Parallel Mothers(1/17/2022)

It’s so easy to take Pedro Almodóvar for granted.  It’s kind of ridiculous that we do given that the man is like a modern day Fellini who walks among us, but despite the man’s overall reputation there’s a certain lack of due excitement whenever he actually puts out a movie… possibly just because the guy is so damn consistent.  Film commenters kind of like their filmmakers to come with a certain amount of strife with career ups and career downs, they love a comeback or the love filmmakers who keep us waiting only to surprise with a new major statement.  Someone like Almodóvar, who reliably puts out a good movie every two to three years, is maybe a bit harder to hype up, especially when he’s working in a place of relaxed confidence in his style like he has with his last handful of films.  It also probably doesn’t help that Sony Pictures Classics keeps putting his movies out in the dead of winter in a quixotic attempt to capitalize on Academy Awards traction that may well not come when his movies tend to exist in the warmth of Spanish summers.  His latest film, Parallel Mothers is a good example of just the kind of Almodóvar to be underestimated.  It isn’t trying to show off some radical departure in style and it isn’t going to compete in the Best International Film category at the Oscars thanks to the fickle people responsible for submitting Spain’s contenders, but it’s classic Almodóvar nonetheless.

Parallel Mothers focuses on a successful photographer in her late thirties named Janis (Penélope Cruz) who meets a forensic archeologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde) who she hopes will help with the excavation of a mass grave outside her hometown where she believes her grandfather was buried by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War.  Arturo submits her case to the organization and the two start an affair which leaves Janis pregnant and with Arturo not ready to leave his ailing wife Janis decides to forget about him and have and raise the child on her own.  While in the maternity ward Janis is roomates with a teenager named Ana (Milena Smit), who has recently returned from Granada to live with her Spanish mother by her judgmental father.  After the two give birth to their daughters they exchange phone numbers and agree to act as contacts for each other before going their separate ways.  Janis then resumes her life aided by a nanny and Ana continues to raise her child despite her own mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) flaking out on her to indulge her own acting career.  But soon these two mothers will have their paths cross again for reasons that will affect both of them.

Historically Pedro Almodóvar’s films have been a balancing act between comical farce, sexual provocation, and unashamed melodrama.  In broad strokes his earlier films skew closer to farce and provocation while his later films tend to be a bit more reserved explorations into melodrama but there are exceptions on both ends and his most celebrated movies tend to be the ones that can combine all three of these elements into a delicious stew.  His previous two films (the Alice Munro adaptation Julieta and the autobiographical Pain and Glory) did generally fit into the trend of more reserved late period Almodóvar and for the most part Parallel Mothers does as well.  The film lacks some of the more outlandish elements of some of Almodóvar’s more comical efforts; outside of it’s melodramatic central conceit the film more or less takes place in a recognizable if slightly stylized version of reality.  Note also that when talking about Almodóvar’s films “melodramatic” is decidedly not a pejorative, it’s just kind of something lined into the fabric of his style and sort of slightly heightened worlds he creates tend to make melodrama fit in and not really feel like melodrama.

Central to Parallel Mothers is of course the relationship between Janis and Ana, two women united by the common experience of having children on the same day while otherwise being people who are of much different ages and having children under much different circumstances.  Almodóvar has of course worked with Penélope Cruz several times in the past and is a major muse for the filmmaker throughout the second half of his career and she’s up to her usual high standards here despite being almost a decade older than her character is theoretically supposed to be.  Milena Smit is, however, a newcomer to Almodóvar’s roster and aquits herself quite well playing a rather tricky character who changes a lot over the course of the film and has some fairly emotionally charged scenes.  I’ve rather carefully talked around some of the surprises the film has up its sleeve as any good melodrama does, but I will say that the film’s central theme is that of secrecy and the extent to which keeping things buried (literally and metaphorically) can cause damage to everyone involved.  The film is a touch awkward in the way that it uses the sub-plot about Janis trying to uncover her family’s Spanish Civil War experiences as a parallel to this thing as it’s something the film only brings up intermittedly and really starts to dominate it in its final hours in a way that doesn’t feel entirely earned.  Still this is another winner from one of the most important figures in contemporary world cinema.

**** out of Five


The Power of the Dog(11/24/2021)

It is a strange irony that, right when the appetite for her films seemed stronger than ever Jane Campion kind of took a decade off.  We have not seen a feature length film from the New Zealand auteur since 2009’s Bright Star and she instead spent the 2010s making television, namely the two seasons of her mystery series “Top of the Lake.”  It’s hard to know if this move to television was entirely her choice or if this was kind of forced by funding issues and if it was that, well, I guess I’m part of the problem since I skipped out on seeing Bright Star at the time… still haven’t, and I haven’t actually seen many of the other movies she made between now and her 1993 breakthrough The Piano though I am more versed in her earlier work.  In my defense I was too young to see any of those movies aside form Bright Star when they were in theaters but maybe I should have been more diligent in catching up with her work?  Maybe not, a lot of those movies she made in the 90s and early 2000s (The Portrait of a Lady, Holy Smoke, In the Cut) were not really deemed essential by critical consensus and those earlier movies were not always the easiest movies to love either.  She’s a fairly prickly filmmaker who makes things with a pretty specific mindset that isn’t always the easiest to jive with.  Regardless people want to hear what she has to say now and she’s gotten funding from Netflix to make her latest effort, a western with an impressive cast called The Power of the Dog.

Campion’s latest film is an adaptation of a 1967 novel of the same named by Thomas Savage and is set largely on a ranch in Montana circa 1925.  This ranch appears to be highly successful and sports a mansion with luxuries like a tennis court and is owned by a pair of brothers: George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), who has taken to wearing suits and has become more at home with his acquired wealth, and Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), who proudly remains a rough and tumble cowboy.  This is the conflict that underlines much of the film and it comes to something of a head when George takes a liking to a local restaurateur named Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) a widow with a roughly college aged son named Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who doesn’t quite seem at home in this western milieu.  As George starts to build a new life with Rose we start to see an intense jealousy emerge in Phil that will impact the trajectory of the Ranch going forward.

The Power of the Dog is a western in terms of setting and to some degree iconography but perhaps not in terms of traditional story structure and genre tropes.  For one thing there is no action in the film whatsoever and I’m not sure I even spotted any guns in the film even as background objects.  Insomuch as it’s a film about violence it’s a film about violence of a very interpersonal and perhaps self-directed kind.  The film’s central character more or less is Phil, who in modern parlance could be called an embodiment of “toxic masculinity” but is perhaps better understood as an embodiment of anti-intellectualism.  Despite having achieved great wealth as a rancher he refuses to drop his frontier ways and “civilize” himself, which would be fine, but he also refuses to even try to occasionally meet other people half-way (like when they ask him to take a bath on the eve from a visit to the house by the governor) and instead just assumes everyone else thinks less of him and resents them for their attempts at self-improvement and lashes out accordingly and tries to drag everyone else down to his level.  It’s a mentality that’s kind of at the heart of a lot of the issues we’re dealing with in society today and I’m pretty sure that exploring this mentality is kind of at the heart of why Campion was probably interested in this material.

The first half of the film seems to set up a clear battle of wills between Phil Burbank and George Burbank and his family that you expect of escalate to some sort of violence or treachery by the film’s end.  But then the film kind of takes an unexpected left turn in its second half and becomes something of an unexpected mentor/mentee film between Phil and George’s stepson Peter and it doesn’t really go out of its way to try to explain why Phil has suddenly become more agreeable.  We get hints that this is rooted in something repressed/queer in both men but I’m not sure it’s ever quite totally explored or explained and it all leads to an ending that felt a bit abrupt and unsatisfying to me.  I’m not sure I liked Kodi Smit-McPhee here at all and a lot of the actors don’t feel like they’re quite the right age.  Smit-McPhee seems a bit too old, Benedict Cumberbatch should be a bit older, Kirsten Dunst should also be a smidge older, and Jesse Plemmons should be a lot older.  The film has a lot of really cool landscapes that are shot beautifully by Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner though I’m not sure it looks all that much like the state of Montana (which I tend to associate with being greener and more wooded).  Honestly it’s a movie that I’m not entirely sure what to make of, it’s certainly made with skill but it seems to skip past some obviously important developments in the story in a way that felt more sloppy than bold to me and its ultimate message (which seems to boil down to “toxic men are secretly compensating for something”) does not really strike me as being as bold and insightful as it maybe thinks it is.  On the other hand, I was consistently intrigued by the film pretty much the whole way through despite any reservations and I’m excited to revisit it and certainly hope Campion doesn’t make us wait another twelve years for her next effort.

**** out of Five

A Quiet Place Part II(5/30/2021)

A Quiet Place Part II was originally supposed to come out on March 20th 2020… probably not the best choice of release date in retrospect.  It wasn’t the first movie to be postponed because of COVID but of all the major releases delayed by the pandemic it was probably the closest to having gotten release before finally blinking and postponing just eight days before it was set to open.  It had already had its red carpet premiere, certain critics had already taken in screenings (and remained shockingly tight lipped with their opinions), and I even had a ticket reserved for that original release before it became clear everything was falling apart.  Now, over a year later, this film’s release is still tied to the pandemic, but hopefully for better reasons as its looking like it’s the first of a string of major releases that will hopefully bring the theatrical exhibition business back to life.  Of course depending on your perspective this could either be the best or the worst movie for people to be watching as they come out of a pandemic given that it’s about people who have had their lives turned upside down by a worldwide phenomenon that has killed tons of people while forcing those who remain behind to keep to themselves while giving up many of the day to day activities they’ve become accustomed to… as with many post-apocalyptic movies there are some notable parallels.

This sequel opens with a scene that flashes back to the first day of the alien invasion that would eventually bring down much of society and lead to the events of the first film.  After that prologue the film picks up right were the previous entry left off; the family has found a way to stun the blind alien monsters using feedback from an altered hearing aid, but the family patriarch Lee Abbott (John Krasinski) has been killed and their home base has been wrecked and they’re stuck with a damn infant that is likely to cry at any moment and draw the attention of the planet’s new apex predators.  Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) opts to move the family out of the valley they’d been living in and head toward an abandoned factory, where they meet an old friend from the “before times” named Emmett (Cillian Murphy), who has been using that factory as a bunker.  But before they enter the family’s younger child Marcus (Noah Jupe) steps in a bear trap leaving him injured and unable to move, so the plan is to lay low, but the strong willed older child of the family Regan (Millicent Simmonds) wants to bring their new discovery of an anti-alien frequency to the masses by bringing it to a nearby radio station which seems to still be broadcasting.

My eagerness to go out and see this movie, both before and after the pandemic, is perhaps a bit odd given that I actually didn’t see the first movie until a couple weeks after it released (in part because I was on vacation the week it came out and there were other movies that week I was more interested in) and also because I don’t really like that movie as much as a lot of other people seem to.  I certainly didn’t dislike it, and there were elements of it like the sound design and the set decoration and the general world building that I enjoyed quite a bit and I also liked the general ballsyness of making a mainstream horror movie that goes for long stretches without spoken dialogue.  However, I thought the movie lost its way once the CGI monsters actually showed up and in general I just didn’t find it all that scary.  Frankly it just felt like a watered down version of It Comes at Night for the masses.  But clearly I was outvoted because that movie made hundreds of millions of dollars and was generally loved by critics, and I did like it enough that I was curious to see where they’d go with it and give them a chance.

In many ways A Quiet Place Part II is a lot different from the original film; Krasinski and his co-writers seem to know that they won’t be able to replicate the first movie’s slow burn structure and that most of the world building has already been done.  So instead the film uses its higher budget and makes a bit more of a full-on monster movie, which would seem to be the opposite of what I’d want given that I thought the monsters actually showing up was what hurt the first film but they make a little more sense here.  That opening prologue is a good example; while the first movie almost treated these creatures like off-screen ghosts who would only be seen in brief glimpses up until the film’s finale, here we get to see them wrecking large portions of a city in what feels more like War of the Worlds than Night of the Living Dead.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call this the Aliens to the original film’s Alien, because it does calm down some after that and it never really becomes an action movie, but there is a noticeable shift.

For the most part this works, but it doesn’t necessarily stand out a whole lot.  It was interesting to see the various ways the family in the first film tried to soundproof their lives but there’s less of an emphasis on that here and most of the world building we do get is closer to rather typical post-apocalypse stuff.  It also has this structural issue in its second half where it splits its story into two or three different locations in its second half as characters go off in different directions which forces the film to cut between certain suspense sequences which sort of hurts the momentum of both scenes.  Those complaints aside, I do ultimately find myself with the same basic level of enthusiasm for this that I had for the first film.  There’s clearly some talent behind it, the cast is decent, there are some strong scenes… it’s a generally decent time at the movies.  But let’s not make this into something more than it is.  This to me is a slightly above average horror movie coming out in a cinematic landscape where there should be better options for the discerning horror fan.  Here’s hoping that if and when they make a third part (which I’d say is a near certainty) they finally find a way to kick this series up to the next level.

*** out of Five

Promising Young Woman(2/6/2021)

Throughout the closure of theaters I’ve looked to a lot of different places to see the year’s movies: various streaming services, Netflix DVD delivery, cable broadcasts, various virtual cinema situations, etc.  But one thing I have managed to avoid up to this point was “premium” Video On Demand, which is to say studios putting movies direct to VOD at insanely inflated prices on the logic that it’s a new release.  I certainly never considered paying the $30 price tag that Disney was trying to get people to pay to see Mulan a couple of months before they started giving it away for free and I also refused to pay the “standard” $20 price tag that they’ve tried to affix to most Hollywood movies when they first emerge which strikes me as a rather obscene price to pay in order to virtually rent pretty much any movie under the sun.  For that same price I can buy most blu-rays on first release, it’s more than double the matinee price to see something in theaters (when they’re open) in my area and for that matter it’s about what you’d pay for an entire month of AMC’s Stubs A-List program, which allows you to see numerous movies a month.  Were this pricing to become “the norm” it would quickly become prohibitively expensive to see new releases and would likely dramatically affect the number of movies I watch in general.  It’s something I adamantly refuse to pay.  Except I finally did acquiesce to this highway robbery today in order to watch Emerald Fennell’s socially relevant thriller Promising Young Woman.  I didn’t pay the ransom out of a particular excitement to see the movie, in fact there are quite a few movies I was far more excited for which I saw essentially for free from Netflix, but rather because time was kind of running out to see the last of the year’s big releases and I also suspected this would have some plot twists I didn’t want spoiled.  But make no mistake I was not happy to be paying this and it kind of put a lot of pressure on the movie to deliver.

The film follows a thirty year old woman named Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) who dropped out of med school after a friend of hers, now deceased, was sexually assaulted by a bunch of other students while drunk largely without consequences.  Now Thomas has opted to be something of a vigilante avenger by going to bars alone and pretending to be plastered to see which bro will try to take her home and take advantage of this perceived intoxication, at which point she reveals her sobriety and takes vengeance, sometimes violently sometimes not.  One day she encounters an old med school acquaintance named Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham) who casually mentions that the ringleader of that assault is still around and is getting married soon, which sparks an instinct in her to finally get the revenge she’d been yearning for not just against him but against a handful of other accomplices and enablers involved in that shattering event.

Promising Young Woman was written and directed by Emerald Fennell and is her first film in those roles after a not overly distinctive acting career.  Let’s start with that script which I found both clever and at times frustrating.  The basic premise is of course… provocative.  Going in I had kind of expected that the protagonist’s vigilantism would be a bit more murdery than it was, making the film something of a female equivalent to the 1974 film Death Wish, which is a movie I find somewhat repugnant.  The actual film is a bit less clear about the extent of her actions, the opening scene seems to pretty strongly imply she kills her victims but for much of the rest of the film she seems to stop short of killing when exacting her revenge.  That is probably preferable but there’s a degree of “have your cake and eat it too” to that solution.  Ultimately it’s a movie less interested in the morality of revenge and more interested in looking at what kind of society would lead someone to these extremes and in using her revenge quest to explore and tackle various aspects of rape culture.  That is a good idea in theory but I must say I felt like the movie was more than a little in on the nose in the way it connected this story to various debates that have been going on in the culture.  For example, one of the first men she tries to pull one of her stings on expresses an attitude that because he isn’t a jock-bro that automatically makes him better than the other dude’s she deals with… and in case you haven’t already gotten the picture he rather pointedly calls himself a “nice guy” out loud multiple times in this exchange just so you know this is the chapter of the movie that’s meant to be tied to the Jezebel articles you’ve read about “nice guy” sexism.

From there the revenge quest takes Thomas on something of a tour of cultural hot points: slut-shaming friends, self-serving college administrators, sleazy lawyers, callous bystanders, each one of them more or less acting as a textbook example of the issues the film is trying to highlight.  At times one wonders how they had the restraint not to bring up “mansplaining” while they were at it.  In many ways the film feels less like a story rooted in a revenge fantasy and more like the revenge fantasy itself… to the point where I wouldn’t have been surprised if at a certain point the main character “snapped out of it” and revealed much of the plot to be a violent day dream rather than something that was literally happening, or perhaps that a certain American Psycho style ambiguity about what is or isn’t really would have emerged.  In part that’s because I there are some pretty clear logistical questions left unanswered in the film (How does she pay for all of this?  Why don’t her victims try to call and warn some of the other people on the list? How was the thing that happens at the end coordinated?) and on that level the film sort of falls short if looked at as a procedural of sorts.

Despite having said all that, I actually still quite liked this movie, in part because I think it’s made with panache and also because I think its genre provocations make up for its lack of subtlety.  Emerald Fennell definitely shoots the film with a lot of confidence despite being a first time director and she assembles a pretty impressive ensemble for the film anchored by Carey Mulligan as the film’s star.  The film also has a pretty bold if slightly implausible ending which really ends the movie with something of a bang, which I appreciated.  The movie was certainly never boring and as annoyed as I was in the directness with which it addresses these issues, that might kind of be my own fault for reading as many damn think pieces as I do and to certain audiences that don’t spend their days reading about these debates on twitter this will all probably a bit more revelatory and thought provoking.  Even when it’s being on-the-nose it still clearly has quite the dark wit and the moments in it that work do tend to work very well.

***1/2 out of Five

Palm Springs(7/25/2020)

Warning: Review contains what could be considered spoilers.

I’ve gotten something like five months into the COVID-19 pandemic without cheating too much on my convictions of only giving full reviews to movies made for theaters but I’ve been slowly chipping away at that standard and don’t know what to think about that.  I first made an exception for Bacurau because it did play in NY/LA and had a planned expansion and ultimately played on a service which gave money to theaters.  Then I made an exception for Spike Lee’s Da 5 Blood, which never officially played in a theater anywhere but I suspect it would have if the world wasn’t mired in shit and, frankly, it’s a Spike Lee movie and I wasn’t missing out on a major release from that guy.  The latest movie I’m twisting my rules for is the Andy Samberg starring comedy Palm Springs, a movie that isn’t from a major auteur like Spike Lee and which isn’t being released in a way that’s meant to benefit any theaters.  So what’s my excuse this time?  Well, there was intended to be a theatrical release from the movie.  When it was picked up at Sundance for a record setting $17.5 million and sixty nine cents (nice) it was meant to be a joint release by Neon (who would handle the theatrical end) and Hulu (who would hold streaming rights afterwards) and that is exactly the kind of release schedule I would like to encourage in the industry, but of course that theatrical release was derailed by COVID (though I have been told it did play in some drive-ins, not near me though) and for my purposes it was released straight to Hulu, which is where I saw it.

Palm Springs is a movie that almost impossible to describe efficiently without invoking the movie Groundhog Day as it is another movie that uses that film’s high concept.  It’s about someone named Nyles (Andy Samberg) who is living the same day over and over again, but the twist is that the film starts long after he’s already been living this day over and over again: he wakes up with his not terribly bright girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) in the Palm Springs home they are staying in for purposes of attending a fairly mundane wedding that evening where Misty will be the Bridesmaid.  We don’t immediately know about the time-loop thing until late in the evening when Nyles starts hitting on the bride’s sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti) only to suddenly and inexplicably be attacked by a nutty guy named Roy (J. K. Simmons) and tries to escape by crawling into a glowing cave nearby and warns Sarah not to follow him but she does anyway and suddenly wakes up the previous morning and is now living in the same single day time loop that Nyles has been stuck in and comes to learn that that Roy guy has also been stuck in it.  From there we go into an exploration of a life without consequences and what it would be like to share that kind of life with other people.

I was pretty skeptical going into Palm Springs in large part because this whole “time loop” concept has kind of been done to death, especially as of late, and I’d generally like Hollywood to give it a rest.  It’s been applied to action movies (Source Code, Edge of Tomorrow), horror movies (Happy Death Day), video games (Outer Wilds), tons of one off TV episodes and the idea of applying it to a comedy seems particularly blasphemous considering that the movie that kicked this whole trend off was itself a comedy: Groundhog’s Day.  However, I do think the film was ultimately able to overcome my doubts, in part because having more than one person in on the time loop does shake things up a little and in part because Andy Samberg just generally has a different, younger, and more R-rated sense of humor than Bill Murray does.  Samberg is an actor who has always intrigued me going back to his early days on “Saturday Night Live.”  He had kind of a fratty aura, but always seemed to manage to stay on the right side of cringey, even when he was charting such perilous waters as his highly Caucasian comedy rapping with The Lonely Island.  He’s also managed to age up his comedic persona pretty well on his sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”  The one thing he hasn’t really managed is a successful movie career.  He made two movies with his Lonely Island compatriots (Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) which have cult followings but which bombed at the box office.  Those movies were both broad comedies in which he were maybe leaning to hard into that fratty side of his persona.  Making a semi-indie comedy like this was probably a smart move for him as his usual persona fits well into the slightly immature character without going too far with it.

There are definitely some nits for me to pick about some of the time loop logic here including a couple things that could definitely be called plot holes… like why Nyles felt the need to crawl into the cave at the beginning and in doing so leading Sarah into his hell.  However the film’s fun with its high concept that ultimately proves to be its biggest asset.  I wouldn’t say its comedic elements alone really made the movie, in fact I didn’t laugh out loud at it all that often though that’s almost something that’s inherent in watching something like this at home rather than with a raucous crowd at a movie theater.  Instead I mostly found myself fascinated with watching this dude go through his predicament in a sort of state of detached acceptance until he doesn’t.  That combined with his dynamic with Cristin Milioti make the movie work and keeps you interested for the whole movie.  I do wonder how I would have responded to this in a more normal film year but in this year where we have to fight for whatever scraps come to streaming I found this to be a real breath of fresh air that I’ve enjoyed a more than I have a new movie in months.

**** out of Five


Bong Joon-Ho has, over the course of the last two decades, become a pretty major voice in world cinema whose reputation seems to grow with each film he puts out… and I’m not the biggest fan.  Among modern Korean auteurs I much prefer Park Chan-Wook and Lee Chang-dong.  Joon-Ho instead reminds me a bit of Guillermo del Toro in that I think he’s a cool guy and I like what he represents for cinema and he seldom makes a movie I outright dislike but I’ve found him uneven in his output and think that even the best of his films come up a little short of greatness for me.  I kind of hated his last movie, Okja, which was a muddle of bad CGI and weird over-the-top acting.  I did enjoy his previous effort Snowpiercer a bit more but I still found it a bit silly in places and The Host never really did much for me either.  All three of those movies seemed to get an inordinate amount for general wackiness combined with a dose of sophomoric on-the-nose political metaphors.  In general I’ve preferred the director more when he steps away from overt genre cinema to make more character oriented thrillers like his breakthrough film Memories of Murder or his 2009 film Mother, but even those movies only did so much for me.  Still there’s a reason why I’ve kept watching these movies and given that his latest movie, Parasite, has been widely acclaimed and looked a lot more like the Joon-Ho movies I’ve preferred I was still pretty excited to see it.

 The film focuses in on a lower class family in Seoul who live in a dingy garden level apartment and getting by on various scams and grifts.  Things start to look up for the family’s college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) when one of his more wealthy friends tips him off about a job he might be good for.  The job involves tutoring an extremely wealthy family’s high school daughter and while Ki-woo isn’t actually a college student his friend knows that the mother in the rich family (Cho Yeo-jeong) is really gullible and will be fooled if Ki-Woo’s sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) forges some fake credentials.  Once there he sees that this family will indeed be easy to grift and hatches a scheme to have his sister pose as a tutor for their younger son and after that works they conspire to have the family’s driver and maid fired and then replaced with their father (Song Kang-ho) and mother (Jang Hye-jin).  So they’ve infiltrated the family and are living on them parasitically if you will, but soon the fallout of their actions will catch up with them in unexpected ways that will have life altering consequences for all involved.

So, as you read that summery the question whether or not we’re really supposed to be on the side of this family given that they are plainly committing fraud and don’t seem terribly guilty about disrupting other people’s lives to get what they want, and the answer to that is complicated.  The short version is that these grifters are just generally more likable people despite their rather amoral actions than their wealthy victims, but the movie finds very interesting ways to set up this dynamic.  For one thing, it very carefully avoids painting the rich family as being actively malicious in its behavior and doesn’t treat them as being devoid of virtue.  They seem to genuinely have love and affection for their children and they don’t intentionally mistreat their employees to their face.  Rather their great sin is that they just have kind of a shitty attitude about people.  They speak with incredible condescension about their employees when they aren’t listening and while the grifters did conspire to screw over some of the previous domestic workers at the house their plans only worked because they knew the wealthy family would be selfish and uncaring enough to judge and dispose of them the second they became inconvenient.  Meanwhile, the family of grifters have a certain salt of the earth charm through most of the movie and while the movie never excuses them for their crimes it does show that they were motivated by legitimate need and seemed like relatively victimless crimes when they set out to do them.

This element of class warfare is embedded in Parasite but does not entirely define it.  This is not an “issue” movie, at least not on the surface.  In a way it’s trying to do the same thing that Snowpiercer was doing, comment on wealth inequality within the context of an entertaining film, except this one is more entertaining and isn’t making its point through a blunt as hell metaphor.  You don’t, however, need to really care that much about the issues of class at the center of the film to enjoy it.  Aside from the fact that it’s not in English and that it gets kind of crazy toward the end this is actually made with some clear commercial sensibilities and will be quite accessible to most audiences.  In that sense I’m almost kind of surprised that it’s managed to be so widely loved by institutions like Cannes who generally tend to reward more formally unconventional fare.  But that is in some ways the film’s great strength, it knows exactly what compromises to make in order to work for both highbrow and lowbrow audience and it achieves a movie that is going to be very widely enjoyed for what it is.

****1/2 out of Five