Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

2019 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Six

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, Noteworthy Films and the Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

Parasite: Parasite is original, entertaining, bitingly satirical, disturbing, thought-provoking and memorable. Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) lives with his family in poverty in a basement apartment. They're all underemployed, but father Ki Taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung Sook (Jang Hye-jin) resourcefully try to find work – even if folding pizza boxes isn't lucrative. Ki-woo's friend Min-hyuk has been the English tutor for the daughter of the rich Park family, but he's going abroad, and asks Ki-woo to take over for him. Ki-woo knows some English but hasn't completed university (perhaps for lack of money; we're not explicitly told), so his artistic sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam) forges a realistic diploma for him. Ki-woo soon impresses both the mother, Park Yeon Kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong) and daughter, Da Hye (Jung Ji-so), who both call him Kevin. Yeon Kyo is also looking for an art tutor for her rambunctious young son, Da Song (Jung Hyun-jun), so Ki-woo suggests his sister, but they don't let on they're related – she goes by "Jessica." Soon they're both entrenched and look for ways to help their own family through the Parks.

It would be wrong to give away too much of the plot, but Parasite is very funny for the first section. It's hard not to admire the Kim family's resourcefulness, especially because their initial deceptions are victimless. Park Yeon Kyo's care for her children is admirable, but she's also quite gullible. Her husband, Dong Ik (Lee Sun-kyun) is a bit haughty. Parasite turns more serious as class attitudes slowly emerge, and writer and director Bong Joon-ho plays visually with levels, the high and the low. The film takes a sharp turn about halfway through and becomes much darker, feeling at times more like a thriller or horror film. The few violent scenes are disturbing, but intentionally so and not gratuitous. Parasite's originality and unpredictability make it riveting on a first viewing and its depth makes it hold up very well to subsequent viewings. It boasts many memorable moments, but I thought its most fantastic image, which summed up the Kim family and the dark, funny satire of the movie, involved a cigarette and a toilet. More in the…

(If the spoiler button isn't working, you can read the spoiler text here.)

1917: The pantheon of great war films gets another member, and all the better that this one centers on World War I. (The U.S. prefers World War II movies.) 1917 portrays two British soldiers on the Western front in France during the Great War. Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is summoned for a mission and asked to grab a volunteer; he nabs his mate, fellow Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay). General Erinmore (Colin Firth) informs them that a British battalion planning an attack in the morning will be walking into a German trap. 1,600 men could all die, including Tom's brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake. The communication lines are out, so the two soldiers must deliver the warning in person in time, and to do so must cross no man's land, supposedly abandoned German trenches, and all manner of perils such as mines or enemy soldiers.

It's a good setup for a war movie, and director-cowriter Sam Mendes and master cinematographer Roger Deakins (who won his second Oscar in a row) shoot the entire film as if was done in one shot, with visual effects smoothing the seams. That's been done before, most notably with Birdman (reviewed here) and in 2002's Russian Ark with a true single shot and no effects, but 1917 stages significant action sequences as well and uses some difficult environments. Gimmicky? Maybe. At times, I feel the single shot approach adds to our immersion, but at others, I think the limitation might rob Mendes of good options. It's extremely technically impressive, though. And some sequences are definitely more powerful as a result – for instance, a key scene where we stick with one of the soldiers and then we realize, with him, that something significant is happening behind him.

MacKay and Chapman are both good as the young soldiers – they sell their friendship, and we also witness how they change over the course of their journey. Mendes also makes fine use of notable actors in small roles, including Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbarch, Richard Madden and the aforementioned Colin Firth. We're given a series of memorable, powerful scenes through the fine craftsmanship of Mendes, Deakins, cowriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, production designer Dennis Gassner, the sound design team (mixers Mark Taylor and Stuart Wilson won the Oscar), and composer Thomas Newman, who delivers one of his most striking, moving scores to date. (I would have been happy to see Mendes and Newman win Oscars, although I applauded the eventual winners.) No man's land is appropriately creepy, with its pools and dead bodies; scenes in tunnels are appropriately claustrophobic; a scene with a plane is brilliantly staged but also emotionally wrenching; a nighttime cityscape of long shadows and flame is haunting; a plunging chase through water is exhilarating; a song attended to by silent, still soldiers is all the more moving because of the chaos and turmoil preceding it. The last few shots of the movie carry emotional weight, and the signature shot from the trailers deserves special mention: it's remarkably impressive from a technical standpoint, with one of our protagonists running toward the camera, which is pulling back, as other soldiers cut across the screen horizontally as they climb out of the trenches and run into battle, while explosions rain down. But it's not just a flashy shot to sell tickets. Narratively, it really is the climax of the movie, and Mendes, Deakins and Newman especially pull out all the stops to deliver not just an impressive spectacle, but a gripping, moving scene where we are invested in the outcome. It's a bravura piece of moviemaking. Unless war movies aren't your thing, you'll want to see 1917, and on the biggest screen possible.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu): Probably the best film of 2019 you didn't see and might not even have heard about, the French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire starts as an interesting period piece and then just keeps getting better and better. During the latter part of the 18th century, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter with limited prospects due to her gender, accepts a commission to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman who is to be married to an Italian lord. Héloïse had been in a convent, but her older sister, previously betrothed to the lord, died recently (possibly suicide), and Héloïse is to take her place. The marriage is contingent on the lord approving of Héloïse's appearance, hence the portrait commissioned by Héloïse's mother, a countess (Valeria Golino). There's an additional catch – Héloïse is rebellious and refuses to sit for a portrait, so Marianne must spend time with her to get to know her face and then paint her in secret.

Héloïse and her family live on an isolated island in Brittany, and after men row Marianne and her trunks of painting supplies to the island, we follow just a few women: Marianne, Héloïse, the servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) and less often, the Countess. Marianne and Héloïse spend more and more time together, and given her isolation and trepidation over her situation, Héloïse increasingly welcomes Marianne's company and having someone to confide in. But as Marianne grows to like Héloïse, she feels less comfortable about deceiving her.

This is very much a female affair. Writer-director Céline Sciamma, her producers, and her cinematographer are all women. Hélène Delmaire painted all of Marianne's pictures for the film and her hands stand in for Marianne's in some shots. The film focuses on women, and after the men who row Marianne to the island leave, we don't see men again for most of the movie. When we finally do again, it's a visual jolt, a seeming intrusion on a female space, which is surely intentional by Sciamma.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn't that flashy, especially at first, but gradually, it becomes more emotionally charged as the women develop a more intimate relationship. Both Héloïse and Marianne have restricted options as women of their era, but can be more candid with one another than in other company, and have more freedom on the island, especially when the Countess must leave for a while. They help Sophie seek medical help, which results in a remarkable, multilayered scene with Sophie on a bed next to a young child. They and Sophie also argue passionately about different versions and interpretations of the myth of Orpheus (one of my favorites) and that story becomes key to the movie, providing a striking image late in the film. Marianne's key paintings are visually interesting but also become narratively and thematically important at times. Given the invocation of Orpheus, it's appropriate that music plays a pivotal role despite really only three instances. The first is an early harpsichord scene as the women start to get to know each other. The second is an impossibly gorgeous, otherworldly chorus sung by island women by a festival bonfire at night – it's presented as source/diegetic music, but it's score, much more modern than the period, and helps establish that we are entering some special realm where the normal rules may not apply. The third is the finale, featuring a full orchestra, and is simply but powerfully presented, with a riveting performance. I expected that I'd appreciate Portrait of a Lady on Fire going in, but I wasn't anticipating being this impressed and moved. You've probably heard of the other five films in my top tier from 2019, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire was harder to see, but my reaction was, "Wow, I'm so glad I went to see this one."

Marriage Story: Blockbusters may be more technically challenging to film, but it's easier to get away with a thin story and the spectacle generally takes pressure off the performances. Writing a realistic, character-driven story is much harder, and such films absolutely depend on a good script, good direction and good performances. With Marriage Story, writer-director Noah Baumbach provides an American Bergman domestic drama (a poster of Scenes from a Marriage even appears in the background), with pretty fine results. Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) and Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) are a married theater couple – he's a director, and she's his star actress. Their theater company is well-regarded, but Charlie is very focused on it, and Nicole feels neglected in both their artistic collaboration and their marriage. They attend counseling, but Nicole doesn't want to share her "things I like about you" list, and they stop. She moves to Los Angeles to star in a TV pilot, taking their young son Henry with her. They agree to divorce but try to keep it amicable and skip lawyers. But then Nicole gets a lawyer, and soon Charlie must, too, especially with custody of Henry on the line.

Neither Charlie nor Nicole is a bad person, and Marriage Story's great success is that it lets us be sympathetic to each of them in turn if not simultaneously. Charlie and Nicole say some awful things to each other at times, but make kind gestures as well. This is the best performance I've seen from Adam Driver to date, and it's on the short list for Scarlett Johansson as well. Laura Dern is a standout as Nora, Nicole's lawyer, who has a great speech about how women are held to a higher standard of parenting than men. Alan Alda likewise gives a fine performance as one of the lawyers Charlie consults, a low-key, retired family lawyer who wants to keep things civil if at all possible. (It's not, but you guessed that.) Although Marriage Story is primarily a drama, it does have some funny bits and thankfully isn't unrelentingly dour. The last few scenes have a nice callback to the beginning of the film, are fairly moving and really well-done.

(If the spoiler button isn't working, you can read the spoiler text here.)

The Irishman: Although The Irishman is not as good as any of Scorsese's masterpieces, it's got enough going for it that it's pretty interesting, and it's nice to see the old gang of Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci back together, also with Pacino this time (plus a small part for Harvey Keitel). The movie's based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses, which appears as the title at the end – apparently, "painting houses" is Mafia code for being a hitman, and the "paint" means blood splatter. We first meet Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as elderly and frail in a nursing home, but most of the film is told in flashback, starting with Sheeran driving trucks in 1950s Pennsylvania. He starts making deals to "lose" parts of his hauls to a local gangster, Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale). Skinny's crew goes too far and takes an entire load once, Sheeran is charged with theft, refuses to give up names, is defended by a union lawyer, Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano). Bill clears Frank and then introduces him to his brother, Russell (Joe Pesci), a Pennsylvania crime boss who's impressed by Frank's silence. Soon Frank Sheeran is working for Russell Bufalino on a variety of jobs, including "painting houses." Through Russell, Frank eventually meets Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the powerful union head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. We then follow Sheeran and Hoffa (and Russell Bufalino) through the decades, with Sheeran becoming head of a local union, Sheeran and Hoffa's families becoming much closer, and Hoffa's tangles with the federal government (especially the Kennedy administration) for his ties with the mafia and other shady deals. Hoffa is charismatic but headstrong, and not inclined to back down from a fight. The mafia becomes progressively concerned about his seemingly reckless behavior, and Russell Bufalino has Sheeran try to warn Hoffa, but Hoffa considers himself untouchable because of all the dirt he knows. Sheeran owes a great deal to both men, and genuinely likes Hoffa, but is loyal to Bufalino and his crime family, putting him in an increasingly difficult spot.

We're mostly here for the performances, and it's a treat to see De Niro in a good leading role again, especially in a Scorsese picture. His talent for subtlety and nuance, to be captivating while a character is thinking, serves this material extremely well. As was the case when they paired off in Heat, Pacino gets the flashier role and is also superb. As Hoffa, he's a fiery showman, even explosive, and can be reckless, but also warm and generous. He has the successful politician's gift for making someone feel like they're the most important person in the room. As Russell Bufalino, Joe Pesci presents a careful, cautious man who keeps his cards close to the vest. He's used to getting his way and is patient and deliberate enough that he usually does. As gangster Angelo Bruno, Harvey Keitel has a similar calculating energy to Pesci, and it's nice to see him in action again despite not much screen time. Stephen Graham is memorable as Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano, a fiery teamster and gangster who clashes with Hoffa. (Despite being a Brit, Graham has made a name for himself playing American gangsters.) And Anna Paquin is a standout as Sheeran's daughter, Peggy.

The Irishman distinguishes itself from some other organized crime movies by how the later scenes with the older Sheeran emphasize regret, but also specifically how that regret plays out with his family. Henry Hill in Goodfellas essentially regrets being caught. Michael Corleone in The Godfather III regrets some of his most evil acts. The Sopranos has anxiety as a core theme. But most organized crime stories present a glamorous and exciting side to the criminal lifestyle, and almost every character proclaims their abiding commitment to their families, biological and not just criminal. The Irishman is one of the few crime stories other than Blow I can think of that delves not just into family strains, which most do, but into wholesale disintegration of relationships. Sheeran prizes his omertà/code of silence, and views it and some of his violent conduct as honor, but those he claims to love the most can have a sharply different critique. This gives The Irishman's last stretch a more thoughtful and critical feel than many other stories in the genre.

The film has its flaws. The most discussed issue is the visual effects, with De Niro and the other actors being de-aged throughout the film. Scorsese worked with Industrial Light and Magic to develop a new system (including a special camera setup) so that the actors wouldn't need to have the usual dots or rigs on them and could focus on acting. The results aren't entirely successful, and are occasionally distracting. De Niro is also given blue eyes, and especially in a dark restaurant scene, they look glowingly unnatural. And as some critics have noted, even though the actors might look younger, their body movements are those of the septuagenarians they are (as in a scene where De Niro kicks someone). So I wish the effects were better, but most of the time we can still focus on the performances. I appreciate Scorsese pushing for a system like this, to potentially make performance-centered films easier, especially those portraying characters over several decades. Visual effects' value in creating spectacle or locations is well-known, and motion capture has also come a long way, but this approach could develop into something quite valuable.

The Irishman is also awfully long, coming in at 3 hours and 19 minutes. I was never bored, but some of the scenes are repetitive and most of Scorsese's more recent feature films feel a bit bloated. Lastly, we don't really get to know Hoffa that well. It's true that Sheeran is the main character, but we don't really get a good sense of why Hoffa was so popular in his union and why he rose to power. We can see his charisma, but also his tendency to pick potentially unwise fights that would hurt the cause. Was he getting his union members great benefits that they loved? Did they just love him personally? In the film, we see more of his recklessness and corruption and less to admire. So what was his appeal to the union membership? We're not really shown that. Also, narratively, the more appealing Hoffa is, the tougher Frank Sheeran's growing dilemma is. I get the sense that Scorsese took familiarity with Hoffa and his cultural influence too much for granted, because Hoffa disappeared in 1975 and the majority of viewers could benefit from the film giving a better sense of what a big deal Hoffa was. All that said, I found The Irishman was one of the more interesting and memorable films of 2019, and I'm glad Scorsese, De Niro and the gang are still making movies.

Apollo 11: 2019 was the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, and I really couldn't get enough of documentaries and narrative films about the event and the space race. One of the best, certainly as a single feature versus a series, is Apollo 11. It uses all archival footage, some of it shot in 70 mm, and much of it never previously seen by the public. I don't recall, for example, ever seeing footage of the stunning, massive vehicle designed to transport the rocket to the landing pad; I assumed the rocket was built right there. Apollo 11 probably spends too much time on the ground before the launch for my tastes, but to be fair, less space flight footage is available. The film uses no narration, but uses tons of original audio. Apparently, Apollo 11 takes some liberties with the time line and other matters, but for the most part, it does a pretty great job of telling the story, and conveying how extraordinary and thrilling the event was. The moon landing remains one of the greatest human accomplishments in history, all the more remarkable given the technology available at the time, and more to the point, technology invented to pull off landing human beings on the moon and bringing them safely back home. Seeing Apollo 11 in a theater was exhilarating, thought-provoking and awe-inspiring, and one of best moviegoing experiences of 2019 for me. It gives a little hope about what human beings can do when we really commit to it, and makes one think about what we could be doing now to make the world or ourselves better. This is another film that really benefits from a large screen, but I think it'll be pretty captivating regardless.

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