Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Film Review – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

December 21, 2019 1 comment

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019; Directed by J.J. Abrams)

The Rise of Skywalker is the ninth film of the main-thread “Skywalker saga” and the eleventh film in the Star Wars movie franchise, which has grossed $9 billion at the box office over more than four decades. Star Wars is a proven money machine, but what else is it? Is it fanciful and immature escapist entertainment, carrying no deeper narrative or thematic significance or cultural importance than any other lucrative blockbuster product fundamentally aimed at children and full of furiously expensive action sequences, only treated like it is more because of its massive success? Is it deceptively simple but actually rather profound and richly politically applicable pulp storytelling, carrying resonant messages about hopeful resistance to tyranny, generational inheritances and grappling with complex legacies of the past, and glimmers of pop-Freudian psychological struggles of fear and self-doubt? Is it all an elaborate, eternally recurring, only half-purposely cyclical exercise in transmuted nostalgia, encoding halcyon memories of cinematic adventures past (swashbuckling Republic serials, Hollywood westerns, WWII epics, and Kurosawa’s samurai films) into the DNA of the saga’s earliest films and then the already-allusive genes of those earlier films into the later ones? Is it an ongoing, flawed, messy, conflicted filmic conversation with its own legend, a fluctuating, externalized internal battle with alternating comfort and discomfort under its own long narrative and thematic shadow? Is it all of these things in varying degress to millions of people from numerous generations around the world, who bring to Star Wars as much or even much more than it brings to them, who let it down when it rises, and rise when it lets them down?

Whatever their flaws and compromises, the first two films in the contemporary Episodes VII-IX sequel trilogy, 2015’s The Force Awakens and 2017’s The Last Jedi, were at least honest attempts to grapple with some of these questions, to forge an at least half-new identity for the franchise under the ownership ambit of entertainment mega-conglomerate Disney and away from the direct creative control of the big-screen space-opera universe’s flawed-genius auteur giant, George Lucas. The Force Awakens, directed and co-written by hit-and-miss mainstream franchise mogul J.J. Abrams (he of the infamous “mystery boxes”), could lean in on easy, indulgent “remember this?” callback moments, but it also embraced its new generation of characters and their distinct-if-mirroring journeys alongside the original trilogy’s legacy leads, finally earning its unfailing instinct for crowd-pleasing. Rian Johnson’s arresting The Last Jedi turned a productive self-critical eye on the franchise, dialing up to klieg-light brightness a healthy glare of skepticism for the intellectual property’s less-flattering aspects: its occasional cynical exploitation of past glories, its thoughtless power-fantasy hero worship, its erasure of difference, its blindness to the structures and processes of systemic injustice, its soft-eugenicist elevation of a privileged, supremacist hereditary elite who control the tenuous fate of the galaxy through mystical inheritance.

A portion of the franchise’s fan base despised Johnson’s probing thoughtfulness and upending of expectations, and reacted with the visceral distaste of those whose precious and fragile assumptions are rarely challenged (one might say that they are “snowflakes” who were “triggered”). Another portion of that fan base was rapturous in its praise for and newly loyal to Johnson’s creative vision, finding new reflections of themselves in the broadening arcs of its characters and of their perspective on the world in this weary, wary take on Star Wars, dragged kicking and screaming to the precipice of hard-won adulthood. Surely many fell in the middle, agreeing with intent but questioning execution or admiring execution but uncertain about intent. The Last Jedi split Star Wars fandom in a way that seemed to blindside its corporate overlords in the House of Mouse (with implications both immediate and further-reaching, as we will see), but whether a hater or a lover of the movie, no one could deny that Rian Johnson made Star Wars contentious again, worth debating and thinking about. For once, a saga forever facing the past seemed to be turning inexorably towards an unpredictable and even exciting future.

As the capstone of the sequel trilogy (and thus of three trilogies), The Rise of Skywalker is at once imbued with this promise and burdened by the weight of a fractious legacy. It also faced production challenges that the prior two entries in the saga had the good fortune to avoid. Rian Johnson was slated to write the film, but then was not. Original director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World, The Book of Henry) was removed from the helm during the development process (fired directors being a common feature of the concurrent anthology films), although he retains a story credit, and Abrams was brought back to conclude what he began. Perhaps most significantly, original trilogy star Carrie Fisher passed away a year prior to The Last Jedi‘s release. This sad loss supposedly had major implications on the structure of Episode IX, which was initially planned to feature a central role for her General Leia Organa in its narrative and themes in much the same way that The Force Awakens centred Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and The Last Jedi centred Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker.

All of these problems were then, of course, eclipsed by the The Last Jedi schism. If Disney felt a need to course-correct its mega-lucrative franchise after Johnson’s basket full of risks sparked a toxic vehemence in some quarters of the notoriously demanding fandom, then it could not have signalled its intent to do so more clearly than by rehiring Abrams, many of whose puzzle box mysteries from The Force Awakens were discarded by Johnson in The Last Jedi with the casually unimpressed indifference encapsulated by Luke tossing away the lightsaber that his putative apprentice Rey (Daisy Ridley) held out to him with such dramatic portent in the nearly-literal cliffhanger that ended Abrams’ first film. The most cynical predictions for Abrams’ approach to The Rise of Skywalker ran in the direction of the stubborn reinstatement of every cherished puzzle box that Johnson roughly kicked under the bed, especially the mystery of Rey’s parentage, the puppet-strings-pulling main villain Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), the helmeted Darth Vader cosplay of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and the return of his shadowy circle of warrior-brothers, the Knights of Ren. Abrams checks every one of these boxes with dull dutifulness: he revives the question of Rey’s lineage (in an extremely boring and dispiriting fashion that Emily Todd VanDerWerff gets into at Vox, with spoilers that I won’t bother with here); retcons Snoke (sliced in half by Kylo Ren in one of The Last Jedi‘s best moments) into an apprentice of the previous trilogies’ Big Bad, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), himself mysteriously reincarnated as this film’s primary villain; and within 15 minutes of the opening crawl, Kylo has welded his helmet back together, covered his head with it again, and surrounded himself with his Knights of Ren, who aid him in hunting Rey, with whom he shares a Force-psychic connection and heaps of sexual tension.

Of greater concern to the slice of Star Wars fandom heartened by Johnson’s choices in The Last Jedi was the possibility that Abrams would take the frequently bad-faith criticisms of the trilogy’s middle chapter from its most toxic detractors and act upon them, seeking to appease their grievances and assuage their concerns. Sadly, he did exactly that. Johnson split up his heroes in order to give their character arcs time and space to develop and deepen; The Last Jedi‘s casino planet subplot came in for particular criticism as a pointless sideline, but not only did it ask pointed political questions about the capitalist underpinnings of the franchise’s neverending wars, it also provided more development in the arc of Finn (John Boyega) than either Abrams entry does. But it seems superficially like more fun to have all of your heroes adventuring and quipping together, like in the original trilogy whose highlight elements are referenced constantly in Abrams’ films in the series, so that’s what Abrams does here, to the detriment of most of their character journeys. Denied Snoke as a nearly-all-powerful (but frightfully dull) main villain, Abrams just slots in Palpatine in his place, regardless of whether anyone in the story gives an ounce of care about him or what he represents. In a more minor but still very unfortunate move, Abrams essentially condones the hatred (much of it racist and sexist in nature) for the thematically key character of Rose in The Last Jedi and the reprehensible social media abuse of the actress who plays her, Kelly Marie Tran, by online trolls, shunting her very noticeably to the margins in The Rise of Skywalker.

Two tidbits of media promotion serve to contextualize J.J. Abrams’ approach in The Rise of Skywalker and nod towards why the film doesn’t work, and indeed may be the worst Skywalker Saga film since Attack of the Clones. One is recent, a pull-quote from Abrams in a New York Times story about the coming release of the trilogy-ender suggesting that The Last Jedi, despite its bold choices, erred in telling its audience that Star Wars didn’t matter. That is the last thing that Rian Johnson’s film was saying; indeed, it was saying that Star Wars mattered a desperately great amount, and that’s why it took such great chances and made such sacrifices to try and make it better, to shepherd it towards earning that larger significance. It’s a bald misreading/mischaracterization by Abrams, who might be hurt that Johnson didn’t think that his cherished story enigmas and fan-servicing hits of weaponized nostalgia mattered much and expanded those personally-significant elements to constitute all that Star Wars does and ever could represent. The second and even more revealing press quote (which I came across on Twitter but cannot now locate to link to, frustratingly) was from Chris Pine regarding some direction given to him by Abrams during filming of his 2009 Star Trek reboot, a film whose success directly paved the way to the director’s Star Wars gig. Required to pause in the midst of a kinetic action scene to read a line of exposition, Pine (like a good thespian) asked Abrams about Captain Kirk’s background and motivation in relation to this specific bit of information: how did he know about it, what did it mean to him, anything at all that might aid Pine in improving his conviction in delivering the line. Abrams told him that it didn’t matter; just speak the line as clearly and seriously as possible, and the audience will hear it, absorb it, and forget to care about it a moment later. In summary, storytelling doesn’t matter except as a fleeting magic trick, certainly not in any sort of sustained or supported fashion.

If this anecdote is at all accurate, it would shed plenty of light on The Rise of Skywalker, in which characters are constantly shouting out exposition in the midst of huge, putatively exciting action sequences and no time or effort is expended on establishing why anything that happens matters, why or how it’s happening, or how those things that are happening reflect the perspective or psychology or changes of the characters. It doesn’t help matters that the film is chocked full of McGuffins and successive quests requiring whiplashing switches in objectives and settings, more a video game structure than act-based movie construction (Abrams’ co-writer is Chris Terrio, also co-scribe of the initial Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, which was notorious for plots of this sort). The Rise of Skywalker is not complex but it is complicated, and its dramatic stakes are constantly undermined by its forward momentum as much as by the Abramsian tendency noted by Pine to privilege that motion, that superficial sense of kinetic exhilaration, over emotional or thematic meaning. This approach might work fine for boilerplate action entertainment (Abrams made a relatively well-regard Mission Impossible movie, after all), but it’s fatally misguided for Star Wars, whose every moment is pinpointed and microanalyzed and expanded to mythic vitality by a fanbase far more obsessive and passionate and witheringly difficult and critical than any other in popular culture.

This is one of the things that makes Abrams’ sops to certain segments of that fanbase in The Rise of Skywalker so disappointing and even depressing: they’re not even likely to satisfy them, and not only because a lot of these fans, by their very natures, can never be satisfied. If “fans” who have spent the past two years endlessly harping on the “plot holes” in The Last Jedi (which aren’t) have any modicum of consistent intellectual honesty (they don’t), they will tear the loose, lazy, dropped-in-a-moment narrative logic of its sequel to tiny shreds. Many critics of all stripes will delve into these numerous issues in the months and years to come, and it reflects neither my specialty nor my interest to get into them here (I imagine that the best among them will look more than a little like YouTuber Jenny Nicholson’s pre-release dissection of a laughably awful Episode IX script treatment by sci-fi writer Alan Dean Foster, which resembled the final film in more ways than it has any right to). Suffice it to say that little of what happens in the movie either makes sense on the surface or holds up to even the barest amount of scrutiny. This is why this review hasn’t gotten into the plot at all, let alone those fearful spoilers. If the director of the movie won’t approaches these details like they matter, why should anyone else? If cinematic storytelling is such a painfully cheap trick to J.J. Abrams, why give it a second thought, let alone a third or a fourth?

What’s left, then, is a huge special effects spectacle with some dogged performances from actors fighting upriver against surging currents of cynical indifference. Ridley and Driver are left particularly adrift, but paddle hard in place: the former spares little thought to the exponential expansion of her Jedi powers and sells the (deeply stupid) revelations about her lineage as best she can, while the latter is such a good actor that he still gives a strong performance even through progressively more predictable turns in his character’s path and a complete lack of dialogue through the climax. Boyega is likable, but Finn is just left to the wind, flitting between unspoken (and unceremoniously dropped) affection for Rey, for Resistance leader Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), for the sidelined Rose, and for new character Jannah (Naomi Ackie), whose origin story reflects his own and represents the film’s only attempt to think about the once-promising implications of an Imperial Stormtrooper turned rebel fighter. Isaac’s charisma shines through Poe’s awkwardly-plotted arc, which is largely tied up with a beard-like revived relationship with a former underworld acquaintance named Zorri (Keri Russell). Anthony Daniels’ C-3PO has a substantial comedic subplot, his largest Star Wars role since the 1980s. Billy Dee Williams reprises his role as Lando Calrissian, seemingly to make up for the total hash that is made of Fisher’s role as Leia through the ill-fitting employment of footage shot before her death to try to craft a farewell arc for her. Domhnall Gleeson’s fascistic General Hux is done dirty, almost as an afterthought. There’s various cute things slotted in for cheap colour: toy-store fave soccerball robot BB-8, a new droid that looks like a lamp on a wheel, tiny droid-hacker alien Babu Frik, and Dominic Monaghan.

Also left over is the nostalgia. Heaping, gloopy handfuls of it, splashed crudely in the audiences’ faces like the rainbow goo in the imagination feast scene in Hook. The Rise of Skywalker aims to turn its saturating callbacks into the circle-is-complete resolutions to set-ups from elsewhere not only in the sequel trilogy but in the original trilogy and even the much-maligned prequel trilogy as well. Like Avengers: Endgame did, though not as well (and I didn’t particularly love that movie or how it called back to prior Marvel movies). The message of The Last Jedi was sometimes misunderstood or misstated as Kylo Ren’s line “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to”, when the film had a more complex and conflicted relationship to nostalgia, recognizing that the past and our rose-tinted remembrance of it has an active and essential-to-grasp role in our present as in our future. There is plenty of looking back in The Rise of Skywalker, and plenty of potential in the character arcs of Rey and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo for thoughtful critiques of or at least nuanced expansions on ideas of nostalgia and legacy.

But unlike a cultural work like HBO’s recent Watchmen series (from Abrams’ Lost collaborator Damon Lindelof), The Rise of Skywalker is not about inheritances of trauma and how nostalgic thinking encouraged by enduring power structures elides them. This is Star Wars after all, and that stuff doesn’t matter. The past is good because people liked it, and when people like something, it makes money. Maybe, in 2019, under the aegis of Hollywood’s largest studio and its incipient industry monopoly, this is what Star Wars means, and nothing much more.

The franchise will take a pause after The Rise of Skywalker concludes its latest, sure-to-be-contentious trilogy of films, but there will be more Star Wars, of course. More anthology films are likely (Obi-Wan Kenobi and Boba Fett are the rumoured subjects, although the latter may have been made redundant by Disney+ streaming television series The Mandalorian, making Pedro Pascal’s helmeted bounty hunter and his adorable meme-ready sidekick the sole torch-bearers of the franchise during the cinematic hiatus); Rian Johnson was announced as the writer-director of a new trilogy of in-universe films after the studio’s initial contentment with The Last Jedi, though that may not be happening anymore given subsequent developments; another film trilogy from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss is certainly not happening anymore (probably a good thing, considering how they ended Thrones). The future of Star Wars is uncertain, as it was (in vastly different ways in vastly different contexts) at the end of the original trilogy in 1983 and at the end of the prequel trilogy in 2005. Disney’s Star Wars is a machine for corporate profit, but what kind of story is it, and what kind of story does our culture need it to be? As popular as it is, for the first time in a long time, in the wake of The Rise of SkywalkerStar Wars doesn’t feel very culturally necessary. If that’s what was in J.J. Abrams’ mystery box all this time, then it’s quite a shocking twist indeed.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Midsommar

December 16, 2019 Leave a comment

Midsommar (2019; Directed by Ari Aster)

On one level, Ari Aster’s Midsommar is a handsome and grandiose new folk horror classic, following a quartet of American graduate students as they learn more than they ever would have wanted to know about an isolated Swedish pagan commune with sunny dispositions and very dark cultural (emphasis on “cult”) practices. On this level, it’s an artfully disturbing experience, its arcane midsummer ceremonies and maypole dancing punctuated by bloodier and more primeval approaches to communal spirituality that speak to the horror genre’s gory prurience. Its most obvious and well-know genre antecedent would be The Wicker Man, but cinephiles might recommend a number of other folk horror entries worth considering, many of them from Britain and Japan.

But on another level, Midsommar is a peculiarly-pitched but extraordinarily powerful artistic statement on the isolation of grief and the power of community compassion in mitigating that isolation. Considering the very literal blood sacrifices required to lift the weight of that grief, it is twisted as hell, indeed almost sociopathic, that this is Aster’s ultimate thematic point. But Midsommar is cinematic art that can’t not be called challenging, after all. It cuts very deep.

Protagonist Dani (the utterly amazing Florence Pugh) feels the fresh sting of the agony of loss, her bipolar sister having carbon monoxided herself and their parents to death in the film’s coldly troubling opening scenes. Unfortunately, her only support network after this devastating tragedy is her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who is emotionally disinterested and self-centered, more invested in hanging out with his college buddies than providing for Dani’s emotional needs and intending to break up with her before her entire family’s death makes that too much of a dick move even for him. Christian also intends to travel to Sweden over the summer with those friends: horny frattish Mark (Will Poulter), focused anthropology major Josh (William Jackson Harper), and chilled-out, beatific Swede Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the latter of which grew up in the secretive ancestral commune that they intend to visit (and that Josh, whose thesis deals with traditional midsummer celebrations, intends to study). To mitigate the perceived slight of planning to leave the country in Dani’s time of need (social politeness gets many characters into deep trouble in this movie, not that rude refusal provides any escape either), Christian invites her to come along, and despite recurring, overwhelming panic attacks at slightest hint of what happened to her loved ones, Dani accepts.

On the way to the idyllic hidden-valley compound of the Hårga in remote Hälsingland, Aster’s camera follows the travellers’ car down the highway, tracking over it and then flipping upside-down, with the ground at the top of the frame and the sky at the bottom. This (dis)orientation continues as they pass under a welcoming banner draped across the forest-lined road, then bleeds into the next scene of preparatory welcome and magic-mushrooms-bidden hallucinations (Pelle’s communal “brother” Ingemar, played by Hampus Hallberg, is likewise a portrait in bliss even as he practically introduces the Americans and his own English guests to the other Hårga with “Check out the new meat, everyone!” relish). This place is in the land of the midnight sun, close enough to the Arctic Circle to have only a couple of hours of duskish darkness at night in high summer before the sun comes out again. This effect further disorients Dani and the others (Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia explores a similar effect on Al Pacino’s murder-investigating character in Alaska, itself a remake of Norwegian film likewise set in the far north), combining with the sleep deprivation, natural hallucinogens, and otherworldly weirdness of the Hårga community to add up to a unstable experience. Like the camera move on the highway, the midnight sun is a symbolic idea of inversion that sets the stage for the rest of Midsommar.

If you don’t wish to be spoiled regarding Midsommar‘s subsequent shocks and unsettling images, then suffice it to say that although the Hårga present themselves to their guests as cheery and bright and positive, their rituals and cultural and social beliefs might well be described, with sober academic detachment, as completely fucked up. If you’ve seen the film or are otherwise willing to have some of its latter half details revealed, it might be so necessary to do so in order to consider how Ari Aster achieves his potent cumulative artistic effects. Although I haven’t seen Aster’s acclaimed feature debut from last year, Hereditary, I am to understand that it shares many features with Midsommar; Youtube video essayist Ryan Hollinger describes the films as natural companions, with Midsommar very much a spiritual sequel to the darker and more macabre Hereditary, as both films are about social units in painful emotional turmoil over the backdrop of violent and menacing cults. But where Hereditary was about the fracturing of a family under the force of supernatural horrors (Robert Eggers’ The Witch, another recent standout of folk horror from A24, the distributor of Aster’s films, has similar subject matter and themes), Midsommar is (quite perversely) ultimately hopeful, a film about finding communal acceptance (even if that community kills people with casual regularity) and thus overcoming grief.

Midsommar is a horror parable about life and death, about loneliness and belonging. Dani (a psychology major) is constantly seeking mental and emotional equilibrium after the unthinkable tragedy she has suffered, but it is always taken away from her: by her emotional disconnection from Christian and his friends, by the weird, drug-laced experiences at the commune, and above all by anxious manifested eruptions of memories of the tragedy itself. Her fellow guests seek equilibrium at the commune, too: while Mark seems to just want to drink, get high, and get laid (find your equilibirum however you need to, I suppose), Josh and eventually Christian seek stability and meaning in the academic study of the commune and its culture, in the epistomological quantification of their unquantifiable spiritual earth-magic belief-system and its anthropological manifestations. But the Hårga’s belief-system is predicated on natural balance and eternal circularity, on a paganistic emphasis on equilibrium between the human and the natural world, between the living and the dead, between the conception of new life and the serene yet visceral intentional ending of an old one (the scene of a ceremony at a cliffside that demonstrates this graphically is the first of several ghastly shockwaves that this movie has in store). In this balance and its communal shouldering of life’s emotional traumas, Dani is the one who finds an unlikely home.

Josh’s privileging of knowledge over enlightenment and Mark’s crude thoughtlessness both disrespect and transgress that balance, and they pay the price for their transgressions. Christian tries to ingratiate himself into the community and its culture, a quite literally more hands-on form of research than Josh’s attempts to record and classify, as the distance in his relationship with Dani becomes impossible for either of them to deny, but the condescension and self-involvement and bumbling half-unintentional jerkhood that characterizes his behaviour vis-à-vis Dani hamstrings his rapprochement with the Hårga: after deciding to do his thesis on the commune (thus trespassing on Josh’s academic territory, to the latter’s resentful chagrin), Christian is marked as a suitable mate to a breeding-age teen girl (Isabelle Grill) and willingly participates in ritualized intercourse with her, surrounded by the naked chanting women of the commune. But his shame and doubt overcome him after giving up his life-granting seed, and he is immobilized after discovering the grisly fate of other trangressive outsiders.

Dani, who shares a history of loss and grief with Pelle (the nice, handsome cult boy offers her emotional support and understanding that Christian is incapable of, and whose own parents’ fate anticipates the events of the film’s final scene), does not trangress the cultural norms of the commune and indeed becomes accepted as one of them, winning a semi-hallucinogenic maypole dancing endurance contest to become May Queen and being celebrated as an important figure among them with a vital role to play (she even briefly understands and speaks Swedish, symbolically crossing the barrier of linguistic incomprehension). When a heavy-breathing anxiety attack threatens to overcome her, the young women of the commune gasp and howl in unison with her, her agony becoming theirs and therefore transmogrifying into cathartic communal ritual, a weight shared that becomes a weight lifted from her own shoulders.

It’s surely no accident that almost all of these foreigners who break the paganistic Hårga’s rules with arriviste arrogance have biblical names: Mark (the Evangelist), Josh(ua, the general of the Israelites’ invasion of Canaan after the Exodus), Simon (the other name of Doubting Saint Peter, as this Brit character proves to be when confronted with some of the most extreme of the Hårga’s beliefs). The name Christian, of course, is an on-the-nose invocation of Christianity, and darkly ironic given his lack of selfless decency. Even Dani herself might be gesturing to the Old Testament hero Daniel, who proved himself worthy and loyal to his Babylonian captors while remaining true to his Abrahamic beliefs.

Midsommar does not employ its pagan rituals to destabilize Christian orthodoxy and query its hypocrisies and its ineffectuality as The Wicker Man did, and although the films share a memorable infernal climax, Midsommar‘s is concerned with personal revelation and hard-won joy: Dani the May Queen is cocooned in flowers, weeping in anguished horror alongside the empathic paroxysms of the Hårga cultists as a sacred temple with human sacrifices inside is consumed by flames. But in the final frames, as the building collapses, so does her debilitating pain and grief, and, superimposed on the destruction with eyes shining, Dani smiles. The direction by Aster and cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski is astounding in this scene, and Pugh is mesmerizing, veritably possessed by primordial emotion. But the element that elevates the sequence to transcendence is Bobby Krlic’s simultaneously swelling and unnerving score: in its closing crescendoes, a lush rising sunrise melody contends with underlying splintering frayed-nerve strings, the heartclenching sublime of high Romantic myth tangled in the existential anxiety of a Schoenbergian nightmare. What a piece of remarkable total cinema that closing scene is.

Midsommar is the sort of hyper-real, indelibly haunting high-horror film that demands elevated attention to detail. Experts on runes (a.k.a. Futhark alphabets) could surely pick out hidden meanings carven on standing stonesm sewed into ceremonial gowns, even encoded in the arrangement of dining tables. Extra-careful awareness in the film’s establishing scenes Stateside reveals resonant, unsettling minutiae in Henrik Svensson’s production design: not merely the uneasily anticipatory Hårga murals emblazoned on the walls of commune buildings (a splash-page-style frame of such folk art opens the movie, its images laying out nearly the entire plot of the film to come), but ominous elements in the American students’ apartments like a book on the Nazis’ interest in secret runic languages and a foreshadowing print of a girl wearing a crown kissing a hulking bear, “Stackars lilla Basse!” by 19th/20th-century Swedish artist John Bauer. Svensson even claimed that messages critiquing Swedish nationalism are embedded in the folk-art murals and other design details in the film. It’s certainly hard to miss that the fire temple consumed in the closing scene is painted with the gold and blue of the Swedish flag, like a miniaturized IKEA selling not cheap plywood furniture but disemboweled bearskin suits.

Given all of this depth and layering of design and symbolism, this heightened thematic and emotional meaning, this transcendence of folk horror genre convention, and its central superb performance, one is lead towards speaking about Midsommar as great. It’s worth thinking about Aster’s auteur bonafides, which are backed up by a conspicuous Martin Scorsese shoutout in a New York Times op-ed about the state of cinema, after all. There is much that is impressive and even profound about Midsommar, but also much that is salacious and provocative for the sake of shock about its horror elements (one of the cult’s victims is given a blood eagle, a quite likely imagined gory execution method that is such a favourite of pagan Viking Age cultural products that it has practically become a stealth cliché, and carries little meaning here). Its disturbing imagery can sometimes reflect the depths of Dani’s grief and her disintegrating relationship with Christian (Aster wrote the film while going through a difficult breakup, and as is often the case with unnerving works thus inspired, I feel sorry for the woman anonymously addressed in these ideas and images) or the Hårga’s loop of death and rebirth, but it also often exists for its own shocking sake in the cycle of stomach-turning one-up-manship of the horror genre. Midsommar summons such primal, surging power – especially in its final throes – that it can be easy to overlook its flaws, its half-explored concepts and plot points (what’s with the disabled incest-produced prophet and the missing sacred text? Who knows!), its occasional sops to generic expectations. Midsommar can be a nasty film, but it also can be a beautiful one. There is a delicately poised balance between the two, and Aster’s film frequently finds it. What more can one ask of cinema?

Categories: Film, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #9

December 11, 2019 Leave a comment

Tell Me Who I Am (2019; Directed by Ed Perkins)

Ed Perkins’ Tell Me Who I Am is a compelling documentary portrait of a complex and conflicted shared trauma that is hard to shake. But it’s also hard to share between the twin brothers who experienced it. Marcus and Alex Lewis, now both in their 50s, were inseparable as young adults, but not only because of the usual closeness of twin brothers. Alex lost his memory in a motorcycle accident at age 18, and relied on Marcus to fill in what he was missing regarding his prior life. But Marcus was not being entirely truthful with Alex, leaving out painful and life-altering details of a history of abuse in their strange faded-aristocratic rural English household, with an odd but vivacious mother and a distant, haunted father.

At the core of this unpredictable and deeply thought-provoking film is the nature of psychological trauma: how it is inflicted, how it is manifested, how it is protected against, how its wounds can be patched up, healed, and moved beyond. Twins though they are, Alex and Marcus have different ways of dealing with their shared trauma, and each has a difficult time understanding how the other needs to cope with it. Central to the jagged rocks on which they find themselves stranded is Marcus’ choice to hide the truth from Alex, an act of uncertain moral provenance that he claims was meant to protect Alex but it is soon clear was intended chiefly to protect himself. Tell Me Who I Am‘s climactic summit of the Lewis twins is one of the most powerful scenes in cinema this year even though it is among the simplest: two men sitting at a table together, talking about their feelings. It’s because those feelings are complex and raw and are tied up in love and resentment and protectiveness and fragility that makes the negotiation of them so fraught but also so necessary.

Ours is a world that still inculcates the idea in men that emotion is weak and feminine, and that their feelings must be beaten down and hidden lest they put them at risk or show them to be less than they are. These emotions, denied and insidiously sublimated, can often manifest themselves in ugliness and toxicity in the domestic and public spheres, and those manifestations are what make these men less than they are, not the emotions themselves. Ed Perkins’ nimble and empathetic documentary tells a fascinating, surprising, and wrenching story before staging a session of emotional reckoning that exposes painful feelings to a soothing flood of truthful light. The Lewis twins find the shrapnel wounds of their past dissolving in this flood, but never quite entirely gone.

Hail Satan? (2019; Directed by Penny Lane)

The question mark at the end of the title of Penny Lane’s documentary is vital. Not only does it turn what might have been misconstrued as a blasphemous pronouncement into a searching interrogative statement, it also cuts to the heart of what the organization that is the subject of her film stands for. The Satanic Temple is a now-global “church” and political advocacy group that employs the name and iconography of Satan, the diabolic embodiment of evil in the Christian religion, as a sort of metaphorical champion for minority rights and adversarial challenges to the mainstream societal consensus, which in America tends to be Christian-centric. The Satanists that emerge from Hail Satan? are focused on inclusivity, compassion, autonomy, respect, humility, and human fallibility. They’ll even expel chapter leaders whose words and actions don’t conform to their values and standards, as they do to an outspoken performance artist and activist chapter head in Detroit who calls for armed insurrection and the executing of President Trump. This film about them is a fascinating and often funny meditation on the state of freedom of expression in contemporary America.

The Satanic Temple (a.k.a. TST), it needs to be said, is a distinct, newer, and more politically and socially conscious and active organization than the Church of Satan, which got some popular attention not long after its founding in 1966 by horns-wearing reactionary weirdo Anton Szandor LaVey. The Satanic Temple’s website has a helpful chart notating the differences, if you would like to consult it for your own edification. Suffice it to say that the Satanic Temple’s adherents do not commit blood sacrifices to their goat-headed Dark Lord, they do not eat babies, and they do not deface holy Christian altars. Well, sometimes they do that last thing, but usually as profane, inverted symbolic commentaries on the metaphorical cannibalism and patriarchal normativity at the core of Catholic mass. They have little to no connection to the so-called “Satanic panic” of the 1980s and 1990s, although TST’s co-founder and public frontman Julien Greaves (not his real name) speaks about this moral panic wave as a latter-day equivalent of the Salem witch trials (TST’s world headquarters are located in Salem), a collective trauma in the shared history of the “faith” that stands as proof in their eyes of the prejudice of conservative Americans and their “Christian privilege”.

It’s as an adversary to the Christian theocraticization of America that the Satanic Temple has found its attention-catching and growth-spurring media profile. Much of Lane’s film focuses on efforts to protest the erection of monuments bearing the Ten Commandments on the grounds of state houses in Oklahoma and Arkansas by building and trying to get permission to erect a life-sized monument of the occult idol Baphomet on the state house grounds as well, arguing that constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion should allow pluralistic expressions of any faith, and if it is suddenly allowing an expression of Christian faith on the legislature’s premises then it’s discrimination not to allow an expression of theirs as well. They have also protested prayer invocations before city council meetings in Phoenix, Arizona (leading to the removal of these theistic exercises, lest their paean to Satan be spoken before a meeting), and hit back at extreme-Christian hatemonger Fred Phelps’ Wetsboro Baptist Church with a crude protest at his mother’s grave. They meet with concerted and admonishing responses from Christian conservatives (who are usually crestfallen to discover TST members do not actually literally believe in Satan), including thousands of Boston-area Catholics marching against a planned black mass at Harvard University (which was cancelled and moved just off campus).

As one of the co-founders of TST points out (he is unidentified and his face is obscured while being interviewed), it takes tremendous gumption on the part of the Archdiocese of Boston to label their black mass immoral and offensive to Catholics when that governing body of the city’s churches participated in an ugly betrayal of a cover-up of endemic child sexual abuse by its clergy for decades. Another TST member, who became an ostracized loner as a child because his friends’ mothers forbade them from playing Dungeons & Dragons with him because they thought the game was a gateway to devil-worship (it all seems so ridiculous now), keenly observes that the Satanic panic was little more than projection on the part of Christian conservatives, whose own church institutions were corrupt, exploitative, and concealed deeper and darker secrets than any pack of demonic-cosplaying misfits could have ever dreamed of. So it is with the nation’s theocratic elected personages, who are at the spear’s tip of the American Right’s gallop towards open, unchecked authoritarianism. What a strange and unforeseen turn of events that sees the conservative churches as the vanguard of tyranny in America, while self-identified Satanists are among the most vocal minority defenders of freedom of expression and constitutional separation of church and state. The devil-worshippers, it turns out, are the good guys. Who’d have thunk it?

Categories: Film, Politics, Religion, Reviews

Film Review: The Report

December 9, 2019 Leave a comment

The Report (2019; Directed by Scott Z. Burns)

A sober, no-nonsense political message film of laser-focused outrage, The Report plucks out one of the most heinous instances of moral and legal degradation perpetuated by the post-9/11 national security apparatus of the United States of America (and there were more than a few) and goes hard at it with even-keel righteous anger and quietly thunderous factual force. Casting as its protagonist Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), staffer for California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) who was head of the Senate Intelligence Committee for much of the Obama Administration, The Report details an attempt to craft and release a comprehensive and damning committee report on the CIA’s infamous “enhanced interrogration techniques” employed on high-value Islamist terrorists captured by the U.S. Known by their shorthand of EITs, these “enhanced interrogation techniques” amounted to little more than torture thinly cloaked in Orwellian euphemism, which despite being illegal under U.S. and international law were sanctioned for use on detainees by the highest levels of the CIA and the White House.

Jones, who took a hard turn towards national security issues when 9/11 went down just days after he started graduate school, leads an Intelligence Committee investigation precipitated by the suspicious destruction of CIA interrogation tapes in 2005. This investigation lasts a decade, only seeing light just prior to the end of Obama’s Presidency in 2015, when the final (heavily-redacted) report’s exhaustive and well-documented portrait of the CIA’s employment of torture (and its attempts to cover up both the fact of its use on detainees and the inescapable truth that it did little good in providing useful intelligence) provided the impetus for an amendment co-sponsored by Feinstein and Senator John McCain (for all of his many faults as a legislator, leader, and ideologue, his own experience of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese set him implacably against the practice for life) banning the practices, which were already largely struck down by an executive order issued by Obama days into his Presidency. Jones’ team is whittled down to himself and basically one other staffer by the end, as firm resistance from the Agency, lack of cooperation from the Department of Justice (who were also investigation CIA conduct, although no charges were forthcoming), and political forces of partisanship and public messaging take their toll. But Jones persisted, and the progressive-minded The Report sees in his persistence a low-key, obsessive, impressive, quiet behind-the-scenes heroic patriotism.

The Report was written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, a frequent screenwriter/producer collaborator of Steven Soderbergh, who is one of the film’s producers. The duo also made the vastly inferior exposé of global elite financial malfeasances The Laundromat, and it’s interesting to compare the way that the recently-released Soderbergh-directed The Laundromat dilutes its political message with flat attempts at humour and self-conscious deconstructionist conceits while the less-seasoned Burns nails the grounded and direct infotainment punch of Soderbergh’s politicized masterpiece Traffic. The Report is a mildly fictionalized drama film (the CIA might argue it is extremely fictionalized, but then it’s always been an important part of their institutional function to spread damaging misinformation), but it organizes its revelations with the persuasive effectiveness of a great documentary on the subject.

Perhaps some viewers will find The Report to be a cold and unsympathetic experience because of this. Indeed, although the still-unlikely movie star Driver plays Jones as relentlessly, carefully moral and professional and therefore all the more capable of directing excoriating indignation at those who lapse in those capacities, Burns’ script barely gives him time for a personality or a life outside of his consuming labour. “Don’t you ever sleep?” the security guard who scans Jones in and out of the office asks, to which Jones replies, “It gets in the way of work.” The Report treats this line as a thesis statement in its approach to its protagonist. There’s a brief early mention of a relationship ending early in the process of compiling the report due to his constant long hours, and a less serious and information-rich movie may have peppered at least the first act or so with scenes of a worried and disapproving girlfriend (they’d cast Elizabeth Olsen or someone equivalent in the role) telling Jones that he’s getting in too deep, to be replaced in the latter acts by concerned phone calls from Mom. As it is, Burns has colleagues notice Jones’ obsession in passing, with subtle alarm (“How long have you been here?” asks one fellow staffer when Jones smothers her first thing in the morning with new discoveries in the CIA documents as she enters their windowless basement office; he admits to having been there for a few hours).

One element of dramatic license that The Report does indulge in with relish is the employment of exquisitely hateable villains. No, not the career CIA bureaucrats played by the likes of Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, and Ted Levine, who stonewall Jones and Feinstein and even engage in framing and character assassination in order to prevent the truth of not only the Agency’s use of torture but its awareness of its wrongness and its doubts about its effectiveness from coming to light. The Report‘s villains are CIA contractors and psychologists James Elmer Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), who sell the CIA on their program of EITs (based on the military’s SERE program) despite a complete lack of experience in interrogation, a weak knowledge of intelligence gathering, and a dearth of firm criteria in determining whether or not their cruel, violent and sometimes deadly approach is working at all. The Report understands Mitchell and Jessen to be hucksters and charlatans but no less sinister and dangerous because of that (if anything, they are more so). Motivated by the fearful paranoid vengefulness of post-9/11 America and of course by greed, Burns leaves the duo at film’s end toasting each other with martinis on their private jet, having made millions from their work while being indemnified from prosecution by the CIA. If this final touch is slightly too on-the-nose (“Gentlemen: To evil!”), the outrage whipped up by this image of the guilty escaping justice and indeed enriching themselves from literal torture of other human beings carries an undeniable force.

The Report is full of such righteous force, and Driver (as well as the steely Bening as Feinstein, who is a far more complicated and compromised political figure than is acknowledged here) proves an ideal tool for delivering its persuasive blows. Jones’ fixed outrage is contrasted with the semi-smooth, half-exasperated attempts at political spin and pre-emptive management of potential damaging elements of the report by Obama’s White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm). McDonough presents the perspective of the man who dubbed himself (with a catastrophically naïfish folly that only seems greater and more terribly misguided in the Age of Trump) the first post-partisan President, who strove to erase the history (and future) of torture from the national security ledger but not to hold anyone who was responsible for it criminally accountable in any way, in much the same manner as he declined to pursue any credible accusations of war crimes against the George W. Bush White House or its national security command structure. Because partisanship = bad. If only the Republican Party ever deigned to agree.

In the absence of legal remedies for such crimes, the movies step ambitiously but inadequately into the breach. The Report may have only minor surprises in store for political junkies (I learned more than I knew about the role of contractors in the program, as well as the CIA’s internal awareness of its issues and efforts to keep a lid on them), but for the lower-information viewer to whom the showily shocking photos of detainee abuse from Abu Ghraib prison and vague recognition of the term “waterboarding” (which Burns depicts in agonizing detail, along with other EITs like walling, stress positions, rectal rehydration, and sleep deprivation) constitute the entirety of their awareness of the U.S. torture program, it may well prove an eye-opener. That’s not unimportant, but movies like The Report, however good they are, cannot do all the work of winning justice for heinous moral and legal crimes that the politically powerful refuse to do.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Irishman

December 5, 2019 Leave a comment

The Irishman (2019; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese made some headlines and drew some social media and hot take attention a couple of months ago when he told Empire Magazine out of the UK that the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, pop cultural juggernauts that they are, were not “cinema”. Scorsese later expounded on this remark in a New York Times opinion piece that was more thoughtful on the question and expanded his feelings on how Marvel movies and blockbuster franchises like them were soaking up all of the cultural and commercial oxygen, to say nothing of filling precious screen spots, that might have allowed more artistically mature and daring auteur-centric cinematic offerings to find an audience and flourish. Whatever one might think of the point Scorsese was making (and one must take serious pause and consideration before even contemplating arguing about film with a cinephile of his calibre), it isn’t hard to fathom what it is about big-budget superhero movies that he finds distasteful. Martin Scorsese, we might be able to infer, does not much like movies that are indulgent, epically-scoped masculine power fantasies featuring emotionally-blocked male protagonists and marginalized women whose storytelling relies heavily on digital effects. Presumably this is why he decided to make one.

The Irishman might not be a superhero movie, but it’s a story as aggrandizing and likely disconnected from reality as Avengers: Endgame or Thor: Ragnarok. Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman weaves the almost certainly tall tales of union leader and Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) about his decades ensconced among the shady secret power-brokers of fading old-guard America. A Teamster truck driver from Philadelphia, Sheeran begins skimming off sides of beef for smaller-time crime bosses like Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale), before coming to the attention of more prominent city mob bosses like Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and especially Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), with whom he becomes close. A WWII vet hardened to killing and other forms of coercive violence, Sheeran becomes an ideal assassin for the Philly mob, and his union ties bring him into the orbit of Teamster union head Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the most important and well-known labour leader in the country through the 1950s and 1960s before becoming the most notorious disappeared person in the world in 1975. Sheeran claimed to have been the man who pulled the trigger on his close friend Hoffa, a claim that could neither be confirmed nor disproven. The Irishman gives his account of how it got to that point, and how it all went down.

Directed by a septeganarian and starring three more of them, The Irishman is perhaps unsurprisingly a legacy-minded film of aging, patience, and contemplation (a colleague on Twitter aptly dubbed it No Country for Old Gangsters). This is a narrative framed as the lonely, perhaps half-delusional reminiscences of the aged Sheeran from a wheelchair in a retirement home common room, a location approached through the facility’s corridors via a oner tracking shot probably meant by Scorsese as a wry ironic inversion of his famous long take through the Copacabana in Goodfellas; it isn’t clear who he’s telling his story to, so it’s fair to assume that he’s telling it to us in the audience, confidantes to his epic of probable bullshit. It’s a story that can be read as the outpouring of an unreliable narrator with ample incentive to exaggerate and fabricate a position of importance and vitality for himself. Sheeran’s relationship with his family is detached, distant; he leaves his first wife (Aleksa Palladino) for a second (Stephanie Kurtzaba), and his eldest daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a child, Anna Paquin as an adult) keeps her distance, silently rebuffing his attempts at fathering as well as the beloved-uncle ambitions of the quiet, menacing Bufalino. She does adore the gregarious, talkative Hoffa, with his childlike love for ice cream, as a fond alternative to the silent, dangerous men who try to buy her respect and love (and bully those who don’t show it to her, thus unwittingly alienating her further). Her well-founded suspicions of her father’s involvement in Hoffa’s vanishing precipitate the final break in their already strained relationship. Peggy’s pointed questions to Sheeran in the wake of the news of Hoffa’s disappearance are the only lines Paquin speaks in the film (and Scorsese has come in for some criticism for this and other choices that sideline women in this narrative), but Peggy’s doubtful-then-disapproving gaze represents the silent judgement of a more moral segment of the world on Sheeran’s way of life.

The mob way of life has, of course, occupied Scorsese’s creative energies many times before, most directly and successfully in GoodfellasMean Streets, and Casino, but also in Gangs of New York, The Departed, and the Prohibition-era HBO series he exec-produced, Boardwalk Empire (numerous cast members from that show fill in the supporting roles here, from Cannavale and Palladino to Stephen Graham, Domenick Lombardozzi, Kevin O’Rourke, and Jack Huston). It would be tempting to call the director out for the irony – if not the outright hypocrisy – of publically criticizing Marvel movies for their aversion to risk as he put the finishing touches on yet another film about mobsters mostly starring actors that he has worked with numerous times before. But if The Irishman does not exactly tread brave new ground in Scorsese’s oeuvre, then it gazes wistfully but harshly back on that oeuvre, as on an era of the American underworld’s ascendance that defined the country that lives in its long shadow.

Scorsese has been credibly accused in the past of allowing himself to get swept up in the sensuous aesthetics of the realm of criminal immorality that he is able to summon with his mastery of filmcraft wizardry, and thus to romanticize and even to render mythic the antisocial destructive nature of his antiheroes and their reprehensible deeds. If that was ever the case, then The Irishman sees the scales fall from his eyes. Its 209 minutes manifest as a penance for any hint of past sin in this direction, a form of guilty devotion that the lapsed Catholic Scorsese would understand well. There is nothing romantic about what Frank Sheeran does, and the way this film follows him as he ages (we see him as a youngish man during the war in the 1940s up until his retirement-home dotage in the 1990s) emphasizes the elegiac disappointment that colours his life as it draws on. Scorsese employs ILM’s digital de-aging technology (pioneered, in another irony, in the MCU movies) in order to preserve DeNiro, Pesci, and Pacino in their roles across decades without recasting or relying on only half-convincing makeup work, and it’s not only an artistically valid use of the effect but sometimes a revelatory one, seemless and quietly, forcefully effective.

The effect stays out of the way of the performances, which is remarkable and allows them to remain remarkable. DeNiro has often phoned it in throughout the latter stages of his august career, but he is focused and blunt here, crafting Frank Sheeran as a hard man who is disastrously incapable of evolution or change, a man defined by loyalties to men of a similar profile like Bufalino or Hoffa but not far-sighted or keen enough to anticipate or adequately prepare for how they might come into conflict with each other. He is reactive always, never proactive. Pacino is often loud and hammy, which fits for Hoffa, who was likewise in real life; he’s often fallen into this scenery-chewing mode in the latter part of his also august career, rarely venturing close to the calculating internalized viciousness of Michael Corleone in The Godfather films of Scorsese’s contemporary Francis Ford Coppola (you’d never have guessed it considering both men’s long history in the Mafia genre, but Scorsese and Pacino have never worked together before). Pacino’s Hoffa has subtler moments of simmering suspicion and anger, but they’re drowned out by his portrayal of Hoffa’s (probably fatal) megawatt hubris. It’s Pesci, however, who gives the finest turn in The Irishman. Another actor known for blabbermouth characters and showy big-personality gestures, Pesci has been essentially retired for years and had to be coaxed back to the set by Scorsese to play a soft-spoken, composed, terrifying man who can shift the axis of a scene (or a life, or a country, or the world) with a look, an inclination of his head, and a quiet, devastating word. DeNiro and Pacino add to their legacies with these characters, but Pesci’s Russell Bufalino constitutes a radical, fascinating realignment of his own. If there’s award season gold to be had in any of The Irishman‘s performances, it would be a safe bet to say it will belong to Joe Pesci.

The Irishman is not only about these men and the ways they fail themselves, but also the way that their underworld ways fail America. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian mostly credulously follows Sheeran’s dubious but tantalizing claims about his central involvement in labour union corruption, notorious mob murders, the Bay of Pigs raid, and even the Kennedy assassinations (Sheeran strongly implies that the virulently anti-Kennedy Hoffa and mob allies spooked by Robert F. Kennedy’s Department of Justice prosecutions of organized crimes offed JFK). What The Irishman finds in these mob myths is the weathered roadmap of a nation losing its way. The film touches on the degradation of labour in America via the corrupt graft of its leadership, with Hoffa predicting corporate bosses’ domination of working people even as he skims from those working people’s pensions to enrich himself and others. And the tentacular influence and grandiose high life of top Mafia figures is also consistently, witheringly proven to be tragicomically vainglorious: Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker (his collaborator for over a half century) freeze-frame various real-life mob characters as they appear and give their names along with their dates and (often violent) modes of death, a sharp ironic undercutting of their projected confidence and vitality (the funniest such onscreen title notes one mobster who was beloved by all and died peacefully in bed, as if an indictment of his worth).

In the end, however, Frank Sheeran carries no regrets about his long life of power, violence, and loyalty, or at least that’s what he says to spiritual and law enforcement confessors in the film’s closing scenes. DeNiro’s wrinkled face and weary eyes tell a different and sadder story. For as old-fashioned as The Irishman is in its casting, themes and ideas, setting and genre and subject matter, it’s also about something very contemporary: toxic masculinity and its costs, for the men who perpetuate it, the women subject to it, and for its many victims across society. Martin Scorsese’s first film made in the Trump Era unflinchingly examines the careworn visages of men shaped by an old order of ruthless power and deadly loyalty and finds in them the darkly settling ravens of a corrupt, lawless, and fraught future which is our present world. My wry introduction likened these men to superheroes, and Scorsese’s films have made that comparison in tonal, aesthetic, and thematic terms before. But The Irishman sees them as terrible but human, with flaws greater than their dark powers and darker deeds. Cinema is about forward motion, and The Irishman ultimately finds Martin Scorsese moving encouragingly forward, embracing his legacy while interrogating, complicated, and even deconstructing it.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Jojo Rabbit

November 30, 2019 Leave a comment

Jojo Rabbit (2019; Directed by Taika Waititi)

I’m almost sorry to say that Jojo Rabbit is probably Taika Waititi’s weakest film. It’s not as visually ambitious or tonally inventive as Thor: Ragnarok, it doesn’t immerse itself in a strong, familiarly unfamiliar sense of place and in the eccentric characters who inhabit it like Eagle vs. Shark or Boy, it’s not as funny as What We Do in the Shadows, and it doesn’t manage to mix humour and loss with quite the unforeseen grace of Hunt for the Wilderpeople (for my money, his best movie when taken whole). It isn’t a step back for New Zealand’s quintessentially quirky and self-effacing auteur. Nor is it a miss, or a bad film by any means, containing as it does fine moments both comedic and dramatic as well as a heartening if slightly soft central message of unlooked-for timeliness. But it’s not quite so sure of itself as those others films were, not as firmly set on solid ground, whatever leaps of fancy or inspired lunacy or wrenching sadness they engaged in. Taika Waititi took a chance with Jojo Rabbit, and it didn’t entirely pay off.

There were reasons to suspect that it might not pay off, but plenty of reasons to suspect that it might, too. Jojo Rabbit is adapted from New Zealand-Belgian novelist Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies, which I haven’t read but to hear Waititi discuss it in interviews is a very heavy and serious and sad novel about a boy growing up in Nazi-occupied Vienna during World War II who discovers that his mother has been concealing a Jewish girl in their home. Waititi is not a heavy or serious filmmaker, although he is one of the best currently working at summoning up sadness, albeit amidst offbeat humour and weirdly sincere irony. So when his mother suggested that he adapt Caging Skies for the screen, Waititi had little choice but to approach the material by making it his own. This process of adaptation meant a lot of things, but most notably it included adding a brazen and potentially offensive conceit: the boy protagonist Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) has an imaginary friend, and that imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. Imaginary Friend Hitler is played as a preening buffoon by Waititi himself, a piece of casting apparently made at the insistence of producing studio Fox Searchlight, whose keen marketing push included a Downfall Hitler reaction meme semi-trailer in which the late Bruno Ganz’s bunkered Führer becomes apoplectic at the idea of being played by a self-proclaimed “Polynesian Jew”.

10-year-old Jojo has a pep-talk-giving Führer as an imaginary friend because he is a committed, thoroughly indoctrinated little Nazi. Waititi drives home this point in a twofold fashion in the movie’s opening scenes. The opening title sequence wittily intercuts archival clips of Nazi propaganda marches and processions with madly, desperately devoted German citizens throwing salutes and falling into fangirl and fanboy histrionics, scored by the German-language version of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (“Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand”). Nazimania and Beatlemania, he cheekily though superficially suggests, are two manifestations of the same culturally-hysteric mass-media phenomenon. Then, before establishing Jojo’s home life which will take up most of the rest of the film, Waititi sends the boy off to a Hitler Youth training weekend, where Wehrmacht Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), his assistant/possible homosexual lover Finkel (Alfie Allen), and barking party-line zealot Fraülein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) drill dozens of German children in warfare techniques (the film takes place late in the war, when the conflict was turning against the Axis and the command would press every able-bodied German into service in desperation). The instructors also deepen the Youth’s ideologically Aryan brainwashing with book-burnings and a completely ludicrous but disturbingly dehumanizing flood of anti-semitic tropes and fantasies (we’ll come back to those).

Jojo talks a big Nazi game of loyalty to the fatherland and hatred of the inhuman Jews, but is humiliated by his inability to kill a rabbit in one desensitizing camp exercise (thus earning the titular nickname) and is then sent home wounded after Imaginary Friend Hitler pumps him up into trying to redeem himself by recklessly charging into a hand grenade training session. As Jojo recuperates and disseminates propagandistic literature for the demoted, desk-bound Klenzendorf, we get a view into his relationship with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, who has never been better and has a strong shot at a Best Supporting Actress Oscar with her performance here). With an enlisted husband on the Italian Front and a daughter who recently died of influenza, Jojo is all that Rosie has left. She is troubled by and opposed to his childishly-adopted fascist beliefs, but she loves and wants to protect her boy as much as she loves and wants to protect the liberties that the Third Reich has taken away. Their scenes together layer in a complex array of emotions and ideas, as Rosie tries to preserve her autonomy and individuality and joi de vivre while also preserving some sense of childhood innocence and wonder for her sweet but deluded boy, his head driven forward towards the harsh realities of adulthood in an ugly time before his heart or his body are remotely prepared for it.

It soon becomes apparent that Rosie is out all day and dangerously active in resistance to the fascist regime, but her resistance has come home, not only through her clever but careful attempts to re-educate her son but through her principled and even more dangerous decision to conceal in her walls a Jewish classmate of her dead daughter’s named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Jojo discovers Elsa, but despite his supposed Nazi principles and loyalty to the Reich, he doesn’t turn her in, as it would equally mean turning in his mother and even himself as well. Challenged in this course by Imaginary Friend Hitler and threatened by a comic yet ominous visit by the Gestapo (Stephen Merchant squeezes a movie’s worth of comingled mirth and menace into a single-scene cameo as the lead secret service agent), Jojo nonetheless befriends Elsa. But since this is a Taika Waititi script, their relationship is idiosyncratic indeed: Elsa feeds Jojo outlandishly false “facts” about Jews for his anti-semitic picture book, and Jojo writes and reads Elsa faux letters from her Resistance boyfriend Nathan, an act half-sweet, half-selfish and prickish, redolent of a schoolboy crush and of an immature jealousy of a distant, heroic rival. They will need each other all the more as the war comes to the home front in more than one devastating way.

Jojo Rabbit arrived into wide theatrical release with strong early Oscar buzz. A foray into the traditionally fertile Academy-appealing territory of World War II and Nazism by a generally critically-appreciated filmmaker also coming into his commercial own, Jojo Rabbit solidified its contender status by capturing the frequent Best Picture bellwether People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered to the world. Perhaps anticipating yet another Holocaust-themed arthouse picture sweeping to Academy glory, film critics have delivered a mixed verdict, however, often raising the spectre of Roberto Benigni’s now-maligned Life is Beautiful, an Oscar-winner and TIFF People’s Choice Award recipient that clumsily mixed comedy and poignancy in a Nazi concentration camp, to deride Waititi’s approach by association with a movie now generally considerable insensitive and possessed of insufficiently gravitas to tackle the subject it took on (at least they didn’t analogize it to Jerry Lewis’ disastrous, unreleased The Day the Clown Cried, about a clown in Auschwitz). Jojo Rabbit has also grossed only modestly at the box office, hardly transcending the arthouse circuit into the larger sleeper hit status it would have required to make an Oscar impact, as something like (the incomparably worse) Green Book did. One shouldn’t count it out entirely (the Academy is still populated by many elderly Jewish-American Hollywood vets and this stuff is like candy to them), but it hasn’t caught on as Fox Searchlight no doubt hoped it would.

Why not? It’s not bad, and even fairly good. Waititi has hardly forgotten how to be funny in his usual deadpan absurdist manner, and Jojo Rabbit‘s poignancy is generally exquisitely balanced with that absurdity. It’s an attractive-looking movie: cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr. (who lensed Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master) gives a vivid but dillapidated realistic lustre to Waititi’s often droll geometric compositions, helped along considerably by the old-world locations (Jojo Rabbit was shot in Prague, though not set anywhere specific in the Nazi Reichlands; its interiors were shot in a historic studio used by Joseph Goebbels for Nazi propaganda films, an irony not lost on Waititi) and by the information-rich production design, by Waititi’s countryman (and veteran of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien film adaptations) Ra Vincent. Its most tragic and heartbreaking moment is shot, edited, directed, scored, and performed with elegant poeticism before Waititi pulls the rug out from under the audience masterfully and wrenchingly; it’s an unforgettable scene, the wounded soul of the film, and when viewers moved by Jojo Rabbit argue for the its power and importance, they will be thinking of this sequence. The movie’s dominant theme is one of love and respect triumphing over cynical weaponized hate, specifically over the fascistic ethnonationalism of the Nazis, and it’s not a message that lacks relevance in our contemporary world, given the disturbing comeback of far-right fascist ideas and even specifically revived Nazi iconography under the irresponsible accidental collaboration of neoliberal complacency and self-serving conservative indulging of racism. Jojo Rabbit drives this point home, with the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence being the note-perfect needle drop that closes the film.

But is that message enough? Can love alone triumph over hate, especially when hate carries such an attractive and politically advantageous incentive to the powerful and non-powerful alike? To quote an episode of Clone High (the work of Lord & Miller, American crafters of expert idiosyncratic comedy who have risen to higher levels in Hollywood as Waititi has), love is just an abstract concept, it can’t knock down stuff. The critical response to Jojo Rabbit has suggested that this message is naive and insufficient to the political and social challenges of the moment, a feel-good panacaea that distracts from the more difficult work of countering far-right ideology and the fascist tendencies creeping into the conservative political parties of Western democracies (and some of the centrist and centre-left ones, too). This reaction short-sells Jojo Rabbit; it’s about “love” manifested as respecting and protecting the vulnerable of society in its emotional case-study fashion, the foundation underscoring the democratic socialist ideology that is the surest social and political counterattack to fascism’s absolutist power (spare me the snide 4chan riposte that “Nazi” just stands for “National Socialism”; you may be so dishonest or dumb to believe that point matters, but I’m not).

It’s easy enough to critique the movie’s prominent “anti-hate satire” tagline as aggressive marketing-department underlining of ideas that Jojo Rabbit fails to back up, but the description is not inaccurate. Satires comedically critique unjust social and/or political structures and worldviews while holding an opposing, sometimes unspoken structure and/or worldview as a desirable alternative. Waititi doesn’t have Johansson’s Rosie read out Bernie Sanders’ election platform or anything, but it’s clear enough that the desirable alternative to fascism’s destructive, paranoid white nationalism is a social structure in which communities care for each other with a political order that supports that core tenet (Waititi is a supporter and friend of New Zealand’s current centre-left Labour Party Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern). But if this is solid ground from which Jojo Rabbit launches its satirical attacks on the Nazis and their beliefs and practices, what aspects of fascism are being attacked here, and do those attacks succeed?

First and foremost, the anti-semitism of the Third Reich comes under direct fire of Waititi’s smothering ridicule. Like prior giant of Hollywood anti-Nazi satire Mel Brooks, Waititi is himself (half-)Jewish, although it’s not an aspect of his identity that has asserted itself much in his work up to this point; his indigeneity and Maori identity has loomed larger, reflective of his previous films’ themes of fatherhood (his father is a Maori artist) as opposed to Jojo Rabbit‘s themes of motherhood (his mother is of Jewish heritage). Brooks’ comedy frequently emphasized its creator’s Jewishness, to say the least, and of course one of his best-known and loved films, The Producers, satirized Nazis, or rather what he called the shoddy theatricality of their propagandistic image-making (watch Lindsay Ellis’ video essay on the subject, if you would; it’s indispensible to the discussion that follows). But he always stayed away from addressing the Holocaust directly, even criticizing Benigni’s Life is Beautiful for deciding not to do so, and did not venture into lampooning the saturatingly ugly anti-semitic propaganda that sought to justify and motivate Nazi Germany’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Indeed, it could be debated whether or not Brooks’ old-fashioned Borscht Belt comedic use of Jewish stereotypes didn’t do more to perpetuate them to a wider modern audience than to neutralize their dangerous power.

Taika Waititi doesn’t dare to depict the Holocaust directly in this largely gentle-spirited movie, although Elsa does recount to Jojo a story of watching her parents being put on a train to what was almost certainly a death camp, a fate lying beneath the peril of her discovery that is the film’s central tension and relies on the audience’s shared knowledge of the deeper horrors behind the war and the propaganda of the regime. But in much the same way that his generational comedy contemporary Sacha Baron Cohen controversially did in Borat, Waititi goes right at anti-semitic tropes by reproducing comically exagerrated versions of them at the Hitler Youth camp and in Jojo’s conversations with Elsa and with others and in his juvenile picture-book. The amplification renders these tropes hilarious and laughable, and by extension renders the political ideology founded on them likewise hilarious and laughable. I think it works and is pitched with the right tone to make it clear that anti-semitism is a joke and could not be believed by a rational and empathetic person (even if, or maybe because, the film’s child protagonist’s head is full of it). But there’s room for disagreement on that point, too, one has to acknowledge, albeit far less than in the comparatively more raucous deployment of such outlandish stereotypes in Borat.

What’s more unprecedented and therefore more unsettling, problematic, and worthy of debate in Jojo Rabbit‘s anti-Nazi satire is that unlike a lot of prior farcical takes on fascism, it places Nazis in their own social, political, and historical context and does not forcefully turn them into cartoonish villains. I think one of the reasons that it’s fair to label Jojo Rabbit as an anti-hate satire as well as why it is being criticized as perhaps being a bit soft is that it doesn’t really have a personified villain, a representative character standing in for the inhumanity and unleashed horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich, like Ralph Fiennes’ casually monstrous Amon Göth in Schindler’s List or the more charming and smooth Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in Inglourious Basterds or even Belloq and Toht in the blockbuster potboiler Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Merchant’s Gestapo agent Deertz represents a clear threat for a single scene, but he’s ultimately characterized as a mid-level bureaucratic functionary doing his job, even if that job is morally terrible (not that the banality of evil isn’t terrible and chilling in its own way). Captain Klenzendorf might have served as a bad man backed up by the authority of a bad system, but he is far from a party-line fanatic (Allen and Wilson play such fanatics, but as pure comic caricatures) and even proves moral and protective of the vulnerable where he can. He protects both Elsa and Jojo from harmful reprisals when turning them over would have been less dangerous for himself, even acting as a surrogate father to Jojo in a proscribed way. This reflects not only the frequently non-ideological nature of the German military during the Nazi era (they fought for their country in most cases, not for the fantasy narratives of the fascist fanatics who ran it) but also his own personal awareness of the plight of the marginalized as a closeted gay man who could be sent to the death camps should his secret be revealed (although when Americans and Soviets assault Jojo’s town at the film’s climax and there is little left to lose, Klenzendorf embraces homosexual flamboyance in the form of a flashy red-feathered battle uniform of his own design). Even Waititi’s Imaginary Friend Hitler, with his absurd, side-splitting Kiwi/Germanic-accented English speech proclaiming things like how he plans to eat unicorn for dinner, is more silly than evil, only tipping into angry confrontation with Jojo’s vacillating and displays of empathy near the end. He’s a fantasy manifestation of Jojo’s dedication to Nazi ideas, with the concomitant childish frivolity and insecurity that implies.

Without an easy villainous character to focus the audience’s natural resentment for history’s greatest monsters onscreen, Jojo Rabbit is instead making a subtler, more amorphous satirical point about a society turned to mass-murderous madness and evil while also simultaneously continuing largely as normal. Waititi, Mălaimare, and Vincent craft a Germany (or maybe an Austria like in the novel, it isn’t clear and doesn’t specifically matter) quietly heaving under the crushing weight of Hitler’s war effort, with propaganda posters on walls, Jojo and his Hitler Youth compadres dressed up in cardboard costumes as toothpaste tubes and robots collecting donations of scrap metal for the Führer, and a gallows erected in the town square from which the bodies of resisters hang as a warning (‘What did they do?” Jojo asks his mother, who answers, “What they could.”). The understanding and even empathy that is the ideal launching point for Waititi’s satire extends to ordinary citizens under the yoke of the Reich, who were not foaming-at-the-mouth zealots for the master race but largely powerless people who either found the risk of standing up to Nazism too great or else they didn’t, and often paid for that choice with their lives (many did at least broadly agree with what Hitler and his command structure were doing, too, which Waititi would not deny and gestures at as well). This framing excuses absolutely nothing of what the Third Reich did, to their own people as much as to Europe’s Jews and Slavs and Roma and homosexuals and their battlefield enemies and civilians of their opponents. But it does seek to somewhat realistically depict what German society was like under Hitler’s regime.

This might not have been an approach that would have been anticipated from a Taika Waititi film satirizing Nazis, and might go some distance in serving to explain critical divisions and the commercial ambivalence of wider audiences towards Jojo Rabbit. It’s one of Waititi’s braver choices here, to tackle fascism on its own historical turf. Previous satires that have targetted Nazism have been couched in conceits that separate the text of their satires from the historical reality to a great extent. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, the best-known and best-regarded comedic reply to Hitler and fascism in the time of its ascendancy, featured a parody of Hitler named Adenoid Hynkel, a parody of anti-semitic Nazi Germany called Tomainia, and parodies of Benito Mussolini, Hermann Göring, and Joseph Goebbels. Monty Python’s hilarious “North Minehead By-election” sketch transposed the Nazi leadership (John Cleese as “Mr. Hilter”, simmering in rage at his diminished lot and giving over-the-top speeches from the balcony of a boarding house; Michael Palin as a grinning, Beat-speaking “Bimmler” who has trouble keeping up their cover: “Was not head of Gestapo at all! I make joke!”; Graham Chapman as the absurd aristocratic “Ron Vibbentrop”, “in Somerset being born”) to sleepy suburban West Country England, where their attempts to begin a political coup in Britain by winning a Parliamentary seat on the “National Bocialist” ticket are met with indifference and befuddlement from locals who “don’t like the sound of these here ‘boncentration bamps'”. And of course, Mel Brooks’ The Producers was about a stage musical about Nazis, Springtime for Hitler, which took the unpalatable offensiveness of Nazism as assumed and indeed integral to the film’s premise and plot and mocked the tacky overwrought cornball performativity of its propaganda more than the content of its political ideology or the genocidal consequences of that ideology. Jojo Rabbit fits in with these satires in some ways, but diverges notably from them in showing Nazism to be ridiculous (but also dangerous) in the historical locus of its own greatest power and influence.

Lindsay Ellis notes in her video essay on The Producers and other anti-Nazi satires that despite the impression that it is a light and superficial genre, comedy can actually effectively tackle serious subjects and unjust and oppressive political and social systems. Indeed, she arguesa that comedies often manage to critique injustice and hate better and more sustainably than dramas do, citing the example of the overtly anti-Nazi American History X as a film that aestheticizes fascist iconography even while denouncing it and as such has been co-opted by latter-day alt-right fascists as a text that romanticizes Nazism and its attendant images and lifestyle. Ellis observes that The Producers is not claimed by modern Nazis in that way, and it’s similarly unlikely that Jojo Rabbit will be either, a statement to the satirical power of both texts as undermining fascist ideas by laughing at them. German fascism is shown to have been thoroughly ludicrous by Taika Waititi’s film, a paper-thin childish fantasy of hate and exclusionary inclusion that took over an industrialized European nation, claimed millions of lives in the process, and continues to poison and disfigure our current political order and discourse. But it also furtively acknowledges the social and psychological appeal of fascism to the young and impressionable, a lesson worth heeding when formulating approaches to defusing our contemporary hard-right time-bomb. Does Jojo Rabbit entirely succeed in balancing satire with political thoughtfulness, not to mention with emotional integrity and sociological sympathy for the impossible choices of ordinary people in the grip of an oppressive authoritarian regime? Not entirely and not always, but at the end of the effort of thinking and writing about it, I find myself wanting to do little but praise Taika Waititi for the brave yet implausible effort to get this funny, nuanced, often powerful, but not wholly effective film over the line. Jojo Rabbit doesn’t work as it ought to, but perhaps it couldn’t realistically be expected to, given the surprising ambition of its project. It did what it could, and even if that’s not always enough, it’s certainly something.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Parasite

November 24, 2019 Leave a comment

Parasite (2019; Directed by Bong Joon-ho)

South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho has made films about the socioeconomic disparities of capitalism before. Snowpiercer, obviously, with its horizontally-inclined train-car metaphor for the pyramid of wealth and privilege, but monster movie The Host and the unpredictable meat-production polemic Okja likewise respectively critiqued capitalism’s controlled chaos and institutional incompetence and its marketing-obscured reduction of animals (and people, too) to pure products of consumption. But with Parasite, Bong Joon-ho crafts his richest, most compelling and layered exploration of the social and personal costs of capitalist economic assumptions. This film, the Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is among the most urgent, persuasively uncompromising, and hard-to-shake portraits of the operational effects of class in 21st-century cinema, and perhaps in cinema of all eras. It’s also tense, shocking, frequently hilarious, and never anything short of remarkably entertaining.

Parasite is a story of two families (although one of its later-act twists slots in a third, but we will say no more about that). The Kims are barely-employed, scratching together barely enough money to make ends meet in their semi-basement apartment. They watch drunks piss on their rubbish bins through their ground-level window, wander the apartment with smartphones held to the ceiling in hopes of latching onto free wifi from a neighbour, and flick away insect infestations, allowing the smoke of fumigation crews to drift through the open window while they’re home in hopes of gaining free extermination services. The Kims are poor.

This begins to change, however, but only through the chance magnanimity of Min (Park Seo-joon), a friend of the family’s young-adult son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). Min is a student at university (which neither Kim child can afford to attend) and has been tutoring Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the high-school-age daughter of the wealthy Park family, in English while also carrying on a secret relationship with her. Min is going abroad to study, but fears another horny young male university student tutor taking his place and his underaged girlfriend. Ki-woo has good knowledge of English, having taken several university entrance exams, and Min feels that he can trust his friend not to take advantage of her while earning good money from the Parks.

Ki-woo isn’t a university student as such English tutors in Korea are evidently expected to be (there are numerous details in Parasite that proceed from cultural assumptions of South Korean society that may not be immediately intelligible to foreign audiences, but it doesn’t detract from the film overall). But his talented, art-school-aspiring sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) forges official-looking college documents for him and he gives a fake name – Kevin – to the young mother of the Park clan (Cho Yeo-jeong), whom Min labels as “a bit simple” and sure enough hires Ki-woo/Kevin practically on the spot. Ki-woo does not live up to Min’s lofty expectations of his conduct, as he soon becomes Da-hye’s new secret boyfriend.

From there, the Kims inveigle themselves one by one onto the Parks’ payroll and into their luxury modern home, designed and dwelled in but vacated a few years before by a renowned architect. Ki-jeong wins a spot as art therapist to the Park’s excitable, unfocused son Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon); patriarch Ki-taek (played by frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho) becomes the family’s new chauffeur after Ki-jeong frames their current driver for sexual deviance; and matriarch Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) takes over as live-in housekeeper after displacing the prior long-tenured one Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) with a fiendish plot involving a peaches allergy, a packet of hot sauce, and a hospital waiting-room selfie. This final link in the employment chain proves to have dire consequences for the Kims (who keep their family relation secret from their employers) and the Parks, however, when the former housekeeper turns out to have been hiding a secret beneath the house.

These events unspool with clever writing, sharp editing, and keen performances, words and ideas and images planted in fertile cinematic soil in early stages sprouting and flowering productively as matters become darker and more terrible in the film’s later movements; it’s a witty confidence-scheme caper comedy before transgressing into full-blown and urgently resonant social horror. The cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo absorbs the cluttered, grimy detail of the Kims’ flat and takes full advantage of the sleek reflective modernism of the Park home. The latter in particular becomes a progressively more familiar and thus unsettling setting: the doorway to the basement, source of the conflict and horror that consumes both families in the film’s latter half, is a black portal set in the middle of a tastefully-illuminated feature wall of decorative objects, into which characters vanish and out of which characters emerge without a hint of warning.

Parasite sees the horizontal orientation of Snowpiercer‘s forceful metaphor for the socioeconomic hierarchy turned back vertical. In contrast to the poor Kims’ lowly basement premises, the wealthy Parks’ mansion is on a geographic height, requiring literal physical ascension (as well as figurative economic/professional ascension) in order to reach it: the Kims approach it by moving up a hill, then taking stairs at the property gate and again after ingress at the front door. The secret that the previous housekeeper concealed in a hidden bunker below the storehouse basement requires a descent to reach, and the violent chaos of the film’s last half stems from what comes out of that subterranean realm. When returning to their semi-basement home in a torrential rainpour after spending a dangerous and fateful night trapped in the Park house, the father Kim and his children descend long inclined roads, metal staircases, and a long set of stone steps down which flooding rainwater cascades. In Parasite, the socioeconomic ladder is given literal form.

But Bong’s conception of class and privilege is far knottier and more fraught than this direct vertical visual arrangement suggests. The Kims are amazed at the gullibility of their rich marks and the ease with which they are able to gain access to salaries from the Parks and to the plenty of their home. But Parasite does not play out entirely like a gleeful, cathartic revenge fantasy of swindling the 1%, although Bong indulges that sentiment in moments. Ki-woo especially is consumed with doubt, not at the immorality of deceiving the Parks but of his own suitability and fitness in their world of wealth and ease. He worries that he does not fit in there, manifested not as nervousness that the ruse he kicked off will be exposed but as a deeper anxiety of social belonging.

Parasite also unfolds not in the direction of violent overthrow of the privilege of the rich, but of desperate, primal conflict between those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale for whatever wage labour income and other discarded scraps those on the higher end are willing to part with. Even while disingenuously acting as the titular parasites on the wealth of the Parks to survive (the film’s Korean title is 기생충 or Gisaengchung, which translates to English most directly as “parasitic worm”) the Kims and others relying on the wealthy family’s largess do not resent them, but pay them compliments (they’re all very “nice”) and even forms of ritual homage to the father of the family, IT company CEO Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun). When violence does climactically turn against the rich, it’s not predemitated or revolutionary in nature, but a sudden snap decision to bring about terrible, swift accountability rather than allow another unscathed escape from the wanton destruction that capitalism’s imperatives wreak upon the poor while sparing (and more often even benefiting) the wealthy.

But Parasite‘s greatness deepens and broadens and becomes more challenging and audacious when its subtext moves beyond class critique and into something more political. It’s hard to miss how Bong seeds his dialogue with casual but insistent references to North Korea: the bunker beneath the Park house was built by the august architect due to North Korean nuclear fears, Moon-gwang impresses with her imitation of North Korean state media broadcasters, and Kim Ki-taek tells Mr. Park that he knows all the roads in Korea south of the 38th Parallel that roughly separates the peninsula’s two very divergent states.

A probing critic may posit that the film’s title refers as much to the wealthy Parks as to the deprived Kims; capitalism presupposes a reciprocal but entirely unequal parasitic relationship on the part of both the haves and the have-nots. But by consistently, knowingly inserting the backwards communist North, with its starving, poverty-stricken population and authoritarian, wealth-hording government elite, into this story set in the prosperous capitalist South, Bong Joon-ho may be provocatively adding another (inverted) layer to his rewarding cinematic critique of vertically-aligned wealth distribution in his native Korea.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews