Parasite directed by Bong Joon Ho. 2019.

With Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyung, Cho Yeo Jeong, Choi Woo Shik, Park So-dam.

What a brilliant movie.  Beginning with a tightly composed interior shot of socks hanging to dry from a light fixture in a sub-basement apartment where a family of four are barely making ends meet, the viewer is drawn into a tightly composed story of class, misappropriation, with a surprising twist that deepens the social commentary.

The movie has elements of suspense, horror, humor, romance, inter-generational struggle, bilidungsroman, con artistry.  A lower class family struggles while an upper class family is barely aware of any problem except a vague smell of something not quite right.

The story is of the Kim family down on their luck living in squalor — the toilet is in the open, and sits so high, you literally have to squat to sit there. Slowly but surely they finagle their way into a rich family’s employment, starting with the young son who thanks to his friend’s connection, becomes the rich daughter’s tutor.  From there, the son, Ki-Woo, delivers his sister in the guise of an expert art teacher and therapist of the rich boy who could be an artistic genius or perhaps mentally ill.  Once the daughter has earned her position, she finds an ingenious way to get the chauffeur fired, opening the way for her father — another “distant relation” — to replace him.  Finally, the dutiful housekeeper is tricked into being let go because of a potentially contaminating illness.  This opens the door to the last member of the Kim family– the mother — to occupy positions in the wealthy Park household.

The pacing and editing, and costuming of these scenes, one incident leading to another, sort of like This is the House That Jack Built– is flawless.  We are drawn in by the way this family holds together to find each other work.  Of course, it can’t last, and the falling apart is more jagged, and even shocking at parts, but still, the elements hold together in a perfectly constructed story.  At one point there is a flood which reaches a level of danger and complete destruction, but somehow pulls back to let things reach a slightly different climax.  But the visual feast, and images of staircases, with each person climbing down into what can only be thought of as an inferno leads to the inevitable.  How metaphorical Ki-Woo might say.  He had received a gift of archeological rock from his friend just before he vanished to the United States – and this rock will feature prominently not just as a metaphor– where do we come from ? what is the plan? how do we rise up from the earth and become something worthy? until it is just that solid thing that can do great harm.

Technology features quite naturally into the story, from the beginning when the family lose their wifi which they have been stealing from the upstairs apartment, to a key twist in the plot that depends on a person sending an incriminating piece of video.

Besides the exhausting and perhaps extraneous ending which seems to go on a bit long, the movie is ingenious, and practically perfect in every way.

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Laundromat directed by Stephen Soderburgh, 2019.

With Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas.

If what is depicted is true, I can see why the real people, Monteras and Fonseca, are a tad upset with Netflix.  Exposing the near criminal, but probably legal, shell game they operated, Soderburgh plays the villains for laughs that are not very funny.  Beginning with a tragic boating accident on Lake George that should have been covered by insurance which turned out to be part of a shell company and in fact simply did not exist, the movie shows the many people who suffered at the hands of these cold hearted money managers.

One of the most chilling deaths was an accident.  The woman who penned the forged signature of a non existent executive is in the wrong place at the wrong time, exiting a bus that suddenly breaks down, which leads to a turn of events ending in a downed tree, which brings down an electrical line, which lands on her, and electrocutes her.  It is not actually justice, though, because it appears that she did not even know what she was doing.  She was just earning money doing her job.  How could she understand that as a result of those many fake signatures people were under the impression that they had millions of dollars in insurance, or shares of stock worth millions of dollars when in fact none of it was worth a dime.

I wish that I could say the movie is funny, or tragic.  It is too cerebral to make you feel strongly.  Mostly it makes you think, and question how laws exist to benefit crooked  people and fail to protect the innocent.  I admire Soderburgh for trying, but I am not sure this is the movie to light a fire under us to change a corrupt system.  You can tell all of his excellent cast were a hundred percent behind his mission, especially Meryl Streep who at the end of the movie removes her prosthetic devices and makeup and wig to reveal her true part in this movie: as a muckraker disgusted with an unfair system in need of change.

 

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Hope and Glory directed by Pedro Almodovar, 2019.

With Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz, Julieta Serrano, Asier Flores.

Images abound, first of the man sitting on the floor of the pool, seeming to defy what water does to you — make you float — by remaining magically rooted to the bottom.  Then there are the images of the women doing laundry on the river bank where fish called affectionately soap fish, swim toward the bar left underwater while a boy watches, rapt, and his mother and her chums snap out laundry to dry on the nearby bushes.   Most enchanting to me is the “cave” the young boy and his parents move into — at first a crude hollowed out clay space underneath some barren cliffs, but soon transformed with bleached white paint, ceramic tiles, and strategically placed plants, into a haven.  The list of physical ailments is shown in a series of animations with body parts that verges on the humorous if it weren’t so exhausting thinking of the actual pain involved in suffering through all of them.

The movie is autobiographical, beginning with the childhood of Salvador, in postwar Spain, and jumping to the present, where he is a successful but depressed filmmaker whose health has taken a turn, with pain in his back, choking attacks when he drinks, and other maladies.  The surfeit of physical pain keeps him from working. but what is really stopping him is revealed only late in the film. Salvador’s mother, near the end of her life, complains that she does not want to see herself or her neighbors on screen.    Salvador takes this directive very seriously and goes into full hiatus for several years.

The movie also explores what it is like to reach a certain stage in your life, in your career, in your health, where you begin to take stock of what made you who you are, and what you want to do before you die.   The images leading up to this for Almodovar are most vivid in his childhood, which feeds the plot in multiple ways, and besides being beautiful, lends an aura of mystery and magic.

Antonio Banderas follows the advice that he gives one of his actors as he coaches him not to seek out the opportunity to weep, but to hold back the tears.  His scenes with the older actress playing his mother, Julieta Serrano — the younger versions are played by an excellent child actor Asier Flores– and Penelope Cruz, magnificent as always– reveal the soul of the character, how he is capable of restraint, but also of exhibiting his feelings almost entirely in the cast of his eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Downton Abbey directed by Michael Engler. 2019.

Written by Julian Fellowes, based on the television series.  With Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Allen Leech, and many others.

I love how Julian Fellowes’ witty scripts tie everything together.  Disparate characters upstairs and down weave their various stories into a coherent whole in the magnificent mansion of the title.   Having succumbed to the charm of the television series for many years, I could not resist another portion in movie form.  How could I stay away from Maggie Smith’s withering asides, or Allen Leech’s Irish prole romantic widower’s soulfulness, or Michelle Dockery looking smashing in every gown, even with the headdresses that make her out to be a Greek goddess?

The movie does not disappoint, with its creepy would be assassin stalking Tom Bransom (Allen Leech).  The plot centers on the downstairs staff in revolt against the king’s imported replacements as the royal family deign to visit the Abbey and the Crawleys.  Even the French chef gets his comeuppance thanks to the brilliant scheming of Mrs. Bates, who is seen now and then caring for her young child.

Fellowes’s scripts know how to entangle the serving classes with the ruling classes that belie his deeply conservative bent toward preserving the status quo.  Only the kitchen maid, Daisy, seems ready to shake things up and have a revolution.   There is a subplot about the butler who replaced the longstanding Carson.  The newcomer named Barrow is homosexual and risks not only getting in trouble by expressing himself, but perhaps being arrested and worse.

No matter how much we care about the characters in the movie, the real stars are the buildings, the sets, the costumes, and all things mechanical, such as a broken boiler which nearly ruins the royal feast.  Suspense about the delivery of Edith’s ball gown surpassed that of the attempted assassination of the king.

Music is larded on a bit thick, but what would Downton Abbey be without the glorious shot of the manor house, backlit by a sunset, and punctuated by the pounding of single piano notes that mark the theme song?

 

 

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Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. 2019.

 

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is a great title for the movie since the main subject is just that, Ronstadt’s complete musical instrument in all of its glory, how it can sound soft and slow or as big as the sky, filling up an auditorium meant to hold a hundred thousand people.  Ronstadt’s gift of being able to sing across a great range of moods and octaves and cultures makes it hard to say good bye to it because she has Parkinson’s Disease.

But before that subject arises, the movie traverses the arc of her life, her career, her restless need to sing according to her own lights, beginning with her first band, the Stone Poneys in which she was the headliner and there were two guys singing behind her.  She was always the cover artist, unusual at that time, being a woman, and someone who sings but does not write the songs.

Her range includes Gilbert and Sullivan (Kevin Klein described her voice as moving him to tears, it was so ethereally beautiful), Mexican songs her father taught her (with some great footage of her rehearsing),  1940s pop songs ala Frank Sinatra style with arrangements by Nelson Riddle.  Most compelling is her collaboration with Dolly Parton and Emmy Lou Harris whose Trio albums are great testaments to female harmony in service of country music.  The interviews with Bonnie Raitt and Dolly Parton shed light on what it was like to work with her, and how deeply respected she is among other female singers.

When Ronstadt sang with The Stone Poneys, they performed  in small clubs, until a music producer found her voice compelling and simply told her band mates to get lost.  This begins a sub theme of the movie: how women were treated in the early age of rock.  At one point, the belittling laughter of a callous tv show host is the only response to her thoughtful articulate explanation of why she went to South Africa to perform even in the midst of a world wide boycott because of their apartheid policies.  Ronstadt herself admits to the sexism of the music business at the time she was at her peek.  I am sure if the filmmakers wanted to, they could have shown more incidents harsher than this one about how she was treated as a powerful woman in a man’s world during the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond.  But there is a discretion that is mildly infuriating about the movie.  Even though the movie unfolds in roughly chronological order, it would have been helpful to know what year is being depicted. Many other questions are left unasked.

It made me wonder who was really in charge of the movie.  Was it Ronstadt, who did not wish to share such things?  Or was it the filmmakers whose point of view precluded the most compelling things about her such as when she was diagnosed with Parkinsons, how it affects the whole person, not just her voice, where she was living, who takes care of her, etc.

The movie is about music, not a diagnosis, but I left the film curious to know about her woman’s journey through the business and later her illness.  I wish I could have learned more about  how she ended up with her cousin and her nephew, trying to sing the old Mexican songs.    Maybe the memoir upon which the movie is based is the place to start.

 

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Before You Know It directed by Hannah Pearl Utt, 2019.

A family of actors lives in a Greenwich Village townhouse above the theater that father Mel Gurner (Mandy Patinkin), a well known actor and playwright in his sixties, is preparing his next play for.  The family consists of his two grown daughters, Jackie (Jen Tullock) and Rachel (Hannah Utt), and his granddaughter, Dodge ( Oona Yaffe).  They all qualify as eccentrics.  Mel refuses to complete the script of his most recent play that Rachel is gently coaching him to.  Jackie keeps rehearsing the death scene flamboyantly while Mel prefers it to occur offstage.  Many practice runs of the more melodramatic way indicate that Jackie sort of likes her dead father to topple onto her.

But when Mel actually dies, their lives run amok.  The building is owned not just by Mel, but by a mysterious woman who turns out to be their mother who they thought was dead.  Dodge, the twelve year old, and her new friend, the daughter of an accountant, form a bond that draws out each character’s charm.  The young people provide the lightness needed and an authenticity at times lacking from this theatrical movie about theatrical folks.

There are also some humorous scenes at the child psychiatrist’s played by Alec Baldwin.

Oona Yaffe plays Dodge

Baldwin is her psychiatrist

The acting is first rate.  Mandy Patinkin could have hammed up his part but gentles the role to a tone that is just right.  Judith Light channels Gloria Swanson as a soap opera queen past her prime.  The way she wears her wigs is innately funny.  But the movie relies on the two sisters’ intimacy to get through the worst things that can happen: abandonment, death, and taxes.  Jen Tullock and Hannah Utt convince us that they are devoted to each other even when they are jealous, or woefully inadequate to the task at hand, burying their father for instance, or taking care of a tween daughter.

The use of New York City as set made me glad I saw the movie at the Quad, which is actually featured in the film.  The city is a character to itself, with its offerings to actors both in high drama and soap operas where so many have made a decent living.  Even though there were holes in the plot, and strange segues, I recommend this movie to people seeking a genuine independent film experience.

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Where’d You Go Bernadette directed by Richard Linklater. 2019.

With Cate Blanchett, Emma Nelson, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig.

 

What a pleasure to take my mind off what the president has done today to bring our country to the brink of disaster. This movie answers my quest for a diversion about talented people getting to create things that are important.

Cate Blanchett stars as Bernadette Fox, Emma Nelson as Bee Branch and Billy Crudup as Elgie Branch

Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) is an architect who quit practicing under discouraging circumstances twenty years prior to the time of the movie. She and her techno guru husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and teen daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), live in Seattle, home of Microsoft and Amazon. Elgie is working on an artificial intelligence product called Samantha 2. Bee faces what to do about high school, having just aced eighth grade at her progressive private school.  They live in a repurposed but extremely deteriorated former reform school for girls next to a pristine suburban home maker, Audrey, played deliciously by Kristen Wiig. It isn’t stated, but Bernadette probably had grand plans on how to renovate the oversize building into a suitable home, but they never came to fruition, and you see the leaking pipes, overgrown brambles.  Even the dog suffers, having been trapped inside a confessional that requires a rescue with a ladder.

Cinematography points to the isolation of Bernadette, out on the sea, alone, surrounded by ice floes.  She is always alone, unless with Crudup and daughter, in a very fancy car (which is alienating– how many moms bring their daughters to school in a Jaguar? How obnoxious!).  Bernadette prefers to talk to her online assistant, a non responsive though major character.

The script includes certain very tender scenes, which veer on the sentimental, for instance Bee and Bernadette singing together in their car.  In order for us to learn the back story of Bernadette’s isolation, there is too much of a catch up dialogue in a scene with Laurence Fishbourne, her former colleague.  This very one sided conversation ends with the question: “Are you done?”  I wanted to shout Amen!

Bernadette is a benighted member of a very white collar profession, a genius who got a grant from Mac Arthur, then faded away.    The privilege is earned, but still, it is sort of tiresome to watch such privilege.  Bee, the girl who was long awaited, who Bernadette wanted for so long, should have been the narrator, but as a result of the star power of Cate Blanchett, who admittedly commands the screen, every inch of it, at all times, takes over, and changes the point of view of the story that made the book compelling.  We always know where Bernadette is.  It becomes a bit of a yawn  to see the plot play out with a happy ending.

However, there are some funny bits.  For instance, dueling suburban stay at home moms with dueling hair cuts.  Kristen Wiig is perfect as the foil, a “gnat” deemed annoying and unimportant to her superior neighborhood’s genius who dominates, with her unruly blackberry rambles.

Did Bernadette know that removing them would cause the collapse of the whole bank, resulting in major damage to Audrey’s house?  This part of the satire is very well preserved from the book, and works.

Elgie is a bit of a cipher until he stages his intervention to cure Bernadette of her mental illness.  Speaking of which, mental illness is no joke.  If Bernadette is genuinely mentally ill, should we be thinking that her escape into the Antarctic is a big laugh riot?   Cate Blanchett knows how to command a picture and this one is no exception.  She dominates the movie to the point where it is not appropriate.

Bee is lonely for her mom. She misses her the instant she goes missing.  Scenes of mother and daughter seem authentic, though when they come, it is at the expense of others, which makes you wonder, is this the only value Bernadette has taught her daughter, that  she is superior to others?

Sets serve the story as does use of technology.  Seattle is a character unto itself.  The movie has a major subplot about technology, how we entrust it with our lives until it is extremely unsafe.

Because there is a thick comedic vein running through the movie, I didn’t mind that all the misdeeds went unpunished, that Audrey turned out to be capable of extreme discretion, that the family remained intact.  It is a refreshing thing to be wooed by a comedy with half a brain that assumes you would deem a vulgar musician a villain. As a fan of the book, though, I found this adaptation disappointing.

 

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