Parasite

The Kim family lounges casually in an expensive house in Parasite

“You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned.”

There was a lot of buzz in 2019 about Parasite, but I didn’t get a chance to see it until recently. I will say, it is every bit as great as the buzz makes it out to be. Directed by Bong Joon Ho (Okja, Snowpiercer) and starring Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, and Yeo-jeong Jo, this South Korean dramatic thriller makes a powerful statement on wealth, class, and inequality. The story is complex, without clear antagonists and even protagonists (I really wasn’t sure who I should be rooting for in some spots), and we’re instead shown how unfair life can be for those without the good fortune to be born in the right places and families. The film has the neutrality of a good documentary, showing us the interesting and sometimes shocking events without making a strong comment on who’s right and who’s wrong. This is a film that left me thinking for long after the credits rolled, even days after I viewed the film.

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Serpico

Frank Serpico is dressed casually in Serpico (1973)

“Frank, let’s face it. Who can trust a cop who don’t take money?”

There’s a whole sub-genre of movies about people who stand up for the right thing even when everyone else in their lives doesn’t care. Serpico, directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express) and starring Al Pacino, takes that formula, but it does what few other movies like this dare to do: it’s not afraid to be messy, morally gray, and frustrating. If the combination of Lumet, Pacino, and a morally complex plot based on a true story sounds familiar, it’s because these things came together again in 1975 for Dog Day Afternoon—a testament to how well they worked in this film. Serpico shows us the harsh reality of a world where, even in the police force, morality is not so clearly divided into good guys and bad guys, and the struggle to do the right thing can be painfully tedious.

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All About Eve

Still from All About Eve

“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

All About Eve was one of those films I’d always heard about, but had never seen. It’s revered as a classic film, and set a record for number of Oscar nominations (14) that was not matched for 47 years and has never been surpassed. It’s widely regarded as one of the smartest films of its time. Watching it for the first time in 2020, I wondered how it would hold up without the rose-colored lens of nostalgia to help me view it. I’m happy to say this is absolutely still a great film, and it lives up to the hype. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Cleopatra, A Letter to Three Wives) and starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, this is a film with great performances, a smart script, and some intriguing commentary on Hollywood that’s stood the test of time.

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Marriage Story

“Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best; divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.”

There are many films that tell entertaining or compelling stories, but there are far fewer that are so real that they hurt. Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) and starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, is definitely real enough to hurt. It’s a story of a divorce—and Baumbach has done a so-real-it-hurts divorce movie before in The Squid and the Whale, but, where that one was emotionally brutal, this story has that raw emotional brutality, but it’s tempered with love and a touch of humor (there are a few laugh-out-loud funny scenes) that keep it from getting too depressing. So couple a smart script with what are perhaps the best performances of the two leads’ careers and you get an outstanding dramatic film on par with some of the hardest-hitting classics out there.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Note: This film has been featured on an episode of my podcast about movies and mental health, Peculiar Picture Show.

“This didn’t put an end to shit, you fucking retard! This is just the fucking start! Why don’t you put that on your Good Morning Missouri fucking wake-up broadcast, bitch?”

In the cinema world, even in films without action and adventure, we’re accustomed to heroes and villains. We have films with complex villains, problematic romantic leads, and even adventures without any discernible villains, but the audience just instinctively knows who to root for and who to jeer against. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) and starring Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, is different because it sets itself up as very black and white, with a slighted middle-aged woman and an angry, racist cop, but the film’s narrative goes to some interesting places and it really makes audiences question who they’re rooting for, and why. It’s also a solid, smart drama with effective darkly comedic elements. This is a film that gripped me, but left me thinking for a long time after the credits rolled, and that’s not an easy thing to do.

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The Irishman

“Nowadays, young people, they don’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was. They don’t have a clue. I mean, maybe they know that he disappeared or something, but that’s about it. But back then, there wasn’t nobody in this country who didn’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was.”

The crime genre is a prolific one, with many masterpieces already on my list. Among crime film directors, Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) is royalty. So when it was announced that Scorsese, now nearing the end of his career, would be making another crime epic with acting legends Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci (who came out of retirement for this film), film buffs collectively lost their shit. With Scorsese, Pacino, De Niro, and Pesci having so many great films to their names but nearing the end of their careers (and, let’s face it, nearing the end of their lives), this will probably be the last time we see this director and these actors put out a film like this. The Irishman is a fond farewell to those great crime films we grew up with and loved, and it’s fitting that it deals with aging career criminals coming to terms with their lives of crime and violence. We’ve seen great human depictions of criminals, most notably in The Godfather and its sequels, but there hasn’t been an in-depth look at what happens when these criminals start aging out of the systems they created. That’s a gap The Irishman fills, and it does a brilliant job of it.

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American Hustle

The main cast of American Hustle

“Did you ever have to find a way to survive, and you knew your choices were bad—but you had to survive?”

Most films go heavy on plot and light on characters, but I have to admit, I’m a sucker for strong characters even when the plot is not stellar. American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, I Heart Huckabees) and featuring an amazing all-star cast including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, has amazing characters and performances, even if the plot meanders a bit more than it should. It’s also a ton of fun and a great slice of authentic 70s goodness, even though it came out in 2013. Every character, from the con man to his distant wife of convenience to his brilliant mistress and partner in crime to the overzealous FBI agent, has more vices than virtues, but they’re so complex and fleshed-out that I found myself mesmerized by the characters interacting on screen. If you want a complex and brilliant plot, go watch Chinatown; but if you want a fun film with great characters and style, look no further than American Hustle.

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Carol

Therese and Carol meet in Carol (2015)

“I always spend New Year’s alone. In crowds. I’m not alone this year.”

In film, lesbians have almost always gotten the short end of the stick. On the one hand, you have the stereotypical butch lesbians, who exist as jokes; on the other hand, you have the stereotypical sexy lesbians, which exist mainly for the entertainment of men. Very rarely do you see a lesbian character in film that’s neither a joke nor a set piece, and when you do see a smartly-written lesbian character, she’s usually a background character with little bearing on the plot. That’s why the 2015 film Carol is so important. Directed by one of the pioneers of the New Queer Cinema, Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) and starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, this is a smart romance between two women in the 1950s—a time that was not accepting of two women falling in love, but also a time that didn’t really accept the livelihood of women without men. The hardships they face are as big a part of the plot as the romance itself, and this is a touching but also heartbreaking tale of two women trying to find love.

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Her

Theodore installs Samantha in Her (2013)

“I’m becoming much more than they programmed. I’m excited!”

A man falls in love with his computer’s operating system. That’s the premise of Her, a film by Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation) starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson, and Amy Adams. I’ll admit, the premise sounded so dumb to me that I put off watching this film for a long time. Well, now that I’ve watched it, I’m sad that I did—this is a brilliant film that hits hard in the feelings department too. I don’t think it’s meant to be viewed literally, like most sci-fi films; instead, it’s more like a metaphor or allegory, commenting on what it means to be human and have human relationships by showing us the relationship that develops between a lonely human and this artificial intelligence. In fact, there are some noticeable holes in the science behind this film, so I’d be hesitant to call it a science fiction film at all. It’s a solid drama and romance, though, with some important philosophical things to say about human nature, human relationships, and, of course, love.

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Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth talk over drinks in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“It’s official, old buddy. I’m a has-been.”

Every filmmaker was inspired by something. Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) has stated that his favorite film is the 60s spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, by iconic director Sergio Leone, and Leone’s influence can be seen in many of Tarantino’s films. In the 60s, Leone’s new style of Italian Westerns were a departure from the classic American Westerns Tarantino had grown up with, and in many ways signaled a change in filmmaking overall, away from the wholesome images of the 50s and the first part of the 60s, getting ready for the gritty realism of the 70s. Tarantino’s newest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood touches on that while also being a love letter to the Hollywood from Tarantino’s formative years. Tarantino has said that this is his most personal film, and you can see the care who poured into this project. I personally loved the film and think it’s a great addition to his repertoire of work.

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