“Parasite” is Both Bizarre and Brilliant ... and Not to be Missed
For fans and followers of director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Mother,” “Snowpiercer”), you are truly in for a treat with his latest feature, and for those new to this creative genius, welcome to the wonderful creative world of this critically acclaimed filmmaker. “Parasite,” which just completed its festival run at the Mill Valley Film Festival 42 and won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a dark comedy thriller that is as peculiar and startling, as it is well-crafted and intriguing. The story revolves around an impoverished family of four, living in small, dirty and cluttered basement apartment in a South Korean neighborhood. The parents are unemployed and their twenty something children, a younger smart son, and crafty and cynical daughter, drift from school and piecing together odd jobs to keep the family afloat. Despite their circumstances, they have easy-going dispositions and a strong sense of camaraderie. But they are broke and desperate. As such, when the son, Kim Ki-woo (Woo- sis Choi) is given the opportunity to be an English tutor to the high school daughter of an affluent family, he reinvents himself, doctors his resume, and lands the job.
Early on in his tenure, he endears himself to the well-meaning, slightly neurotic stay-at-home mom, Park Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), convincing her that her young son needs an art therapist to develop his talent and calm him down. He recommends his sister, Ki-jung (So-dam Park) without identifying her as such. Ki-jung has zero qualifications as a therapist, but like her brother, she cons her way into the Park family employment. Through series of situations, mostly created by the siblings, the entire Kim family is soon integrated into the unsuspecting rich family’s life. The father chauffeuring the husband who is a successful and insensitive businessman, and Mrs. Kim is cunningly put in place as the new maid. None though are known as family to their employers. As far as the rich family is concerned, the new employees are relatively strangers to one another. The Park family is, for the most part, grateful for each new hire, and the Kims can hardly believe their sudden windfall. Although they are convinced, the best is yet to come, their ill-gotten gains may turn on them.
How the stealthy Kim clan scheme their way into the Park household and secure new-found finances is only a portion of what makes up this one-of-a-kind drama. The second half of the film takes a decidedly dark turn, stirring up social issues along the way. Between the haves and have nots, almost no character is endearing or redeeming. In fact, most are despicable. While this would normally make it hard for audiences to connect within any other film, it works for “Parasite.” You may not sympathize with anyone, but you are invested in all characters and each plot point. Between the Kims and the Parks, the performances from every actor is precise, believable and absorbing. As to the script, at every turn there is a revelation. How Bong subtly explores cultural dynamics and weaves social issues along the way defies explanation. This is yet another example of him deftly mixing genres, while also developing fully realized characters to tell complex and rich stories. While “Parasite” makes perfect sense as part of his repertoire of the absurd- the look, the feel, the characters- it somehow manages to stand out. Just when you thought a Bong Joon- ho movie couldn’t get more weird or wonderful, he delivers a masterpiece.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Jin Won Han, Bong Joon-ho
Stars: Kang-ho Song, Yeo-Yeo-jong Jo, So-dam Park
Country: South Korea
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 132 min
Pedro Almodóvar Explores the Pain & Glory of a Filmmaker’s Past & Present
The maestro of Spanish cinema, Pedro Almodóvar, known for quirky characters, bold themes and daring aesthetics, delivers a quieter more sublime story in his latest film of memory and loss. “Pain and Glory” focuses on his film alter ego, aging film director Salvador Mallo, as he navigates his past and possibly non-existent future. He obsessively grapples with the loss of inspiration and a body riddled with pain due to multiple medical issues. Mallo, played brilliantly by Antonio Banderas, hits a career milestone as he enters the 40 year anniversary as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, it’s not a celebratory time for the director who seems to have come to a halt in his creativity and loss of appetite for life. As such, he reaches out to Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), a lead actor from a project some 20 years earlier, with an infamous reputation for drug use- on and off the set.
Their relationship during the movie production was fraught with tension and resentment, leaving them parting on bad terms never to re-connect until now. “Pain and Glory” begins at their reunion, and although rocky at first, they soon forgive and forget and offer up an unhealthy partnership. While going down memory lane, Mallo, who’s always lived a drug-free life, asks Crespo to share his habit. Crespo obliges, but has a request of his own: To access Mallo’s neglected recent writings to make into a one-man show of his own.
The film takes place over a brief period of time, but in it, Almodóvar journeys the audience from Mallo’s boyhood past to the present. As a boy born to poor parents in the countryside, the prominent figure in his life was his strict, yet loving and ever-present mother portrayed soulfully by Penelope Cruz. The other key childhood character in Mallo’s life was a local teen handyman. His mother bartered her son’s tutorial skills for the handyman’s work around their house. Young Mallo was content with this arrangement and happy to attend the local school, but his world was shaken when his mom insisted he take advantage of a free education at an all-boys Catholic boarding school.
“Pain and Glory” is a personal, sad and poignant story that is, as always for an Almodovar film, shot beautifully with rich, vibrant tones, including the protagonist’s art-filled apartment. There is a visual bonus with a unique tech-type segment showcasing Mallo’s maladies. Just like Almodóvar found a creative and entertaining way to portray a questionable sexual encounter (rape) in “Talk to Her,” the medical segment here, is as visually inventive. The real standout of this film though is Banderas himself. This may be one of the best roles of his career, if not the best. His portrayal is subtle, yet complex, but that in itself is not enough to elevate the overall movie to masterpiece level as some are calling it. It is achingly too small, underwhelming and lacking energy. The script, penned by Almodóvar, doesn’t go deep enough to be considered either a great character study, nor a strong situational drama. While this is a laudable minor film worth seeing, in a pantheon of many great projects and at least two masterpieces (“All About My Mother” and “Talk to Her”), “Pain and Glory” for Almodóvar does not rise to the level of what 8 1/2 was for Fellini. Maybe like Mallo, the highly acclaimed Spanish filmmaker has lost his footing a bit. Despair not, for he is still young at heart with much more greatness to be tapped into.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Antonio Bandares, Asier Etxeandia, Penelope Cruz
MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 113 min
Mill Valley Film Festival 42- Dedicated to Women and a World of Diversity
While on the surface the 42nd Annual Mill Valley Film Festival may seem like global cinematic showcasing, per usual, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a festival that is as committed to the community and highlighting social issues as well as films and quality programming. And by community I mean more than just the town of Mill Valley and the county of Marin. Organizers are reaching out to and including the whole of the Bay Area and focused on a world of diversity.
Festival director and founder, Mark Fishkin, expounded on the ideal of diversity and its integral element to the festival. “The best hope for sustaining and growing a diverse climate for indie and arthouse films are festivals like Mill Valley, along with not-for-profit, mission-based community theaters. These are places that attract audiences hungry for a wide-ranging menu of films with ideas that express a strong viewpoint, that are art, that reflect diversity. By diversity, I don’t just mean race, ethnicity and gender, although that is, of course, part of it. But I also mean that film is a panorama and MVFF reflects that.”
Included in that panorama are over 100 films, falling into numerous categories such as American Indies and big Hollywood, world cinema/ subtitled foreign films, family friendly films, documentaries and much more. The latter listing are typical categories often found in film festivals, especially international ones such as MVFF. What is not so usual are sections like special free screenings curated for students from Marin, Oakland and San Francisco and the “Focus On” series. These feature screenings and programs include Focus l Queer-Queer-ish- diverse stories of queer representation found in a genre-twisting array of films, and Focus l Resist Revolt Reform- Rockin, raucous, and revealing reflections on society and culture, captured through the wide-angle and long lenses of established and emerging international filmmakers.
Equally important and ground-breaking is the festival’s gender equity initiative, Mind the Gap program, which “amplifies and champions work by women filmmakers.” Organizers launched the program five years ago with a goal of 50/50 by 2020. By this they mean to incorporate 50% of female directors across the festival categories by next year. Maybe to their own surprise they came close to securing that goal a year ahead. In 2019 they are already at 48%, putting them a mere 2% shy of their lofty, yet laudable commitment. Three years ago when the program launched at that year’s festival, it was on the heels of the Harvey Weinstein allegations. Last year during the festival start, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were just getting underway. Now more than ever, there is no shortage of significant women’s stories and fabulous and fierce female directors’ works to showcase and pay tribute to.
This year’s Mind the Gap summit is titled The Money Issue: Money and Power, Money and Financing, Money and Pay Equity. It will feature all day intensive session of panels, presentations and networking. Closing out the program is a screening of the new documentary called “No Time To Waste” and award presentation to its subject, Betty Soskin-Reid, an author, composer, historian and public speaker. If all that weren’t enough, Reid still holds down a job she loves as a park ranger serving at the Rosie the Riveter World War 2 museum in Richmond, California.
At 98 years old, she is the oldest National Park Ranger in the United States. Her weekly talks there are legendary and usually booked months in advance. As someone who has witnessed her talks at the museum/National Park and elsewhere, read her autobiography, and had the honor of quality one-on-one time with this dynamo, I can attest to her kind demeanor, indomitable spirit and her impassioned message of equality. She is a treasure of the Bay Area, and very worthy recipient of the Mind the Gap Trailblazer of the Century Award. Also being honored is Laura Dern as Actor of the Year, and Anna Serner as Visionary Leader of the Year. Serner is the CEO of the Swedish Film Institute.
The programs highlighted above are but a few of many, many more that make up the ten day festival. Movie-goers have a plethora of cinematic options at the MVFF, with lots of screenings attended by the directors and talent. It is even known for being a hub for Academy Award campaigning due to its proximity to Los Angeles. Glitz and glamour aside, one has to wonder if the real stars of the MVFF isn’t the community.
An inordinate amount of drama happens within a week or two immediately after a wedding ceremony and celebration in the movie “After the Wedding” starring acting heavyweights Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore and Billy Crudup. Things start innocently and slowly enough as Isabel (Williams), an American manager of a struggling orphanage in Calcutta, learns that her non-profit may be the benefactor of large, ongoing donations from a corporation in New York. In order to seal the deal and secure the funding, the company explicitly needs Isabel to come in person for an interview. While Isabel is greatly relieved at the prospect of the much needed gift, she is reticent to leave her responsibilities at the orphanage, but the greater good prevails. Before long, she is in New York, put up in a swanky hotel and given an audience with the company’s CEO, Theresa (Moore) at the company’s headquarters.
From the time Isabel arrived in New York and back in Western clothing, you sense her discomfort with the setting and her situation. She clearly just wants to get in and out quickly, securing the generous grant money, and back to what has become her home and life. Being the seemingly demanding, powerful corporate executive that she is, Theresa makes it clear that she is in control of the situation, and she has other plans. Although their initial meeting is, in fact, quick, to Isabel’s dismay, it is only an initial meeting. Theresa fanes hesitancy to guarantee the orphanage’s selection, assuring Isabel that if she wants the money, she should expect a longer visit. Theresa seemingly wants to be convinced of the orphanage’s worthiness, while Isabel assumed it was a done deal. Isabel finds Theresa off-putting and demanding, questioning the true value of the grant juxtaposed against Theresa’s expectations. But until Theresa is available to meet on the matter again several days later, she insists Isabel come to her daughter’s wedding.
It is while sitting in the back at the wedding, Isabel is horrified at realization of who the father of the bride is, Oscar (Cruddup). When he sees her, after the ceremony, he too is shocked and upset. The two acknowledge each other privately, sharing succinct pleasantries and questions, initially without letting Theresa or their daughter, Grace (Abby Quinn), know of their familiarity. This spark of mystery and drama turns into a flame during the wedding reception when other connections and motives are realized.
Director Bart Freundich’s remake of the Danish film by the same name, switches up the gender roles in the American version, giving most of the heavy lifting to the female stars. Since Moore and Williams are two of the best actresses around, this proves to be a good choice. Seeing the two spar, so to speak, in one dramatic scene after another, proves to be the best, if not only, good aspect of the film. Williams maintains a taut unease and defiant, smoldering outrage throughout, while Moore is a more dynamic character due to unusual and unfortunate circumstances. Post-wedding, the mystery unravels rather quickly, but the pacing is achingly slow and the melodramatic twists and turns, not to mention, monologues and dialogues, are more tedious than necessarily intriguing.
Too many revelations within such a short time frame, combined with a lack of character development for any of the principals, make for almost absurd drama. The character of Theresa comes the closest to being somewhat sympathetic and interesting, but only just. Crudup and Williams on the other hand, play it flat pretty much throughout, and Grace is spoiled, annoying and truly an underdeveloped character. In other words, “After the Wedding” is a dramatic bore, with a misappropriation of great talent. This maybe would have been more appropriately adapted as a mini series, giving space for the story to breathe, characters to grow, and the audience to connect. Instead we’re left with an odd and unfortunate combination of too much, too little, too slow and too dull.
It’s More Light Entertainment than Character Study, Comedy or Mystery
Even just a light, entertaining summer movie, like the newly released, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” gets a bit elevated thanks to the chameleon-like actor Cate Blanchett in the lead. Per usual, Blanchett is a joy to watch perform, and in this movie, that fact is no exception, but it may not be enough to make the movie an indie darling on one hand, or commercial bait with wide appeal on the other. Adapted from the wildly popular novel of the same title by Maria Semple, producers are no doubt banking on the book’s built-in audience to translate to box office appeal. They might end up disappointed- the book fans and the producers. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” is about a quirky, reluctant, if not resentful, suburban housewife who relocated with her tech engineer husband to outer Seattle 20 year earlier. They transplanted from Los Angeles where Bernadette Fox thrived as young, cutting edge architect on the rise. But when she was undermined with her last residential project, it left her flailing. As such, the couple headed North, allowing her husband, Elgie, played by Billy Crudup, to take advantage of a prominent position with Microsoft. Once there, then suffering a series of miscarriages that took its emotional toll, Bernadette became a shell of her former self. Eventually, they were able to conceive. Now 12, Bee ( Emma Nelson) is Bernadette’s world and they each other’s best friend. But that is not enough to smooth Bernadette’s rough edges and deep seated resentment. Bernadette is oblivious to her increasingly trying attitudes, while her husband is decidedly not, and contemplating drastic changes.
Bernadette’s somewhat off-putting personality and constantly vocalized negative opinions are only outweighed by her aversion to people and somewhat abrasive manner. The notion of socializing with anyone beyond her family of three catapults her into anxiety and turmoil, and self-medication is a welcome option. She detests her fellow school mom’s and the community at large, most especially her uptight, annoying next door neighbor, a cliched character, played aptly by Kristen Wiig. They couldn’t be more opposite- to Bernadette’s give-a-shit attitude, Audrey throws herself wholly into school functions and the community, and she is obsessed with her house and yard. Both view each other as the bane of their existence. Audrey aside, there is no bigger target for Bernadette’s negativity than the city of Seattle itself, and the only thing neglected more than her marriage, is their monstrosity of a house. Although it was purchased many years ago when they moved to the area, it looks as though it hasn’t been touched for decades longer. The yard is full of weeds and overgrown berry vines, while the interior seems a hopelessly flawed and neglected as the exterior.
Through it all, the one bright spot in the couple’s life is Bee. It is Bee’s exceptional academics, precarious ways, and endearing personality that convinces her parents that a trip to Antartica over the holiday break is a promise to her they should keep. Bernadette is horrified at the prospect of such an adventure, not to mention having to interact with other travelers. As a result, she enlists the aid of what she assumes is a practical online assistant. Through a series of events, post the trip decision, and the threat that she may, in fact, not be going on the family vacation or it may not happen for any of them at all, Bernadette escapes her imploding life and goes to Antartica solo. Along the way, she faces her fears, while finally recognizing the source of her angst, realizing she has suppressed her creativity and passion for far too long. In searching for his wayward wife, Elgie has a few revelations of his own. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” begins and ends with the same question posed to the protagonist- where are you going? This appropriately establishes it as a movie of self exploration and self discovery, but does not flesh out the character’s issues and insights, or the film’s theme, which should be layered and nuanced.
The movie is directed by Richard Linklater, but definitely not a Richard Linklater film. He is known for truly clever independent films with observational characters and witty banter, such as “Dazed and Confused” and “Slacker,” and dramatic, experimental-type films, like “Before Midnight” and 2014 “Boyhood,” which earned him several well-deserved Oscar nominations. While “Bernadette” is entertaining and charming enough, especially for this time of year, it misses opportunities to be categorized as a character study film of any depth.
In the West Village of New York, numerous blocks down from the uber trafficked and demonstratively commercialized Time Square/Mid-town area, and just before you get to the loud, busy Houston Street (pronounced hows-ton, not hue-ston, like the city), there is an idyllic two-block section called Carmine Street. Or, it used to be an idyllic, quintessential Village street, but like much of Manhattan, it too is slowly being absorbed by yuppies talking about amazing omelets with shaved fennel, over-priced restaurants and compact, but costly apartments. Fortunately, there are at least a couple stores there that are maintaining the standard of the two-block’s bygone era of quirky spaces and mom and pop shops. One such place is Carmine Street Guitars, and it is the subject of a recently released indie documentary of the same name. This is an intimate, week-in-the-life-of story focusing on a store, its owner and his community of talented musician customers.
The small shop, owned by Rick Kelly, has been in existence for decades, and it looks the same as it did when it opened lo these many, many years ago- a cozy too cramped space, covered in floor to ceiling wood, and packed with the one-of-a-kind merchandise he peddles, hand-made guitars. Rick is a sweet, quiet artisan, happily stuck in time. He could care less about cell phones and social media, reserving his energy and passions for his craft, salvaging wood from old New York buildings to use for the instruments, and his very impressive client roster. Sharing his work space and passion are two special people in his life, his 90-something-year-old mother and his young apprentice, Cindy Hulej. Rick’s mom lovingly and dutifully dusts the store photos and answers the phone. Cindy, who looks very punk rock-ish with her platinum blonde, spiked hair and all black attire, is learning and applying the guitar making techniques as handed down from Rick while putting her personal aesthetic to certain projects. Unlike Rick, she is social media savvy, curating artful photos, then regularly posting their latest creations on various platforms.
The business’s history and Rick’s craft is portrayed in the film through real-life encounters he has with regular professional musician clients that stop by to try out new guitars. These customers include Kirk Douglas of The Roots, singer-songwriter/actress, Eszter Balint, Nels Cline of Wilco, Stewart Hurwood who was a collaborator of Lou Reed’s, and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch who is also part of the “enthusiastically marginal” rock band, Squrl. They all, understandably, have an appreciation for Rick’s craft and long-time relationship with him and a shared history with the store. The relationships feel authentic albeit the conversations feel somewhat contrived. Interspersed throughout the film is the subtle implication that the building housing the storefront will be sold to the highest bidder, threatening the store’s very existence.The looming enemy is soaring Manhattan real estate prices. Like many businesses there, Carmine Street Guitars is a rental space in prime real estate territory. Cindy points out that the building next to them just sold for six million dollars, and soon afterwards a young, slick realtor drops in to introduce himself and inquire about the store. Despite that, Rick is resolute his landlord won’t budge and life and work as he knows it, will continue. The audience isn’t as convinced.
As a sort of video capsule of an important part of New York history, “Carmine Street Guitars” is sweet and simple, presenting a necessary message of embracing the arts, while supporting local and independent businesses. Although this is a “New York” story, it is an issue that plagues most mom and pops of urban areas. You don’t have to live there to appreciate what this type of neighborhood business has meant and should continue to mean to a community, as well as an industry of local musicians. As a documentary film, the story is as intimate as the cluttered, yet special store itself. While one can appreciate director Ron Mann and writer Len Blum’s successful exclusion of any talking heads and their obvious resistance to over-produce or over embellish. At moments, however, it feels a bit too spare and lacking energy, even by documentary standards. There is a sense that this could have been part of a more layered, fully realized story. As a result, it may only find a very small, niche audience of guitar enthusiasts and documentary aficionados. If you are among them, you are sure to be impressed by Rick’s unique talent and commitment to his craft. You will be touched by Cindy’s dedication to the old ways of doing things despite her youth, and you will be charmed by the artists coming in and sharing memories and strumming a song.
“Carmine Street Guitars” has limited screenings at various art house theaters throughout the country. It will have a one-night screening at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, CA on July 27th. Check local listings for times.
Director: Ron Mann; Writer: Len Blum;MPAA Rating: NR;Run Time: 80 min
What the film "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" lacks in writing and actually story and character development, it makes up for in look and feel. Well, not really because, sadly, its shortcomings are what is noticed early into the movie, and the last thing you remember as you walk out the theater. The film, directed and co-written by Joe Talbot, centers around a twenty-something-year-old Black lead character, Jimmy Fails, played by actor Jimmy Fails, who yearns to move back into his childhood house, a once grand Victorian in a historic neighborhood of San Francisco. Sadly, he and his family have long been displaced from the house and hood, replaced by more affluent white people who for some unexplained reason never manage to maintain the house or yard. While Jimmy’s father is apparently in a sort of group home or low income housing complex in a seedy part of the City, his aunt resides way out in another, more rural part of the Bay Area, Jimmy crashes with his friend, Jonathan (Montgomery Allen), a wanna-be artist and writer, and his friend’s blind father (Danny Glover) in the East Bay. Several dudes from the hood are permanent fixtures on Jonathan’s street, arguing, rapping and taunting Jimmy and Jonathan whenever they walk by. To the two of them, the group is an anomaly. They are too busy watching their movements and perplexed by their speech to really notice the insults they are constantly hurly their way. It’s as if they want to be like them or be apart of their clique, dysfunctional as it may be. Instinctively, they know with their sensitive, quiet, artistic demeanor, they would never be accepted or understood by the group. So instead, they quietly walk by them, looking and usually avoiding confrontations.
As close as Jimmy is to Jonathan, and as much as he appreciates a place to sleep, Jimmy is overwhelmed with nostalgia for what he considers his house, its history, and the city. He doesn’t want to live any place else. It is that obsession that drives Jimmy to regularly stop by there while the owners are out, peering into the windows, sweeping the steps or painting the trim while Jonathan is on the lookout for the couple that could return any minute. And they often do, with a vengeance. The wife is constantly furious with Jimmy, insisting he get off their property and threatening to call the police, while the husband is more compassionate, imploring for her to calm down. Eventually, the couple lose the house themselves due to family issues, vacating while things are in litigation. Jimmy seizes the opportunity to break in and squat until he can figure out a way to raise money to purchase it. A prospect doomed to failure given he barely works and is obviously financially strapped. If only principal, passion and persistence paved the way to ownership in America. In an effort to help Jimmy, Jonathan gleans information from a real estate agent who seemingly befriended them earlier, a slick yuppie character who is only loyal to his next big score. The information Jonathan retrieves is less about the logistics of possibly acquiring the house, and more about the true history of its ownership and Jimmy’s family. Therin lies the twist.
The movie implies that it’s about gentrification and racism, and it does touch on those themes, but it’s really more about a sad, neglected and technically homeless young man who is stuck in the past concerning his family and understandably frustrated with the transformation of his hometown. Jimmy is the best neighbor anyone could have in any city, but he is without house, home and city. His plight represents that of millions of others, but it sadly is not truly explored. I wanted this to have a stronger defined theme of gentrification and its impact on the usual minority victims of it. San Francisco, like New York, is the epitome of a city that has become accessible only to the rich. It once thrived in ethnic and economic diversity, now it is overwhelmingly home to the rich, young and white, thanks in large part to the tech industry.
While Jimmy and Jonathan are affable characters and they are lovingly and effectively portrayed by two impressive actors worthy of notice, the story from a writing perspective is undeniably lacking. It’s a movie giving the appearance of something special and begging to be more, but falling short. The pacing is achingly slow, without purpose, and the length is too long for its shortcomings. That being said, it is a respectable debut feature film project for director, Talbot who is a longtime friend of and collaborator with Falis. The standout aspect of the film is its look. If you only see the film for its cinematography, that would be understandable, encouraged, and you would not be disappointed. With stunningly gorgeous shots, Adam Newport-Berra greatly elevates what would otherwise be a mediocre movie.
What the Spanish family drama/suspense thriller “Everybody Knows” may lack in twists and intrigue, it makes up for in performances and appeal from the three principal actors, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darin. This is not to say, the film and its story itself are not good. In fact, If you’re in the mood for a family drama, with a decent side of suspense, then this may actually hit the spot, especially given that there is the usual dearth of worthwhile movies this time of year. The first quarter of the film sets a happy, celebratory tone as Laura (Cruz) and her two children who live in Argentina, return to her hometown, a village outside Madrid for a family wedding. The film’s opening and cast of characters are established with scenes of the Cruz and her kids lamenting the father’s absence from the trip. He supposedly couldn’t join them do to work commitments. The scenes continue with family and friends exchanging warm welcomes full of adoration and hugs, then it’s off to the wedding. After the ceremony, the guests spill out of the church and into the center of town on a beautiful sun-soaked afternoon where the celebrating begins. Refreshingly, although they enlist the help of amateur photographers with drone access, there are no cell phone selfies dominating this or any scene. It’s a small town, with a time-gone-by feel in which everyone knows each other, raise a glass to toast, or gives a glance of judgement. From the town square, the dancing, eating and drinking carry on into the family house and yard that is roomy and charming; old and rustic. It is full of love and laughter. Lights are hung throughout the yard, and all the guests participate, including Laura’s teen daughter, Irene. Without being caught, she and her boyfriend are drinking and smoking too. As the partying goes into the wee hours of the night, the merriment quickly turns to panic and grief when Laura discovers that a sleeping, sickly Irene has been kidnapped.
Leading the charge in the search is family friend Paco, played fiercely and by Bardem. Once Laura’s husband, Alejandro (Darin) arrives from Argentina, the movie embodies a new rhythm and issues beyond Irene’s disappearance are unearthed. Together, they and the family decide to succumb to the kidnapper’s demands and not involve the police or community. As they enlist the help of private investigator and hunt for clues and motives, and Laura becomes more desperate, another mystery begins to unravel regarding a deep family secret and former lovers. Soon the family crumbles under the pressure as does Paco’s wife and marriage. As a result many arguments, confrontations and accusations ensue, seemingly turning the focus of the film from the kidnapping to family dynamics. Questions are raised as to why Paco is willing to sell off his business to provide the ransom. It turns out that Laura and Alejandro’s closely guarded secret is not such secret … everybody knows.
Writer/director Asghar Farhadi makes good use of small spaces and family relations. He’s clearly what is often referred to as “an actor’s director,” pulling out authentic performances from all. Cruz and her two onscreen sisters are more than credible as siblings, and Ramon Barea as the family patriarch who is not aging well, full of resentment and not afraid to express it. Pacing can be key, and mixing genres such as this, can be tricky. Although some scenes get dangerously too close to crossing the line into melodrama, for the most part, he manages to reign things in while also managing to give a nod to contemporary political stigmas regarding immigrants, and moral dilemmas, unresolved though the latter may be. Farhadi shares much of the credit for all of the above to real-life married couple Cruz and Bardem, and Darin as Cruz’s onscreen husband. They are all passionate actors that play well off of each other. Any one of them alone would be worth the price of admission, but all three together make for a cinematic treat.
Writer/Director: Asghar Farhadi
Stars: Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin
Runtime: 133 min
MPAA Rating: R
The photo above captures my personal picks for the Best Of/ Top 10 of 2018 (in order by preference) Not included at the time of the original selection is "Cold War" from Poland by director Pawel Pawlikowski. This was viewed only very recently and not only do I think it is one of the best of last year, I believe it will prove to be one of the best films of the last decade. If I had to take one of the films above out to replace with "Cold War," it would be "Green Book."
1) ROMA by Alfonso Curan - A loving homage to the director's childhood in Mexico, this is a beautiful and evocative as filmmaking gets. What does not get said in dialogue, is conveyed in facial expressions, images and deeply felt moods. Cuarón has successfully captured a sense of time and place resulting in a film that is as gorgeous as it is poignant, making it a cinematic experience not to be missed. Read my full review in an earlier post in this section.
2) VICE by Adam McKay - Wielding his distinct style, McKay delivers his best movie to date. Whether you are pro Dick Cheney or anti Cheney, there is so much to be learned from this film of the post 9-11/Bush era. Few, if any others, could entertain, while educating on such dense subject matters of politics, war, and a power hungry, unlikable character in the form of Cheney. McKay does so, and then some. Go to my earlier post for a full review of this film.
3) BLACKkKLANSMAN by Spike Lee- It's been awhile, but I knew Spike had another great one in him, and this is it. This is as fun as it is intense as Lee brings the wild true story of Ron Stalworth, the first Black police officer for the Colorado Springs police department to the big screen. Stalworth actually infiltrated the local chapter of the KKK, with the help of a Jewish colleague.
4) THE FAVOURITE - Full review here: http://www.paulafarmer.com/film-blog/the-favourite-review
5) WIDOWS - Full review here: http://www.paulafarmer.com/film-blog/widows-film-review
6) BLACK PANTHER - It's a superhero movie that's super fun and full of heart. With its first ever all-Black cast in such a type of movie, it set standards and broke records. It's also probably the only time you'll see a Marvel film on my list, so you know it's got to be special. Wakanda Forever!
7) A QUIET PLACE - This was more of a suspense thriller than horror, but either way, it was doing something very unique. Set in a world that is reeling from an invasion of unseen monsters that attack sounds, so quiet is imperative for survival for the featured family of five. Nepotism aside, Emily Blunt proves superbly cast as the onscreen wife and mom to this quietly tortured clan. Her facial expressions and body language spoke volumes.
8) IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK by Barry Jenkins - A passionate adaptation of a beloved James Baldwin novel portrays the story of an optimistic young woman from Harlem in the 70s who is determined to prove her fiancee's innocence before giving birth to their unborn child. The couple's world is shaken to its core when Alfonzo is falsely accused and convicted of a crime. Their love story prior to his arrest is genuine and consuming. While in prison, their love is tested, but remains strong and determined. The pacing is slow and languid, and the cinematography takes centerstage, with lush colors and picturesque shots in every scene. While the story and characters of BEALE STREET did not grab and haunt me as Mr. Jenkins' first film, MOONLIGHT did, it is beautiful and poetic, with an undeniable appeal.
9) ISLE OF DOGS by Wes Anderson - From the exceedingly passionate, clever and quirky mind of the director who brought us THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, comes the even better and quirkier ISLE OF DOGS. A canine epidemic has hit a city in Japan, emboldening the cat-loving mayor to banish all the dogs to an island of trash. When a boy, Atari, is determined to find his dog Spot, a heart-warming and fun adventure ensues. Not only is this Mr. Anderson's best animated films, it's one of his best movies ever! It has fantastic, unforgettable characters, a wonderful story, with massive entertainment value, and all wrapped up in his trademark look, pacing and style.
10) GREEN BOOK by Peter Farrelly - Yep, this is another story of unlikely friendships, with the inter-racial twist, but it is based on true events, and is charming, with exceptional performances from the two leads. Tony, the Italian bouncer from Queens is hired to escort Black pianist Dr. Don Shirley on his musical tour to the racist South in the 60s. The two couldn't be more opposite and uncomfortable as their road trip commences, but along the way, they learn to appreciate their differences and love each other's company. Oscar bait for sure (which is why I hope it doesn't win), but charming and entertaining as well.
Honorable Mention -
1) BLINDSPOTTING - A unique character-driven film, with a social commentary from a fresh perspective
2) GAME NIGHT - Best comedy of the year! I laughed my ass off and so will you.
3) RBG documentary
In the Hands of Director Adam McKay,
You'll Learn, You'll Laugh, You'll Get Mad
With his new film, writer/director Adam Mckay has carved out a distinct and enviable style, and solidified A-list status for himself. Although “Vice,” starring Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Amy Adams as Lynn Cheney and Steve Carrel as Donald Rumsfeld, is by no means some typical Oscar bait film, it is very much poised for Oscar gold. He came close with his last critically acclaimed film, The Big Short, which was also excellent, but this should secure even more attention and more awards, including quite possibly, the most coveted. Also, like “The Big Short,” he’s tackling a topic that for some could have been daunting and heady, yet he makes it appealing and accessible. He takes the most mundane and dense subject matters and makes them relatable and enjoyable. On the surface, “Vice” is a character study movie, portraying the former vice president’s claim to fame, rise to power and insatiable appetite to control, but it is about so much more. What it may lack in delivering the most infamous VP’s humanity, it makes up for in style and substance in other forms. It successfully depicts one of the most volatile political times in recent history, casting a cinematic net over the post 911, George W. Bush era, and then some, including shedding light current politics in the wake of the Cheney era.
Although this a wide net, with much going on personally for Cheney and politically in general, and with what could have been an endless cast of characters, McKay manages to stay focused, with the point of view coming from a most unexpected narrator. He orchestrates it all masterfully, with perfect pitch and pacing. Also in true McKay form he educates as much as he entertains and he goes boldly where many dare not tread. Who would have ever thought a movie about the financial crash of 2008 could have been fun, but yet with The Big Short, he packed them in and we all came out with some clarification on the subject and laughing hysterically. Even more so with “Vice” - we learn about the man, the politics, the issues. Whether you love Cheney (is that possible?) or hate him (remember Darth Vadar comparisons?), there is an opportunity to learn and laugh. It’s not all shits and giggles though because there are scenes that can trigger collective negative memories and illicit rage while all under the umbrella of entertainment.
But enough about McKay and his seemingly endless reservoir of talent, let’s examine the other notable draw here: Casting and performances. Superb casting and transformative performances. Do not think Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump or Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. As good as they are, they are admittedly caricatures. In Vice, these are laudable portrayals, subtle and nuanced. Over the years much has been made of Bale’s ability to morph into a character, with notable sacrifices, such as reducing half his body weight for the 2004 film “The Machinist.” In “Vice,” he did the opposite, gaining a significant amount of weight to convincingly capture the physicality of Cheney. Beyond what he brought to the role, physically, he is at the top of his game in every other way. He’s believable as the young, down on his luck drunkard putting up lines for the electric company in Wyoming, as well as the starry eyed political intern hanging on Rumsfeld’s every word. As Cheney the character ages, growing in size and power, Bale shines. So too does his supporting cast, including Sam Rockwell as Bush W. Most might find that interesting or odd casting, but per usual, Rockwell gives a fantastic performance, deftly combining restraint, believability and whimsy. There are a few smaller roles, but equally impressive, such as Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Allison Pill as Cheney’s daughter.
“Vice” is part character study, part political thriller, and all entertaining as well as undeniably intriguing and insightful. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat; conservative, liberal or politically indifferent, you’ll appreciate “Vice” ... Okay, okay, everyone can appreciate and enjoy it, but the Cheney hating liberals will probably have a little more fun.
Director: Adam McKay
Writer: Adam McKay
Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 132 min.