Parasite (Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yao-jeong, So-dam Park) – Last year, it was Roma, the Mexican film that garnered 10 Oscar nominations, three wins, and a Best Picture nomination. This year, all the Oscar buzz surrounds Parasite, the Korean entry that won Best Foreign Language film at the Golden Globes (someone has to explain to me what a foreign language film is to the Foreign Press Association – wouldn’t English films be foreign language to foreigners?).
With sterling critical reviews and audience ratings, Parasite defies easy definition. At its heart, it is the story of two families, one dirt poor, one unabashedly rich. Critics looking for deep meaning in the film will drone on about “class struggle” as the central message here. I don’t think so. To me, this is a typical “things go bad” movie.
It starts innocently enough as we meet a poor family living in squalor. The parents are out of work while the daughter and son seem unmotivated. With the help of a teenage friend, the son gets a job tutoring the daughter of a rich family, the Parks. Before it’s all over, each member of the poor family gets a job working for the Parks in what essentially turns out to be a confidence scheme. (Note: if the poor family were so good at manipulation and masterminding this scheme, how did they get so poor?)
The tone of the movie is upbeat, even amusing to this point. After all, what’s the problem? Both families are happy, the money is flowing and, despite the false pretenses, life is good. This lasts right up to the time that the Parks’ previous housekeeper shows up at the front door of the Parks’ home in the middle of a deluge while the Parks are out of town. What follows is more horror film than deep drama. In some ways, this reminds me a bit of 2017’s Get Out, a surprise hit that combined family drama, comedy and horror.
Rather than spoil the rest, let’s just say that the plot thickens, the poor family is about to be exposed, the rain finally stops, the rich family goes blissfully forward, and “there will be blood.” And then ponder, “Who (or what) is the parasite?”
It is true that there is no protagonist in the film. The poor family is deceitful if generally likable. The rich family is entitled but well meaning. Even the old housekeeper evokes pity as well as scorn. As the story evolves into absurdity, the audience is drawn in. As Johnny Carson used to say: “You buy the premise; you but the bit.”
I can’t say that this is a great film. It certainly never felt boring; it kept me guessing; and it kept me engaged for all two-plus hours. Would this have been one of the best films of the year if it had been an American film? I doubt it. So, I expect, like Roma, it will win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and be nominated for Best Picture and perhaps Best Director (Bong Joon Ho).
Should you go out of your way to see it? Absolutely if you don’t mind subtitles and enjoy journeys into the absurd. Otherwise, you can wait for it to show up on Netflix.
Just Mercy (Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson, Jamie Foxx, Tim Blake Nelson) – If you see this film, you are going to get mad at the injustice that happened … and is still prevalent … in this country today. If you watch this movie, you are going to find it impossible to separate this story from the hatred and bigotry that has re-emerged in the oft-proclaimed “greatest country on Earth.”
Just Mercy is actually a story of INjustice and NO mercy so the title is clever for its double meeting but doesn’t exactly apply. “Based on a true story,” Just Mercy centers on an African American, Harvard-trained, newly licensed lawyer named Bryan Stevenson (whose book inspired the screenplay), who heads to Alabama after passing the Bar Exam to represent inmates on death row. He is inspired, naïve and totally committed. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that he’s not in his native Delaware anymore. On his first visit to the jail (the setting is the late 1980s), he is stripped-searched, which is simultaneously insulting, humiliating, and depictive of the worst of the South’s justice system.
Michael B. Jordan, who was so impressive in Creed and Black Panther, stars as Stevenson. Assisted by a local white woman, Eva (Oscar winner Brie Larson), Bryan establishes the Equal Justice Initiative with a federal grant and finds plenty of resistance from local law enforcement and prison personnel. He is not welcome in town, and is viewed skeptically by the death row inmates, too. They have seen their share of lawyers, some incompetent, some out to make money, and others just seeking glory. Stevenson sets out to prove he is there to help.
The film focuses on the case of Walt McMillian (Jamie Foxx), known as Jimmy D., who was wrongly accused of murder, set up by the police, and placed on death row a year before his trial. Based on the testimony of one convicted felon (played by Tim Blake Nelson is a stunning performance), he was sentenced to death by electrocution. He had been waiting for more than five years when Stevenson arrives. Reluctant at first to work with the impeccably dressed and refined kid lawyer, he eventually relents after Bryan visits Jimmy D’s family. In many ways, the rest of the film is a traditional courtroom drama punctuated by a compelling story of discrimination, southern injustice, and overcoming the odds.
Despite its 2 hours and 15 minutes, the film is riveting … and maddening. It is compelling filmmaking from little-known writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton. Make no mistake about it, this film belongs to the actors, particularly Jordan, Foxx, and Nelson. Jordan’s earnestness is only exceeded by Foxx’s rawness and Nelson’s physicality. These fine actors are in prime form.
But the movie is not without its faults. Brie Larson is pretty well wasted as Eva because her character’s development is so very thin. The prosecutor and sheriff characters are pure ultra-stereotypes (even if true). Chalk it up to an inexperienced director blessed with a great story and a fantastic cast.
Just Mercy is a must-see for people who feel like our society still hasn’t come far enough on race relations and who are appalled that 11 percent of all death row inmates have been proven to be innocent.
Little Women (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet) – “It’s a movie about women for women,” was my answer to my wife’s question of “What did you think?” I suppose that may sound sexist. I was one of three men in a relatively full theater. Greta Gerwig, Oscar nominated director and writer, felt compelled to make yet another movie version of Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel to mark its sesquicentennial year.
Gerwig’s film is a more modern take on the classic, featuring outstanding cinematography, a memorable score, and an (almost) all-star cast led by 3-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan with substantial roles for the incomparable Laura Dern (2 nominations), Meryl Streep (3 Oscars, 21 nominations), and Chris Cooper (1 Oscar). Ronan, who starred in Gerwig’s Lady Bird, portrays Jo March, the ambitious, headstrong daughter who serves as the focal point of the film (and, arguably, the book). In the semi-autobiographical book, Alcott, one of four sisters, is a writer and a fearless woman in a time when men dominated.
The fictional sisters – Meg, Amy and Beth — are played by Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen. The sisters are extremely different … and extraordinarily close. Their mother, Marmee (Dern), is loving, permissive, and supportive. Her husband, the girls’ father, is off in the Civil War.
The female characters are deeply explored; the male characters are more thinly drawn, all of which makes perfect sense in a film about women. Jo may have been the first American, unapologetically feminist character in literary history, certainly the most well-known. Her sisters are more traditional but admire Jo’s writing and her ambition. Jo’s best friend is the rich next-door neighbor, Teddy (known as Laurie to everyone else), who is clearly in love with her. But love is the furthest thing from her mind. Meanwhile, Laurie (Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet), is loved by Amy. We meet a cacophony of characters, including Teddy/Laurie’s generous grandfather, Mr. Laurence (played by Chris Cooper); the girls’ surly Aunt March (Meryl Streep); and the publisher at Roberts Brothers (Tracy Letts), who prints Jo’s stories.
The film is a generally light and breezy story about the maturation of these four Little Women in a safe and toney community in Massachusetts near the end of the Civil War. Under Gerwig’s deft hand, the girls play together, share their lives, and hug a lot. That feels unnatural by today’s standards, but it serves to bind the audience to the sisters. We feel attached to them, which makes the story timeless, maternal, and ultimately satisfying. As the girls live and love, grieve and grow, they ultimately must face disconnection. As the audience, we know it before they do.
Gerwig has crafted a version of Little Woman that should do well at the box office this holiday season but faces a less certain future from the Academy. It will be interesting to see what Oscar nominations it might garner. The Golden Globes only nominated Ronan and the score, and the Academy may be dismissive as well. In an age where more women are helming films in the middle of the #MeToo movement, we will see if the Academy recognizes all of these not-so Little Women.
Uncut Gems (Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett) – Not so long ago, Adam Sandler was the top box office star in Hollywood. His raunchy comedies, starring his troupe of buddies, were studio gold. Every once in a while, he tried a more serious role, most notably in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me. Both movies were critically acclaimed, lost money, brought in less than $25 million, and didn’t have Rob Schneider in them.
Now comes Uncut Gems, a jewel of a film that blares at you until you feel exhausted and unsatisfied. From the opening scene in a mine in Africa to the closing scene at the jewelry store owned by Sandler’s character, Howard Ratner, the movie screams at max volume. From the dialogue to the soundtrack, Uncut Gems takes you into the slimy underbelly of the jewelry district in New York.
Ratner is a Jewish wheeler-dealer caught between the legitimate and corrupt world of gems. Ratner is a player. He runs a little shop with plenty of shiny, expensive jewels. He bets on basketball. He supports a family in the suburbs while maintaining an apartment with his girlfriend/employee. One day, Boston Celtics’ star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) comes in the shop, lured by a Ratner “employee” who caters to African American sports celebrities. He looks around but is particularly intrigued by a raw, uncut opal containing numerous gems. It’s the same rock that we saw in the opening sequence of the film. Garnett wants to show off the opal, which is slated for auction, and gives Ratner his NBA championship ring as collateral.
The rest of the movie is about getting the gem back; Rattner taking the ring and pawning it to make a parlay bet on Garnett and his team; the mob trying to collect past debts from Ratner; the disintegrating family relationships; and the opal not being appraised at the value Ratner expects. On the tension scale, the movie never dips below maximum.
Ratner is not a sympathetic figure yet he is the only protagonist in the film. He is a terrible husband, a jealous boyfriend, an opportunistic bullshitter and the unluckiest lucky gambler ever.
Sandler’s performance is spot-on yet I couldn’t see the character without seeing Sandler, which is the first test of a great performance. Idina Menzel, also playing against type, portrays the wronged wife with a much-deserved bitterness. Julia Fox is wonderful as the paramour who loves Ratner while working in a high-end dance club entertaining high rollers. Garnett is passable as the rich athlete with expensive tastes who becomes a guest in this seamy world. On the downside, the women are victims and the gangsters are stereotypically thuggish and stupid.
Should you see it? Yes, if you want to see an interesting story that will keep you squirming. You’ll need to see it to determine if Ratner is a guy who, despite his flaws and foibles, always seems to win in the end. No, don’t go it if you don’t like movies that blast at top volume, have a fair amount of violence and tension, where there are no good guys, and/or you like Rob Schneider.
Bombshell (Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Allison Janney, Kate McKinnon) – Get your Oscar ballots out and write down Charlize Theron’s name for Best Actress for her depiction of Megyn Kelly in this scathing look at sexual harassment at Fox News.
The toxic culture created by Roger Ailes and practiced by Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and others has been explored in magazines, newspapers, and in the devastating TV mini-series The Loudest Voice. In short, Ailes (Lithgow) was a pig. He was also a brilliant propagandist and a formidable kingmaker.
An all-star cast led by Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie provide an insider’s view into Fox News, just one piece of the Rupert Murdoch-owned media empire. As told by Oscar-winning screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Big Short), Fox News is a house of open secrets, run by men and a passel of enabling women.
Its female anchors either comply with Ailes’ not-so-subtle sexual advances or they get fired or relegated to low-rated timeslots. Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) was the first to come forward. Having been taken off the morning Fox & Friends and given a lousy afternoon time, she makes too many waves, gets fired, and files a lawsuit against Ailes. An internal investigation follows led by Murdoch’s sons, Lachlan and James. Meanwhile, Kelly, the only prime-time anchor at Fox, struggles with whether to support Carlson. She owes her career to Ailes, who sexually harassed her early in her career at Fox but backed off. Kelly, a lawyer, uses her investigative skills are her staff contacts to do some research of her own. By the time she gets interviewed by the investigators, other women have told their stories. But Kelly holds the key to the story going viral.
Robbie plays a composite character, Kayla Pospisil, whose career ambition gets the better of her. She moves from Carlson’s show to O’Reilly’s, then parlays an elevator conversation with Ailes’ assistant, Faye, into a private meeting with the boss. It turns ugly. But Kayla goes back again and again.
Bombshell is a skewering of Fox News. John Lithgow is positively creepy as Ailes. Padded with a fat suit and prosthetics, he makes a better Ailes than Russell Crowe in The Loudest Voice. Plus, there are so many cameos that it looks like actors lined up to be part of this expose: Allison Janney (as Ailes’ lawyer), Kate McKinnon (as a closeted lesbian), Malcolm McDowell (as Murdoch), Connie Britton (as Beth Ailes), Holland Taylor (as Faye), and Richard Kind (as Rudy Giuliani). The actors depicting O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Chris Wallace, Brett Baier, Jeanine Pirro, Geraldo Rivera, and Greta Van Susteren all do a creditable job.
But the star of this film is Theron (who is also one of the producers), who looks, talks and moves so much like Megyn Kelly that I doubt you could tell them apart in a photo or in a live-action video clip. It is by far THE best physical portrayal of a real person I have ever seen. You will swear that Kelly is playing herself. But her performance is much more than that. It is agonizingly real, strong and tortured.
If you hate Fox News, you will love this movie. If you are a Fox News lover, you might enjoy it, too. Either way, Bombshell is a realistic depiction of the toxic work environment that shapes the way millions of people get the news.
The Two Popes (Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce) – In 2005, Joseph Ratzinger was selected to succeed John Paul II following the popular pontiff’s death. He was selected over Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio by the College of Cardinals. The Netflix film, The Two Popes, begins when Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, summons Bergoglio to the Pope’s lavish summer home.
As depicted in the film, which is “inspired by actual events,” Pope Benedict dresses down the Argentinian as too liberal. Yet these two philosophical opposites develop an unexpected chemistry. As history will note, Benedict eventually retires/resigns after eight years as Pope. Bergoglio succeeds him as Pope Francis.
Writer Anthony McCarten, whose credits include outstanding screenplays for The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody, imagines this magical visit as a journey of personal connection rather than one of ecclesiastical reconciliation. The script is clever and funny, not brooding or confrontational.
To make it work, Oscar-nominated Director Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener) gives his two veteran actors, Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, plenty of space. The chemistry is palpable. We see flashbacks of Bergoglio as a young priest who was sometimes viewed as an appeaser to Argentine strongman Juan Peron. He sees himself as a flawed man trying desperately to atone. Meanwhile, Pope Benedict struggles with his own failure to confront sexual abuse by priests worldwide.
Hopkins and Price make the movie. Expect Oscar consideration for both, for McCarten and perhaps for the film. Remember, of course, that the story is not history; it’s supposition and perhaps rationalization.
If this film were strictly playing in theaters, you may want to wait for it to get to video or streaming. But since it is playing on Netflix, sit back and enjoy the interplay of Hopkins and Pryce.
The Irishman (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci) – Marty Scorsese deserves to be on the Mt. Rushmore of Hollywood. His collaborations with Robert De Niro stand as a testament to the cinematic arts. These two movie greats co-produced the much-heralded Netflix film, The Irishman. Their film boasts an incredible critics’ “Metascore” of 94 percent on imdb, perhaps the highest ever. Who am I to argue? There is no doubt this is a very fine film, but it is not for everyone.
At 3½ hours without an intermission, The Irishman is meant to be watched at home. It could have been shorter. But Scorsese knew he had the unique opportunity of directing for a home-based audience.
It allows him to explore deeply the three main characters of this mob film: De Niro as Frank Sheeran; Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino; and Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. Scorsese and these three Oscar winners have immersed themselves in mob genre. Goodfellas, Casino, The Godfather, and The Departed are just a few of the award-winning films featuring one or more of these four legends.
All three characters were notorious real people. The movie is told from the perspective of Sheeran, the ultimate blue-collar mob soldier. Bufalino was a true mob kingpin. And Hoffa was the most powerful union boss in history, corrupt as hell but beloved by his fellow Teamsters. Pacino faced the toughest task – portraying a well-known historical figure. In typical Pacino fashion, he plays Hoffa over the top but not as a caricature. Pesci, who continues to easily cross from drama and comedy, was surprisingly subdued. De Niro, of course, carries the film firmly on his shoulders as Sheeran.
As the movie opens, we meet Sheeran, a truck driver who delivers sides of beef. To make extra money for the family he loves, he starts to cut corners, selling portions of his cargo to others, skimming from his clients. One fateful day in rural Pennsylvania, his truck breaks down at an all-too-familiar intersection with a gas station and a Stuckey’s. As he tries to identify the problem, a well-dressed stranger (Bufalino) comes over and quickly diagnoses the problem as a timing chain. Fast forward as Sheeran gets deeper into the mob world and becomes a reliable, quiet Forrest Gump-like presence. He happens upon Bufalino, and an alliance is formed. It is Bufalino who introduces Sheeran to Hoffa and quickly becomes the labor leader’s bodyguard and confidante. Scorsese uses these characters to introduce us to some of the biggest mobsters, lowliest thugs, and politicians of the day. It’s graphic, a touch gratuitous, and deadly serious.
The Irishman is both a fine character study and a vivid period piece. It is a glimpse into a world few people really experienced but which has been memorialized forever in dozens of films. Like war movies, it might be time to move on. If mob movies are not your thing, you can save yourself the 3½ hours. If you hate screen violence, skip it. But if you want to see great acting, perfect direction, and wonderful storytelling, dehydrate yourself and watch The Irishman.
Cats (Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Francesca Hayward, James Corden, Ian McKellen, Rebel Wilson) – Cats, the enormously popular Broadway play, is a confusing story about … well … cats. Different kinds of cats. It was groundbreaking because, normally, actors on stage play … well … people. Cats, the musical, was somewhat a political statement about diversity. Thank goodness that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the score and, most importantly, the fantastic song, Memories, which was sung by Betty Buckley on Broadway.
I was not excited about seeing the movie. I should have been. The movie is way better than the play. I could actually follow the story. The cast — great actors, singers, and dancers all — was inspired. The costumes, art direction, sets, choreography, direction and special effects are all worthy of Oscar consideration. Hearing Jennifer Hudson sing and reprise Memories is heart-stopping. Watching little-known Francesca Hayward, principal ballerina of The Royal Ballet, dance, sing, and inhabit the screen as Victoria is mesmerizing. Judi Dench, as Old Deuteronomy, commands the screen and totally commits to a role invented for a man but befitting her status as England’s thespian icon. The comic relief, provided by James Corden and Rebel Wilson as Bustopher Jones and Jennyanydots respectively, keeps us laughing.
Based on T.S. Eliot’s poems, Old Possum’s Nook of Practical Cats, Cats, the movie, runs 50 minutes shorter than the musical. It shows. The movie is a tight, fast-moving opera with stunning costumes and sets. Kudos to Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper, who helmed Les Miserables, The Danish Girl, and The King’s Speech, for masterfully crafting this film and getting the most out of a huge cast.
If you are looking for enjoyable family films during this holiday season, look no further than Cats and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. These two movies are must-sees with the kids and grandkids this December.
The Laundromat (Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas) – In perhaps the most bizarre movie of the year, The Laundromat isn’t what you think. It has nothing to do with a laundromat. It has to do with secrets.
When you look at the cast — Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, and Antonio Banderas — as well as the director, Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape, Erin Brockovich, Traffic), this film has to be must-see-streaming TV. Well, maybe not!
The Laundromat is a “break-the-fourth-wall” comedy in the mold of The Big Short. But it’s nowhere near as good. The topic du jour is the mysterious universe of offshore companies, shell corporations, tax avoidance, and international reinsurance. It’s the world of laundering money – the laundromat.
Soderbergh takes the screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (from the book by Jake Bernstein) and turns it into a trip from upstate New York to Nevis to Panama.
Streep plays Ellen Martin, whose husband (played by James Cromwell in a cameo) dies in a tour boat accident on Lake George in upstate New York. When the boat owner’s insurance company balks at paying the claims for the dead passengers, we find out that that the insurer doesn’t even exist and has offloaded the bargain basement-priced policy to an offshore reinsurer, which doesn’t really exist either. Behind all this are two slick hustlers played by Oscar winner Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas. They own a law firm headquartered in Panama that masterminds the impenetrable web of deceit.
This premise might have made a fine movie if Soderbergh, Streep et al hadn’t turned it into a deceptive political statement complete with a last-minute “reveal” that I saw coming a mile away. That “reveal” has caused quite a controversy stoked by political correctness. If you are intrigued enough by that, you’ll need to sit through this short 95-minute film.
At the end of the day, this is the most disappointing Meryl Streep movie since Lions for Lambs, the Robert Redford propaganda film that starred Streep, Redford and Tom Cruise. I know people who won’t see Streep movies because of her liberal politics. I think that’s ridiculous unless her movies are politically motivated and executed. The Laundromat is one of those movies.
It’s on Netflix so all you will do is waste an hour-and-a-half of your life if you watch it. Thus, you don’t have much to lose. Better you should spend your time on much better Netflix offerings.