidst the action there are stunning images of nature: mist on the mountains; an aerial shot of a torrential river running brown as mudslides join it; underwater bubbles in raging rapids and the luminous greens of the jungle as rain cascades down.

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Glimpses of civilization and normal family life feel like a relief and nearly succeed in bringing a smile to Rambo’s face. It is a shock to rejoin ‘real life’ after so long with the renegades. In a surreally funny scene, we get to watch a snatch of TV about the German city Bonn, famous as ‘the home of Gummy Bears’, with film of factory conveyor-belts of bear-shaped sweets.

Monos is a plea to safeguard Columbia’s children and natural resources, but as its cryptic ending shows, Landes and co-writer Alexis Dos Santos do not have the answers, only more questions about how to keep children safe in a dangerous society that is stealing their childhoods and threatening their future (a newspaper headline reads: DEFORESTACION). These monkeys need looking after, not brutalized.

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Joker

“What do you get if you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” This is the sort of killing joke delivered by party clown Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as he embarks on an unlikely career in standup comedy. The punchline is: one of the best films of 2019 and a devastating performance from one of our finest actors. Joker is ostensibly a DC Comics origin story of Batman’s enemy, The Joker, but Todd Phillips’ film is a long way from superhero CGI bombast. Instead it feels like a 1970s arthouse classic, a Taxi Driver for our own troubled times.

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Similarities with Scorsese’s antihero, Travis Bickle, were also made after Phoenix’s last film, You Were Never Really Here (2018). The actor has shed much of his (then) bear-like bulk to portray the wiry Arthur, who sometimes contorts his torso like a tortured Iggy Pop, but also waltzes gracefully with his mother (Frances Conroy), who he still lives with. Their favourite TV programme is the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) talk show, which Arthur dreams of appearing on.

We are in Gotham City, 1981. Garbage is piling up in the streets and ‘Super rats’ are on the loose. Graffiti-covered subway trains flash past like pop art film strips. As funding cuts start to bite, resentments simmer, not helped by mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) labelling the poor as ‘clowns.’

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The film opens with the camera on Arthur’s clown face. It seems like he is practicing laughing in front of the mirror, but his eyes signal despair and this laughter feels more like crying. We later learn that he has a neurological condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably at random times; he has a printed card that explains this to members of the public. Arthur is on seven different sorts of medication but still can’t get relief from his mental suffering, telling his social worker that he felt better when he was “locked up in the hospital”.

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After Arthur gets beaten up by robbers while working on the street, a sympathetic colleague gives him a gun to defend himself from “all the crazy shit out there.” As he begins his quest for recognition, what could possibly go wrong?

As part of a magnetic performance that dominates Joker, Joaquin Phoenix humanizes his anti-hero. Arthur has old-fashioned manners; he deplores how ‘awful’ people are, these days. He is kind to old ladies and children. There are glimmers of light in the darkness of his life, but how many are real, rather than just fantasy?

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Arthur’s mental turmoil and journey to his new Joker persona are mirrored by a terrific original score from Icelandic composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir. Her mournful cello builds to a glacial intensity and, joined by violins and clattering percussion, achieves a symphonic grandeur.

Another musical highlight is the use of Gary Glitter’s 1972 hit Rock and Roll Part 2, which adds a transgressive frisson to one of Joker’s most stylish and memorable scenes: the perfect ‘outlawed’ soundtrack to the creation of an outlaw. The film’s representatives have been quick to point out that the disgraced former pop star didn’t earn a penny in royalties from the song’s use.

The Joker himself looks like a kind of mongrel 80’s pop star, with the face of Morrissey, the hair of Bono, make-up by Kiss and wardrobe by Kid Creole & The Coconuts.

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