Parasite 2019 *****

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The aging, white, male makeup of the Hollywood power elite is ably reflected in the lack of diversity in awards voting members; Bong Joon-Ho’s blackly comic Parasite seems to have mopped up most of the diversity vote in the 2019/20 race, but that’s no reason to hate it. While it’s unusual for subtitled films to get a Best Picture nomination, only a sainted few (Life Is Beautiful, Il Postino) actually get the honour, and they tend to be awash with sentiment.

That’s certainly not true of Parasite, which, despite all kinds of bores coming out of the woodwork to acclaim its virtues, is a pretty good film when the dust settles. Bong Joon-Ho’s ventures into international film-making have, in my unfashionable opinion, been overblown duds (The Host, Snowpiercer), but he’s on home ground here and it shows. The premise is simple; a young man wins a position as a tutor to an affluent household, and seeks to get his sister employed there as well. Before long, his whole family have formed a parasitical relationship with his employers, but there are still a good few reversals to come.

The final burst into OTT violence feels like a lurch, but otherwise this is an immaculately conceived and crafted drama, with secrets well worth keeping. Parasite is a reminder of the pleasures of real cinema, not franchises, not world-building, not tying to do anything but engage, intrigue and then wrong-foot the audience with a great narrative. Wider meanings, political and social, are possible, and there’s an Upstairs Downstairs/Downtown Abbey comparison that’s there for the making. Ultimately, it subscribes to the Orwellian notion that class conflict is largely the working and middle class swapping places, and that the power elite continue unscathed, but even that notion may be giving too much away.

A key part of what makes Parasite interesting is the take on poverty, physical, financial and emotional; the protagonists subscribe to the fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality so beloved in 2020, but the perfect picture they subscribe to turns into a nightmare. The way the family view wi-fi as their daily bread, and look to the father to provide, feels modern and genuine. It’s a great film for Korean cinema, for subtitled and arthouse film, and for film-making generally; don’t read another review until you can see it, and enjoy the twists and turns before they become pop-culture 101.

Puppet on a Chain 1971 ****

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There’s a whole lot of puppets and a whole lot of chains in Puppet on a Chain, a tight little thriller based on a novel by Alistair MacLean. MacLean was the kind of writer who, like Ian Fleming, wrote about what he knew, and when that ran out, just about managed to write about more fanciful worlds he was less familiar with. Thus, MacLean became something of a magnet for zeitgeist, and this 1971 thriller has a whiff of The French Connection and other, more reactionary drug-fuelled dramas of the time.

Puppet on a Chain’s reputation is largely based on an extended chase sequence in which speedboats navigate the canals of Amsterdam in a deadly cat and mouse game; functioning much like the car chase in Friedkin’s film, it’s a late-in-the-game show-down between the hero Paul Sherman (Sven-Bertril Taube) and his quarry Meegeren (Vladek Sheybal, from From Russia With Love and The Apple). With his pure white suit and cowboy hat, Meegeren is anything but a low-key dealer, and it’s easy to see why large crowds of gawping spectators are visible as the action unfolds. This hugely impressive stunt-show led directly to the boat chase in Live and Let Die, and a general vogue for extended action that infused both Bond and 70’s cinema.

The always impressive Dan Sharp contributed the sequence to Geoffrey Reeve’s film, and while it’s a stand-out, the location work, atmosphere and generally attitude of Puppet on a Chain are all to be commended. The view of drugs in Amsterdam is somewhat alarmist, but backed up by a rather squalid plotline, complete with children’s dolls used to smuggle heroin, and the same dolls being symbolically hung with chains as a threat.

Sure, the leads are rather anonymous, although Patrick Allen does a nice supporting turn, but that anonymity works for the film; Puppet on a Chain feels both generic and authentic, written while MacLean still had a knack for story and theme, but hadn’t yet diluted his own experience with silly and extravagant plots. Even if you’re only there for the action, Puppet on A Chain delivers genuine thrills when it comes to the big aquatic showdown.

Aladdin 2019 (no award)

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Disney no longer seem to be able to put their mitts on the £200 cash required to put on press shows in the country I live in; either that, or they have developed a fresh political desire to stifle any public interface outside of London other than the collection of cash from the rubes. From The Lion King to Star Wars, if it’s a Disney film, Scotland is no longer allowed to write or talk about their product; now that Aladdin has cleaned up at the worldwide box-office, the dust has settled enough to have a backward look at exactly what that product was.

Putting fond memories of the original films aside, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is over-long, poorly conceived and something of a strain to watch. Two colorless leads play the street-rat and his princess, while Will Smith takes on the iconic role of the blue-skinned genie. The plot follows the classic beats, with the resourceful Aladdin pressed into service to steal a magical lamp, but using the genies’ powers to restyle himself as a prince and win the heart of his true love.

Like a themed costume party, Ritchie’s Aladdin echoes the look of the original film without capturing any of the charm; Iago the parrot, the monkey Abu, even the tasselled carpet are side-lined, and when they do briefly get centre stage, disappoint with their dead-eyed appearance. The makers of the original animated version didn’t imagine they were creating a story-board for live action, so their hand-drawn conceits don’t work in live action; there’s no creativity here other than a wrong-headed desire to replicate the original, with a few groan-worthy additions, including a framing story and a general push for Will Smith.

Smith actually does well with the scenes in which he’s not painted blue; the actor has a bubbly irreverence that works well when plugged into a staid scene at the Sultan’s court. Robin Williams’ routines have been revised to fit Smith’s voice, but his genie seems snug rather than mapcap. Similarly the production numbers are big without being well-sung or choreographed; they boggle the eye without impressing, and have a tin-ear for melody, aside from a loose but jolly closing number set to Friend Like Me that bursts into life and makes you wish the whole film was made like this.

There are points of interest (and entertainment) in the 2020 Aladdin, but they’re few and far between. It’s easy to see why, with great songs and a beloved story, Disney might feel the property was worth a do-over, although every element here is a downgrade. Despite Aladdin being a well-loved tale for centuries, this 2020 version seems to limit imagination or fresh interpretations by mimicking the 1994 version so slavishly. It’s a financially lucrative but artistically bankrupt move that seems to go against the style and ethos of Walt Disney himself; an elitist power-play by a company seeking access to our homes as children’s entertainers while politically active to ignore local traditions and values.

The Hostage Tower 1980 ***

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Once Upon a Time, Brits used to mock American television; absolute laugh-fests like The Hostage Tower typify everything wrong with the US tv model circa 1980. A silly idea, originally from Alistair MacLean, gets the small-screen treatment for this CBS product which feels more like a broken pilot than a feature film, and forty years later, it’s the complete randomness of the casting that makes it a must-see on streaming for slumming cineastes.

Let’s kick off with Billy Dee Williams, currently riding high as Lando in the latest Star Wars film. He was a hot name in 1980, and ideal as CW/ Clarence Whitlock, a US agent who infiltrates a terrorist organisation planning to blow up the Eifel Tower. Exciting, right? Well, yes, and perhaps ahead of it’s time in this respect, although risible bad-guy Mr Smith (2001’s Kier Dullea) has a much more preposterous Plan B scheme up his sleeve, kidnapping the president’s mother (Brief Encounter’s Celia Johnson) and holding her for ransom. Fortunately another US agent Mike Graham (step forward next guest Peter Fonda) has also infiltrated Mr Smith’s group, and his hell-bent on stopping him. This involves ground forces in the unlikely form of Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Rachel Roberts causing a distraction to that Billy Dee Williams can abseil down the Eifel Tower with Celia Johnson on his back, while a series of robot-controlled lazers attempt to pick them off. Did we mention Bond girls Maud Adams and Britt Ekland are thrown into the mix, or that the film is shot largely in Paris around the tower itself?

The Hostage Tower was directed by Claudio Guzman, whose main credits were the I Dream of Jeannie tv show, but he fails to bring the same intensity or vision to Hostage Tower. What he does do is capture the strangest cast of actors gathered together in Paris to look upwards; pretty much everyone is on the skids here. There’s an unusual emphasis on how terrorists train, although these sequences don’t match the actual tower assault, which features Williams dressed as a cartoon chef pushing a massive soup-tureen past idiotic security guards.

The Hostage Tower has never been issued on DVD, and there’s a reason for that. But having admitted that this is no-one’s finest hour, this is the ideal film to watch when you want to keep investment levels low and snark high. With roller-skating bank robbers, lazers blowing up footballs and all kinds of ridiculous heroism, it’s an open invitation to gawp at the crudity of cheap entertainment. As Noel Coward put it, Kier Dullea, Gone Tomorrow…and that just about sums up the disposable quality of this fascinating relic of tv’s past.

Waves 2019 ****

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“I will not be taken down, I am a new machine!’ says aspiring athlete Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr) in this brutal yet lyrical drama from Trey Edward Shults for the A24 imprint. The writer/director’s follow-up to It Comes At Night is not typical of the A24 label, a sprawling but tightly conceived film that has lineage to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People or even the witness/victim dynamic of Amores Perros, but successfully finds its own intense voice. A curious broken-backed structure to the narrative makes it a tricky one to review, but spoilers should not be required to gain appreciation.

Waves deals with family life; Tyler is a young man with a big future, and he’s a big name on his school wrestling team. But Tyler gets bad news when he finds out he has a potentially life-changing sports injury, and simultaneously finds out that his girlfriend has missed her period. Tyler’s father (Sterling K Brown) and sister Emily (Taylor Russell) try to reach out to him, but drink, drugs, peer-pressure and depression all take a toll until a moment of violence turns their lives apart and sends Tyler’s life in a different direction. a key visual motif frames Tyler looking in mirrors; the reflection never seems to match up, indicating the disconnect between how the teen sees himself and how he is.

Waves takes place amongst the well-monied set of South Florida, and although Tyler and his family appear well-off, it’s clear that they’ve had to fight for what they have. That resilience makes a difference in the film’s final act, but until then, there’s a powerful willingness to dance with the darkness of Tyler’s rage which gives it the feel of a suburban Full Metal Jacket. Brown and Harrison are both compelling as father and son out of sync, while Russell deserves her Independent Spirit nomination in a difficult role. Waves features fluent, nimble camerawork, wild, striking, hallucinogenic visuals, and also a score with Trent Reznor’s broken-fridge fingerprints all over it; the whole film pulses with light and noise.

A white man’s view of black family life is a hard sell in 2019/20, and Waves seems to have fallen between two stools as a potential awards darling. But despite the presence of the permanently shaggy Harmony Korine, Shults pulls off a film that is anything but a quirky indie, but a pumped-up evocation of modern life as a living hell. That Waves travels further than that, and attempts to look at what happens after the chickens come home to roost, is admirable, and even if awards voters didn’t fancy it, last year’s Beale Street crowd really should give Waves a look.

Meet Joe Black 1998 ***

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If Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt find themselves in the same line for a wheatgrass juice at Ralph’s on the day before the 2020 Oscar ceremony, it would be interesting to know what these nominees might think of their second pairing in Meet Joe Black. Pretty much everyone agrees that Brad Pitt will fully deserve his mooted Oscar for Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood; not only is he pretty much playing a leading role, but he was also excellent in Ad Astra. In truth, Pitt has generally been a great movie star since his debut in Thelma and Louise; Meet Joe Black was one of his few misfires, but it was a significant one. Director Martin Brest was coming off the back of helping Al Pacino to awards from his Scent of a Woman performance as an older man explaining the pleasures of life to a younger, less experienced figure. Brest reunited Pitt with his Legends of the Fall co-star Anthony Hopkins for a remake of Death Takes a Holiday, a venerable property. So what could go wrong?

Or indeed, did anything go wrong? Meet Joe Black pretty much doubled its budget with it’s $150 million worldwide box-office take. And Hopkins got great notices for his role as Bill Parrish, a multi-millionaire businessman who is awakened at night by a premonition of Death, who soon turns up at his New York State mansion in the form of Joe (Pitt). Death wants a holiday, or at least a mini-break, and postpones taking Parrish’s soul so he can spend a weekend eating peanut-butter and cookies, speaking patois, looking good in suits and tuxes, and lusting after Parrish’s daughter Susan (Claire Forlani). Parrish demands that Joe will only come to collect on his own soul, not Susan’s, but Joe is as much a sap for Susan’s sweetness as he is for all other confectionary, while Parrish’s business interests threaten the legacy he was hoping to leave.

The languid, glacial pace has put passing viewers off Meet Joe Black, but the last hour of the film is pretty compelling. The detail of Parrish’s life, dinner parties, dinner tables, board-rooms and waiting helicopters, is convincingly done. But the mystery at the heart of this film is Pitt, who dials back all the things we’d later come to love about him as a star. He plays Joe as blank and distant, and yet when he crosses Parrish, there’s a sense of otherworldly malevolence that’s very much at odds with the film’s conventional romance. Playing a personification of death isn’t easy, but Pitt leans into the darkest aspects; his Death is banal, but no less deadly.

Some of the mechanics of Death Takes a Holiday, or the play on which it was based, seem to be lost in translation; it seems odd that Susan will accept either Death or a guy from the coffee shop as her suitor; anyone will do for Susan, as long as they look like Brad Pitt. Maybe that’s not so strange after all, but it doesn’t quite chime with the otherwise thoughtful and melancholy nature of the film. Meet Joe Black was savaged by critics at the time, but looks a more interesting prospect today, not least because we know how just how far outside his comfort zone Pitt’s deeply strange, yet memorable performance is.

 

Just Mercy 2019 ****

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The American Academy acted to ensure that race and gender bias would not be an on-going issue; the lack of recognition for Destin Daniel Creton’s Just Mercy in terms of coveted Oscar nominations suggest they will have to go further.  This is a compelling drama about wrongful accusation, race and capital punishment that should be a good bet for recognition. The shunning of this, and of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us in tv/streaming awards, suggests that Just Mercy will have to settle for satisfying its own audience. It sets a bad example for the US academy to view and then not recognise strong work due to the race or gender of the film-makers; there’s considerable evidence that this happened in 2019/2020.

Michael B Jordan doesn’t have much to go on as lawyer Bryan Stevenson, but the actor’s charisma and personable approach take him a long way. He’s strip-searched on his way to Death Row, where he interviews a number of potential clients, notably Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). The temporary loss of Steven’s dignity is nothing compared to McMillian’s long terms incarceration for a crime that doesn’t have any existing evidence for. Stevenson makes contact with a number of Death Row inmates, the execution of one of whom forms a key moment here. But with the improbably glamorous Eva (Brie Larson) shuffling the papers, it’s an aspirational fight for justice that keeps dignity until a swirl of celestial choirs overwhelm the final scenes.

Miscarriages of justice make for compelling cinema, and Just Mercy gains from being based on Stevenson’s book about the real-life case. There are touches of worldly humor; when Stevenson finds cassettes relating to a false confession and asks for permission to copy them, the black woman manning the evidence desk shrugs and says ‘They ain’t paying me enough to stop you.’ Such interludes are welcome, because Just Mercy feels a little sanctimonious at times; it feels like McMillian’s cynical voice is too often left off-screen.

Such nit-picking aside, Just Mercy has a strong relevance to the black experience of America in 2020. ‘I’m just trying to help,’ says Stevenson, and the thrust of the film is that black communities will have to help themselves, because no-one else will be willing to right the wrong perpetrated against them. That’s a truth worth articulating, whether white-dominated awards bodies recognise it or not.