Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Classed Up: PARASITE

Fiendishly clever, South Korean writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is a slippery thriller. It appears to set up a simple haves-and-have-nots parable with an immensely likable family who easily and charmingly stumble their way into a long con. Impoverished, unemployed, and living in a dingy basement apartment, the couple and their grown children slowly, then all at once end up employed at a gullible rich family’s enormous mansion. It’s an easy gig, one they don’t intend to start until it’s too easy to avoid. They just insinuate themselves in one at a time, first the son (Choi Woo Shik) becomes an English tutor, then the daughter (Park So Dam) an art therapist and so on. They secretly, subtly orchestrate reason to eject a current coworker, then pretend they’re recommending a friend of a friend to the boss instead of a family member, playing the part of helpful strangers. That the families are funhouse mirror images of each other — a mother, father, daughter, son set of four, though different ages and ambitions — adds to the grooving on a clever visual contrast. The leads’ cramped apartment with the concrete walls practically closing in, their only window revealing a gross view of a dumpster, feels even smaller and more cramped when compared to the empty spaces in palatial rooms at their employers’ home where their massive windows open onto green garden lawns and copious sunshine. And yet, when the storm eventually comes, Kyung-pyo Hong’s glassily precise cinematography makes the mansion an ice-cold gilded cage, a diorama of portent and cruelty. As the movie (scripted by Bong and Jin Won Han) complicates its initial setup, the stakes grow higher. It becomes a story concerned with collateral damage, as the lies of this con family come back to haunt them. The giddy kick of its early trickery twists into sequences of darkly funny escalating suspense. The whole thing is awfully entertaining and deeply unsettling, even, maybe especially, when it’s never quite in the way you’d guess.

The ingenious structure invites us into a Robin Hood scenario with heist movie pleasures. The deceit is charming, and the poor family is easy to root for. They have such warm chemistry with each other, and take such obvious delight in their cons — father and mother (Song King Ho and Chang Hyae Jin) beaming with pride as they throw themselves into this new family project of sorts — and, besides, these rich folk are so simply and happily tricked. Besides, they're doing good work and the wealthy family can afford it. The film sees the arrangement as common, and mutually parasitic. The con may have gotten the poor family the job, but they’re still servants, beholden to the whims and calls of wealthy patrons who, no matter how benevolent and generous they may at times be, are nonetheless at a constant low boil of condescending classist judgement and unexamined learned helplessness. Never quite a broad poison-pen satire, but never quite gritty realism, the movie is perched and poised between the two as it sketches this dynamic. Who is hurt in this situation? Potentially everyone, as Bong twists the knife. In this world, the film says, dignity is easily lost, and difficult to gain. “They’re only nice because they’re rich,” one family member says as the others express a kind word about their marks.

Bong’s earlier pictures were also keenly invested in detonating inequitable social structures. Literal class warfare erupts in the dazzling sci-fi actioner Snowpiercer, while monstrous downstream consequences of medical experiments bubble up in The Host, and factory farming crosses with genetically modified food gone wrong in Okja. Those films are splashy mainstream entertainments, and here his pet themes get intimate and queasy. The film serves up uncomfortable dynamics, with fellow workers tossed aside with no regard for the consequences of their schemes, and emotions of vulnerable children toyed with. Bedevilingly, the movie draws discomfort across class lines, confusing the central tension by highlighting how easily those of us in the working class might throw each other under the bus for the short-sighted privilege of a slightly more comfortable place of inequality. The warmth and love of the leads is cut with the burbling blackly comic and tensely developed suspense of how it’ll all unravel for them and whose pain will get hidden away in the process. Even the final unexpected conclusions — and every concussive twist leading up to it — deliberately eschew easy answers. We get sequences that could be either righteous catharsis or overt tragedy, but it’s the touch of a master filmmaker that manages to give us simultaneously both and neither. It’s a movie that astonishes in the moment in the wonder of a good story well told, and lingers long after, its messy implications permanently unresolved.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Rinse and Spin: THE LAUNDROMAT

Steven Soderbergh films have always been political, about systems and process, about inequalities and the thorny knots of injustice that get codified into structures. They’re hugely entertaining and in a variety of genres, but the throughline is unmistakable. His Erin Brockovich and The Informant! and Traffic tell of people fighting systemic corruption. His Contagion and The Girlfriend Experience and Bubble and Unsane and Side Effects tackle the ways in which people are ground down as cogs in the machinery of society or fall through the cracks. Even his comparatively lighter larks — like stripper drama Magic Mike, spy thriller Haywire, the glossy Hollywood heists of Out of Sight and Ocean’s 11, 12, 13, or his scrappy, iPhone-shot, NBA negotiation dazzler High Flying Bird — manage to dramatize the haves-and-have-nots in snazzy packages. (He also made the sprawling epic Che. You get it.) His latest, The Laundromat, is his most direct statement, a loose, uneven, episodic collection of tales scripted by Scott Z. Burns that build to a straight-to-the-camera rhetorical flourish that straight up tells the audience it better wake up and smell the corruption before it’s too late. Here’s a movie about the shell game of the global economy, refracted through a law firm whose involvement with tax avoidance schemes was a big ticket item of the massive document dump a few years ago known as the Panama Papers. It’s all about shell corporations and trust funds and bank accounts where the laws are beneficial and the difference between money laundering and the cost of doing business is simply how much your accountants can get away with.

Although the movie teeters among gripping procedural elements, meandering stylistic flourishes, and winding narrative digressions, it adds up to a complicated and damning picture of the world’s wickedest loopholes. A pair of wealthy, smooth talking lawyers (Gary Oldman, hamming it up, and Antonio Banderas, all smooth and unctuous) narrate once in a while, in obvious, smarmy, condescending fourth-wall-breaking monologues about their schemes and successes. They connect the various episodes, and as fun as the performances are, their big caricatures threaten to throw off balance a film that’s otherwise far more attuned to the consequences of the moral rot and corrosive greed at play. (Think The Big Short if it was good.) There’s a small-town widow (Meryl Streep) hunting down the location of an ever-shrinking insurance payout as it travels through various parent companies and corporate debt transfers. There’s a duplicitous accountant (Jeffrey Wright) on the radar of a determined investigator (Cristela Alonzo). There’s an African businessman (Nonso Anozie) whose blackmail and bribery comes home in a mean way. And there’s a European suit (Matthias Schoenaerts) whose dealings with a wealthy Chinese woman (Rosalind Chao) includes threat so casually chilling that it contains a literal cut like Un Chien Andalou’s most famous shock. Every anecdote is at once darkly funny and boilingly upsetting, compellingly futile yet cut with a sharp stab of empathy for the underdog. Amidst its smooth, sliding camera and deliberate artificial touches (snarky chapter breaks, smirking asides), it’s keenly aware the meek haven’t inherited the earth, and mourns with them as their meager plans for small savings are stomped out by the wealthiest’s quasi-legal scams to get wealthier. It says the global economy is a shell game, and Soderbergh is smart to see it through to its logical conclusions. He states his conclusions flat out, boldly and broadly, a message movie with an exasperated edge, as if he’s letting out a dispirited sigh, saying, “I’ve been trying to tell you…”

Friday, October 11, 2019

Seeing Double: GEMINI MAN

While watching Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, I found myself keeping a mental list of what works well and what works not at all when dealing with a high frame rate. Like the master filmmaker’s previous film, the under-appreciated Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, this new movie was shot at 120 frames per second. Unlike the usual 24 frames, this higher rate causes everything to look at once hyper-real and hyper-fake, so crisp and clear the action on screen is too much to take in, every detail jumping out, small sudden movement feeling like it is moving at one-and-a-half speed. It worked for that prior film, an intimate PTSD drama about a solider on leave, where the discombobulating visual element in which everything seemed slightly unreal and off played out an aspect of the protagonist’s discomfort. But here, in service of a script that has a clever high concept swallowed up by cliched characters and standard thriller plotting, the effect is startlingly disconcerting. At worst, it is motion smoothing — the bane of cinephile’s home theater settings — done up on the big screen and it took me most of the movie to adjust my eyes. Here’s what looks incredible: long static takes, fast vehicles moving against a steady background like clouds or ocean, slow-motion, and close-ups. (That last one is how you know Will Smith and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong and Clive Owen are great actors and that Lee remains one of our finest directors of them, their gazes penetrating not only the crackpot screenplay but the hyper-alert visual style, as well.) Here’s what looks thoroughly wrong throughout: pans, tilts, dollies, fast cuts. In other words, it often works either for or against the form. A long establishing shot or a soft emotional moment or a steady action beat or a slow-mo flourish jumps off the screen. A quick cut or a shaky cam or even just a basic push in causes the background and foreground to slide and glide and smooth out in the most eye-boggling ways. I found myself closing my eyes from time to time. Perhaps the problem, then, is not necessarily the high frame rate itself, and more the fact that the added frames short-circuit the usual blockbuster film grammar. If a pan makes everything feel erratic down to the molecular level, but a locked off shot looks stunningly immediate, more rethinking about what it means to design a film has to happen when deciding to use this tool.

Speaking of rethinking, the script could’ve used a few more drafts. It’s been in the slow-cooker of development hell, and the final product has credits for Darren Lemke (Shazam!), David Benioff (Game of Thrones), and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), but the thing has only a great concept going for it. Will Smith plays a super-assassin who finds out something he wasn’t supposed to know, and is thus targeted by his own government handlers (led by Owen). He’s on the run with a reluctant accomplice (Winstead) and an old pal (Wong). There are action scenes of moderate cleverness that get better and better as they go. The finale — with slow-mo and explosions and a high-speed machine gun a perfect match for the HFR — ends up the best representation of the film’s small thrills and soft emotional curlicues, but comes to an awfully simplistic, unsatisfying denouement. Often, though, the movie defaults to characters expositing towards each other and making decisions that are convenient more for the plot or blocking than any other good reason. Lee does nice work amplifying Smith’s isolation — the look plays into it here — and distance from normality, his precision and his skillset keeping him from connecting with others. He also makes fine metaphor out of the high concept, eventually sending Smith on a collision course with self-awareness, forced to come face to face with his own actions in the guise of his younger self. (He plays him literally, in a CG creation that is often staggeringly real, except for the Uncanny Valley moments in which he is staggeringly not.) But Lee’s usual poetry is subsumed by the script and by the camera, and his notes of human connection get buried under limp quips and a sluggish pace. The man behind such tender heartbreakers as Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Brokeback Mountain previously had no problem injecting that humane and sensitive attentiveness in his bigger, visually inventive spectacles like Life of Pi and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and his comic-panel-cutting take on Hulk. But with Gemini Man, he’s a bit lost, with those grace notes, those earnest moments — gentle connections, authentic emotion, unexpected resonances — all too fleeting. I found myself straining to enjoy it more, even as my eyes strained to adjust to its style.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Clowning Around: JOKER

Joker represents strained seriousness from two angles. It’s a comedy writer-director in Hangover helmer Todd Phillips trying his hand at a character drama, and it’s a subgenre in the superhero movie dressing up in the clothes of more penetrating artsy fare. Given that our culture spent the last decade telling us to take both comedians and superheroes Very Seriously as signifiers of Great Import, this collision was, I suppose, inevitable. (And yet, recall Logan, a superior comic book movie pitched at adults and drawing upon decades of accumulated character history while embracing its goofy/cool sci-fi elements, was released just a couple years ago and was all the better for not resorting to playing prestige drag.) Here we have a movie that purports to tell an origin story for Batman’s most famous arch-nemesis, but in a simmering unease of ground-level mental anguish, shorn of all but the most obligatory references to the comic book lore. It’s the story of a mentally ill loner (Joaquin Phoenix) whose tenuous grasp on his place in society is crumbling. His elderly mother (Frances Conroy) is ailing; his day job as a clown is as depressing as his dream of becoming a standup comedian is unlikely. He’s prone to fits of uncontrollable nervous laughter, appears skeletally thin, and moves through the world in a near-constant state of flinching from others. This is a fantastic performance from one of our best. He inhabits the role’s cliches so fully that it becomes intense and wounded and something like real, or at least imbued with a ragged, gnarled discomfort that comic book movies otherwise studiously avoid. Phoenix sees this as an excuse for a wormy, squiggly, loose-limbed mania. He cowers in the corner or slides Astaire steps down a corridor, dancing pantomime or twitching in anguish. It’s raw and wild, and yet so studiously performative that its somehow both vividly alive and wholly performative. It’s electric like a fake live wire in a haunted house.

The movie that surrounds Phoenix — thin tin-eared pop psychology, contradictory sociopolitical moralizing, and clanging winks to comics past — doesn’t exactly let him down, but never gives the rest of the characters or situations the same level of introspection or interest. Nonetheless, its immaculately designed crumbling urban squalor — Gotham has never looked more grotty, though I missed Nolan’s elegance and Burton’s Gothic shadows and Schumacher’s baroque camp — shot with grainy glamor and scored with thrumming uneasy strings proves Phillips is a fine copycat craftsman. He’s taking his cues from a collision at the influences factory. The film is widely reported as a cross between Scorsese classics Taxi Driver (Joker’s simmering discontent, societal isolation, and violent impulses a match for Travis Bickle’s) and King of Comedy (an unhealthy obsession with a talk show host, here played by that film’s star, Robert DeNiro), but it surely also takes its cue from the countless big city vigilante fare of the 70s and 80s. (There’s a Bernie Goetz-style inciting incident that takes Gotham’s class warfare from a low boil to a raging protest, a city with a Death Wish.) Here, though, the politics of Gotham are a grubby muddle. A city with sleazy rich guys (like a certain Wayne patriarch) who are nonetheless victims of a populist uprising and a violent mob of impoverished citizens who carry signs that say “Resist” carries with it interestingly confused valences no matter how beautifully lensed. If Phillips can’t populate his secondhand style with a similarly nuanced point of view and captivatingly conflicted ideas, he still manages to make a decent canvas on which his lead can create.

Phoenix is precise even when the movie isn’t sure what to say, or double-underlines its biggest faux-intellectual symbolic gestures. (At one point he sees a sign that says “Don’t Forget to Smile” and Sharpies out the “Forget to.” Get it?) No other character is allowed to be more than a cog in his story — even when played by such great actors as Zazie Beetz, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, and Brian Tyree Henry, who spark some life into totally flat roles — because the movie is so solipsistically wedded to its main character’s mindset. This can create odd moments of frisson, where the movie’s empty provocations — violence or cringe humor that is somehow never as jolting or uncomfortable as it would be in, say, a Scorsese picture, or a Jody Hill project — come uncomfortably close to making its villain protagonist a sympathetic underdog, nearly excusing his sociopathy. But Phoenix takes care to shy away from antihero temptation and complicates what, in lesser hands, would’ve seemed as routine as it is. He make sure Joker is just a pathetic man, undoubtedly a victim of society (funding cuts for his low-income mental health treatment, for starters) but nevertheless going about his life in unhealthy patterns. It’s like a dark, simple little character-based comic miniseries, with Phoenix as the artist who gets to give his own riff on a classic figure. In the end, it’s engaging and interesting almost despite itself, and never as upsetting as it thinks it is. No, it’s small, and sad, ending not in triumph or action or thrills or chills, but one individual’s pain metastasizing into a city at large. That it’s set to fester as long as DC needs stories from Gotham is one thing. But that real life individuals are emboldened to make their pain (real or imagined) society’s pain is another entirely. Even if the movie isn’t quite equipped to explore it with rigorous nuance, the filmmakers’ fingers are on this terrible pulse.