“Parasite” –Living Off Your Host

Parasite

This Korean  multiple award-nominated, SAG Globe winning movie, Parasite, has captured the critics’ minds as it delves into the income gap, greed and class discrimination between the  “one-percenter” wealthy Park family and the destitute, marginally employed Kim clan.  The theme of the competitive, desperate search for wealth at one end of the income spectrum versus the  content, oblivious upper-class entitlement at the other end permeates South Korean director, Bong Joon-ho’s films  (“Snowpiercer” and “Mother” in particular.)  This difficult theme is unusual to tackle, let alone devote one’s film career to different genre for portraying the inviting and repelling ways in which humans are not aware of each other’s choices and behavior.

The wealthy Park family live the “lux life”, mainly due to a retinue of servants and staff who allow them to pamper their daughter and son, entertain while a flood leaves many low-income residents homeless, and believe that no one wants to do them harm.  The low-income Kim family has to fight their invisibility. [While Parasite does not deal with ethnic strife, it resonates with Jordan Peele’s films “Get Out” and “Us”.]

Parasite burrows deep into the dream world of the rich and the poor: for the rich, there are no problems that money can’t solve, or at least improve.  For the poor, their ambitions pave the way for dreams that almost certainly cannot come true, denying that they are living off the breadcrumbs of the very rich whose lives are supported and enabled by them.  And both families live in a wormhole of interwoven, interdependent lives.  The characters—in their respective bubbles—can’t truly be tricked unless they want to believe.  And they all do. Parasite, however, does not evoke the many shades of gray that need to be addressed.

This is an important film, because it focuses on a theme that others fear to tackle. Jordan Peele is a notable exception.  My hope is for more provocative, better films in Bong Joon-ho’s future.

Note:  Snowpiercer (see my August 4, 2014 review) is more memorable and soon to be made into a TNT mini-series releasing in May.  Dealing with climate change as well as unconscionable income inequality, Snowpiercer’s ending takes no prisoners and has no answers.

Godfather of Harlem—Partners in Crime

Inspired by a true story, Godfather of Harlem skillfully interweaves the combative and competing forces of the  mafia with the battle for civil rights in the mid-‘60s.  In the riveting Epix limited series, Godfather of Harlem, we see the character Bumpy Johnson (the exceptional Forest Whitaker) re-enter the world of organized crime after being released from Alcatraz. 

Drugs have taken over many of New York’s poor communities, and the Italian mafia runs most of them, now including the crime syndicate of Harlem which had been Bumpy Johnson’s exclusive domain.  Not wanting to be a snitch, Johnson survives an eleven-year prison sentence meant for members of the mafia.  Upon release,  Johnson feels he is owed back his territory.   However,   Vincent “Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio) refuses to give up the control of Harlem he has seized through brutal means,  so brutal they fall  outside the boundaries of the mafia’s own code of conduct.

During the turf war that follows, Bumpy Johnson forms an alliance with preacher Malcolm X  and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.  This additional  subplot of backroom politics and maneuvering gives force to the civil rights movement but threatens to tear the communities apart.  And other subplots that overlay the crime drama are a love story reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet and a saga of dysfunctional families compartmentalized by criminal masterminds who are also fathers and husbands.  Reminiscent at times of “The Sopranos”, Bumpy Johnson and his daughter in the finale have an unforgettable scene.

If you liked American Gangster with Denzel Washington, you will probably love its prequel, Godfather of Harlem. Denzel’s character Frank Lucas was Bumpy’s right hand until he took over the throne.

Great ensemble cast and some extraordinary dialogue delivered by both major and minor characters.  [The co-writer Chris Brancato also created the series Narcos.]  This is a real winner!

Marriage Story (2019)-The Bonds of Love

 

Nominated this year for eleven Academy Awards, Marriage Story portrays  two people who really care about, respect, and love each other, and yearn for  a “gentle” amicable divorce resolution. They also are determined  to nurture and nourish their young son, Henry, with as little wounding as possible.

 Written, directed and produced by Noah Baumbach (of “Squid and the Whale”, another excellent film about divorce), this film eviscerates what happens in even the best-intentioned divorces, reminiscent of  the classic 1979 film “Kramer vs Kramer”. 

Charlie (Adam Driver) is  a very competitive, driven theater director whose wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) has substantially contributed to his recent success. As the leading actress and idea-generator for this theatrical company, Nicole loves witnessing  the accolades and fame Charlie is garnering, including receiving the prestigious MacArthur grant.  (There are parallels to last year’s hit, The Wife, here.)  Until she doesn’t.

Neither character is portrayed as overly narcissistic (although Charlie comes close) but both are flawed.  While the viewer comes to understand and empathize with both of them wanting to pursue their dreams,  we see the character arcs change radically.  The hoped-for amicable divorce proceedings turn very ugly when lawyers get involved. 

This is an emotionally raw journey into trying to figure out how to be an independent adult and survive alone.  It is so grief-stricken in impact that it is as if the viewer’s observing the psychological amputation of the couple’s former selves.

Charlie and Nicole’s  assumptions about each other were lovingly expressed while they were a couple, and are now weaponized.  What they had been fond of in each other’s character, turns into deep wounds and grievances.

The cast is phenomenal. Adam Driver offers a transformative, heartbreaking performance that may surprise many.   Scarlett Johansson is his equal, playing a broken woman who wants the best for her family, but can no longer hope for her marriage to change.  Their performances are as intertwined and nuanced as they are fragmented, and they play  off each other with rarely seen chemistry.

Marriage Story is a delicate dance and dialectic of vertiginous rage and  devastating miscommunication, weaving together themes of loneliness, heartbreak, and regret acutely reflecting the imperfect and painful nature of human relationships.  An unnerving capture of the complexities of character and the dissolution of a marriage between two loving people, Marriage Story will become a classic allegory for us all.


Happy New Year 2020: The Year of the [Metal] Rat

Happy Chinese New Year 2020!

The Buddha taught rats first, among the animals in the Buddhist pantheon, and rats rank first on the Chinese zodiac. Though people who follow Western animal symbolism do not consider the rat either adorable or auspicious, nevertheless the characteristics of the rat are considered spirited, witty, alert, flexible, and that of a survivor.  The Chinese New Year will begin on January 25, 2020  with the final celebration on  February 11.

The Metal Rat Year is going to be a strong, prosperous, and lucky year for those who conduct financial research and follow through on investments. For investors in  real estate, or venturing on their own to  start a business or to invest money in a long-term project,  major decisions on money matters will affect the entire twelve-year cycle of the zodiac–until 2032.

On the political front, those who fight against corruption will be accused of duplicity and hypocrisy.  Political unrest will continue   and revolutionary disruption of the establishment will gain momentum.  Increased tensions and misunderstanding between allies will occur.

To avoid escalating conflict by unscrupulous populist governments who  overlook or ignore the common interest of society, moderation, patience and compromise must be recognized and practiced.   In addition, all nations must implement strict and disciplinary measures to ameliorate climate change.  Jealousy of those who have polluted the plant will rise.

For more information on the Chinese zodiac and to read your horoscope for 2020, please go to:  https://www.thechinesezodiac.org/horoscope-2020/

My Top 15 Movies and TV Series for 2019

Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online or were at local movie theaters, although not necessarily under broad distribution nor widely distributed through move theaters.   Of the 43 reviews, here are my favorites.  Another difficult year to make my listicle.  As in past years, both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling and intriguing characters.

The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre and date of review.  

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1) Lo and Behold–Reveries of the Connected World  (January 13 review)

Lo and Behold gives the viewer a spellbinding, lesser-known walk back in time through the birth of the computer and its subsequent impact on our daily lives. We see extremes: medical marvels saving lives or electromagnetic waves that debilitate. Each chapter introduces a different positive or negative dynamic of the internet.

2) Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—The Golden Rule (March 17 review)

What the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores perhaps more clearly now than at the time the show was produced is just how revolutionary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood actually was.  Even through the tumultuous Sixties, subjects of political violence, racial discrimination, and the degrading messages children and adults frequently heard were never side-stepped or sugarcoated.  

3) In Order of Disappearance—Plowing Through Suspense (April 21 review)

In this combination of black comedy and Nordic noir, we are treated to a series of scenes involving gangster mobs, drug trade, a father’s revenge, kidnapping, and snow plowsIn Order of Disappearance is part “Fargo” and part other Coen brothers’ comedic treatment of snow country. 

4)  Which Way Home—Is There One?  (June 17 review)

In this gripping 2010 Academy Award nominated HBO documentary, Which Way Home opens with something large and bulbous floating down the Rio Grande. The viewer soon learns it is a corpse, perhaps that of a child, and an observer comments matter-of-factly that this happens multiple times a day.

5) Always Be My Maybe—Rom-Com at Its Best  (June 22 review)

The Netflix Original Always Be My Maybe gives us a reason for watching rom-coms again. A modern riff on “When Harry Met Sally.” Set in San Francisco, Always Be My Maybe is  a story of childhood sweethearts who go their separate ways only to meet up fifteen years later.  Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park) were best friends who, as teenagers,  had sex for the first time and then stopped talking to each other. 

6)  The Farewell—Family Matters (August 5 review)

This comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.”  The universal theme– of the gathering of a family clan harboring  secrets and lies,  told and sometimes motivated by love.

7) Late Night—Women Do It Right  (November 5 review)

In Late Night   we see a notoriously, male-dominated world of late-night network TV in which a woman–Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)– is the host of her own talk show.  (Think “The Devil Wears Prada” and Meryl Streep as the “bitch-boss from hell”).

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

8) The Hate U Give—T.H.U.G. (June 9 review)

Starr Carter,   a sixteen-year-old gifted student, has to adeptly maneuver between two worlds — her poor, mostly black neighborhood and a wealthy, mostly white prep school. Facing pressure from all sides, Starr must find her voice and decide to stand up for what’s right.

9) Rocketman—Seeing the Light Through the Darkness (July 28)

The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius.  Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.” 

10)  Joker—No Laughing Matter (October 7 review)

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. 

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

11)   Narcos, Narcos Mexico and El Chapo— Cinema Verite  (February 19 review)

Three Netflix series — NarcosNarcos Mexico and El Chapo– are gritty, raw, and bingeable. Each chronicles the most powerful drug lord and his cartel at the rise of cocaine and marijuana production in Colombia, Mexico, and other parts of the world.

12) Chernobyl—An Ignominious Reaction (July 16 review)

 Chernobyl  is an HBO historical drama  miniseries depicting the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the unprecedented coverup that followed. The  flawed reactor design operated by inadequately trained technicians is jaw-clenching and chilling.  That lack of transparency and flagrant disregard for human life depicts greed, lack of moral integrity, and political corruption.  Chernobyl is a cautionary tale for today’s political climate.

13) La Casa de Papel—”Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids  (September 2 review)

A criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have nothing to lose.

14) Locked Up—Spain’s “Orange is the New Black”  (September 11 review)

Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences:  the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.

15) Queen of the South—Reigning Supreme (October 20 review)

A “Narcos” or “El Chapo”-style drama about the rise of drug lord Teresa Mendoza (played by the exceptional Alice Braga, niece of the renowned actress Sonia Braga),  we see a new first.  Instead of a ruthless kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel like Guzman (El Chapo), we see Teresa Mendoza. She navigates and outsmarts a world dominated by men and machismo to become the queen (or queenpin?) of Sinaloa.