Ostensibly this archetypal Pixar effort is about music, though it eventually transpires that music is a Trojan horse for Pixar’s official motto ‘Nothing’s more important than family’. Which is fine. But for a movie that talks so much about music, I was hoping it would be more musical than it is. You see, the computer animation in the smattering of guitar-playing scenes is wonderful, I mean really wonderful. Advances in the medium will never cease to amaze – even 2020’s otherwise underwhelming Onward arrested me with its digital paintwork on occasion, and this has far more soul going for it. So it’s a shame those soulful moments aren’t served by the Disney production-line pop and predictable, arbitrary plot demands that we get. Señor Mouse, más America Latina por favor.
Another ‘bout-a-genius-drama from the turn of the millennium provides the most salient observation regarding this John Nash biopic – Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting. Simply put, Russell Crowe isn’t Robin Williams. I know, who is? But without a performance of the latter’s calibre, the beauty of this title’s troubled mind is never realised as stated. Crowe’s stilted delivery and underwhelming body-language convey inertia rather than brilliance. Not bad, but not enough to lift competency into creditability. Elsewhere, a familiar biopic pitfall saddles the very end, where the narrative blitzes through 30-years of Nash’s life in what amounts to a Wikipedia-scanned hagiography. But the film’s strongest act, straddling the middle third, makes more of an impression than the finale’s faults. Here Nash’s descent into mental illness grabs the viewer too, and alongside imparting the sheer fortitude of will he required to function with it, is successfully dramatic. Which is pretty important for a drama.
Slick slasher that darts spryly between black comedy and horror, all the way defined by Christian Bale’s sardonic, imperious exhibition of Wall Street monstrosity. As those uncomplicated arguments were convincing, an ambiguous twist-ending in the then-age of Fight Clubs and Shyamalans was rendered unnecessary, even if enforced by the screenplay’s source material. Conversely, as a political allegory – Reagan was a serial killer, stockbrokers’ only emotions are greed and disgust – the translation of its sentiment on-screen initially felt like a reach. But the longer those words have been sitting on the page?
This is where James Mangold begins to implement the ideas that would bear full fruit in Logan. Look at the difference in the way Wolverine is directed compared to Bryan Singer’s films. For the first time the action scenes capture the feral, time-bomb ferocity a character of the name should demand. Action scenes delimited by their PG-13 rating, but a necessary advancement. Jackman’s performance too is a step in the right direction, carrying himself with coiled fatigue, a wounded animal weary of carrying on, never far from lashing out. Place him in the middle of a Japanese family power-struggle, under a moody Marco Beltrami score, and you have a samurai exploration with enough intrigue pulsing under the surface to keep you interested. Until it craps the bed with mecha-suit tomfoolery in act three. That might be even more delimiting than the rating.
Great animations rest on being able to buy into their central conceit, and for all the efforts of exuberant lead-duo Tom Holland and Chris Pratt – and the odd heartfelt character moment – I never did. Its suburban America meets Middle Earth fantasia just left me asking, why? The device that sees a once-wizarding dead father spell-cast from the waist down, is the sketchiest means by which to haul the revelatory dénouement into place. The screenwriters appear to have started with the climax, then spent hours jumping through the narrative hoops necessary to reach it. There was something viable in its paternal dynamic – even in scripts as middling as this, Pixar know where the important beats lie. But for a studio that occasionally hits great heights, one can’t help but feel the churn of content-production does their talents a disservice.
Serviceable Nazi thriller that lacks the punch to be anything more than just that – serviceable. Tom Cruise leads, and is miscast. He’s not a bad actor – far from it – but in an (at least formally) intense historical drama surrounded by a who’s who of crack-British character actors, he feels sorely out of place. Cruise is a suave physical performer, not an actor you hire to suggest emotional depths – in the same way you wouldn’t cast Tom Hanks as Ethan Hunt. That said, the Brits haven’t got much to get their teeth into either. Two flaws symptomatic of a film that never gets under the skin of its proponents, and of a direction lacking in subtext. Gripping wartime conspiracy, straightforward Hollywood jaunt.
As meticulously plotted as any Fawlty Towers episode, only engineered for tragedy instead of comedy. Note I haven’t mentioned the much-vaunted social critique for which it’s been acclaimed – that’s because it devotes most of its energies to brilliantly wrought farces, not to analysis. That’s not to say there isn’t any of the latter. The film’s best sequence, which frames the disparity between the effects of a downpour on the rich and the needy, hits home the grim reality of its post-capitalist parable like nothing else. But the bulk of the drama rests on incident as a result of construction, not on the lives of its proponents. Take for instance, the inclusion of a subplot regarding a problem basement dweller. Though it hints at a downstairs/even further downstairs dynamic, primarily it’s a ploy, there to serve the final act’s bloody consummation – and that’s no bad thing. Incident realised with this level of precision is a rare art to behold. It doesn’t always have to make a point in the process.
Parasite is not an easy film to write about. It would be a misnomer to label it to any one genre while it readily defies categorisation. This satire spans many without ever losing touch with its overall narrative, darting from dark comedy to political think piece, ultimately concluding in family tragedy. More impressively, director/writer Bong Joon Ho’s handling of these tonal shifts is such that, though Parasite remains shockingly unpredictable, the turns the film takes never feel out of the blue.
Ho’s screenplay continues his thematic preoccupation with political commentary and economic inequality. His screenplay excels in portraying the situation and its characters with nuanced ambiguity. This is a story of the haves and the have-nots. The Parks – who are the haves – are not an opaquely evil presence, just as the Kims are not unimpeachably good. The former’s desire for a higher social position involves plotting to displace innocent people from theirs – demonstrating the kind of dichotomy boiling under its surface.
For all the praise (rightly) lavished on the screenplay, its coupling with superb cinematography elevates Parasite from good to great. The pairing of shots throughout the film – most notably those of the Kims staring out the window – perfectly illustrates the rise and fall of the family’s fortunes.
The use of vertical space contributes to the uniqueness of its visuals. This is displayed perfectly with the Kims’ commute to the Parks’ house. In the first half, the optimistic portion of the drama, the ascent is merely implied, with only the final steps up towards the summit dramatized. This is then payed off perfectly in two set pieces during the latter half of the film. Firstly, during the long descent into the basement, the stairs keep moving down and the light goes from the screen, symbolising the even lower societal position occupied by the resident of the basement. The second comes during the long, drawn out fall of three members of the Kim family following the return of the Parks return from a camping trip – a fall shown in excruciating detail as they climb down staircase after staircase during a downpour, culminating in the reveal of the flooding of their apartment. A crash to rock-bottom, a place where even the toilet is a climb up.
Parasite was two hours of watching someone who clearly loves film produce a near-perfect picture, anchored by a story that stays in your head long after the credits finish rolling. A worthy winner of Best Picture and a resoundingly strong start to the next decade in cinema.
Some of the gags are a little too obvious – there’s a religious skit that’s a little too Life of Brian, a director whose alliterative name is mined for all it’s worth, and a well-executed climactic speech with a just-too predictable punchline. But those are nitpicks, anal nitpicks at that. The Coen Brothers are masters of comic craftsmanship, and though deconstructing it would be time-consuming, I can reduce how much pleasure you’ll get out of their approach to whether you find lines like “a mirthless chuckle” irrepressibly amusing, or a laughless non-starter. But they are lucid storytellers as well. On paper, a metaphor that likens the light of God – from which all that is righteous comes, to the light of the projection unit – from which all of cinema comes, looks unpalatable. On screen, the pair have a gift of craft that could convert the dead. The metaphor not only lands, it reconstitutes a thoroughly entertaining series of set-pieces into a moving whole. Rarely has “love of the movies” – so often used to give free passes to insufferable self-indulgence (Quentin, achem) – been used with such restraint to do the medium justice.
Timeless opening, classic cliffhanger, pristine photography, good jokes, one wonderful car chase, and a proudly British sentimentality that never crosses into jingoism. The only drawback I can think of relates to what isn’t there – because what is there is faultless. This caper’s scope is modest, very modest even. It doesn’t concern itself with plotting, or character development. That’s because it aims for light entertainment, which, though delimiting and insubstantial in form, is nothing to be sniffed at. More assuming pictures than this have strived and failed to achieve the slick pleasure without-frills it gets so readily. That’s an end in itself.