‘Parasite’ (2019) kept me glued to the screen

I watched the Bong Jun-ho movie Parasite last week.

I purchased this movie on blind faith—-or rather, the recommendation of a trusted store clerk at Best Buy. Sometimes I do that. Throw the dice. 

At first I thought that Parasite was going to be some kind of monster movie. Then, about twenty minutes in, I thought, “Oh, a light comedy.”

And then Parasite turns into something else entirely.

One thing I’ve noticed with the novels of Haruki Murakami: Asian stories often go in directions that are unexpected for Western audiences. Parasite is like that. This is unlike any movie you’ve ever seen.

Parasite is categorized as a black  comedy thriller, and I suppose that’s as good a description as any. This movie is alternately sad, suspenseful, and hilarious. You don’t want to like many of the characters….but you just can’t help empathizing with them.

There are a few plot holes and jump-the-shark moments in Parasite, but they’re mostly forgivable. Parasite grabs hold of you, and pulls you into an alternate reality for more than two hours.

You’ll come out a little off-kilter. This is a movie that lingers with you for a few days. 

4.8 of 5 stars

‘1917’: quick review

I finally got around to  watching 1917 last night. This is going to be a very quick review, with one minor spoiler.

1917 is the story of two World War I British soldiers who set off across no-man’s land and German-occupied territory to deliver an important message to a British officer. Not far into the film, one of them is killed. (That’s the spoiler; and I’ll explain in a moment why it was necessary.)

As is usual with journey-based stories, things happen along the way. Obstacles are met and overcome. That’s what keeps you watching.

I would give 1917 a mixed review.  The film is, on one hand, visually stunning.  The journey through no-man’s land is appropriately bleak and gruesome. I’ve read many nonfiction accounts of World War I trench warfare. 1917 seems to achieve some historical accuracy, and it certainly achieves realism. 

The problem, however, is that a story of one soldier walking across the French countryside doesn’t quite have the narrative drive needed to support a movie of almost 2 hours (119 minutes).  The adventures that the main character, Lance Corporal William “Will” Schofield (George MacKay) experiences aren’t connected to any central storyline. As a result, they seem episodic and often disjointed. 

1917 definitely comes up short when compared to similar “journey through the battlefield” films like Fury and Saving Private Ryan. Fury is the story of an entire  World War II tank crew, their interactions, and their final act of self-sacrificing heroism. Saving Private Ryan is a complex movie with multiple storylines and richly developed characters.

The Will of 1917 completes his mission…sort of. But he doesn’t really do anything heroic, and he doesn’t change. Also, for most of the movie, he has no one to interact with. This movie therefore often devolves into seemingly random scenes of Will walking alone for long stretches, dodging this or that, observing this or that. 

It might be unfair to compare a WWI movie like 1917 to modern-day World War II classics like Saving Private Ryan or Fury. The Second World War, after all, is widely regarded as a heroic struggle. Most Americans think of Eisenhower and George Marshall as noble men. The World War II generation—now sadly passing from the scene—is our “Greatest Generation”. 

World War I, by contrast, was a vast waste of lives and resources that should never have been waged by either side. World War I wasn’t a moral crusade against the Nazis. It was a bloodbath with unclear aims and causes, waged against the Kaiser’s Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire over the assassination of an archduke. 

That could be part of the reason why 1917 falls short of Fury and Saving Private Ryan. When there are no real villains, there are often no real heroes, either.

Also, American audiences in particular are less connected to World War I as a film topic. Whereas many of us grew up hearing firsthand accounts of World War II from our parents and grandparents, World War I is a distant conflict that relatively few Americans participated in. (I have met many, many World War II veterans in my lifetime. I have never met a single veteran of the First World War. And many of them would have been alive during my younger years.) A movie about World War I therefore must bring  a lot to the table in order to draw us in. 

1917, in summary, is not a bad movie. But nor is it one that you can’t afford to miss. 

‘The Last Jedi’ controversy

I finally got around to watching The Last Jedi (2017) tonight. This is the Star Wars film that created so much of a stir three years ago for its perceived nods to identity politics. Google “The Last Jedi SJW” and you’ll get some idea of what I’m talking about.

I’m coming very late to this controversy. I’ll therefore be brief, but I will have my say. The Last Jedi is well…rather ho-hum. But the controversy about it is much overblown.

I am the sort of viewer who is supposed to be offended by The Last Jedi. The original Star Wars is part of my youth. I was nine years old in the summer of 1977, when I watched the first film in a cinema in Cincinnati with my dad. The last installment in the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi (1983), came out when I was fourteen, and a freshman in high school. Back in the day, I loved Star Wars.

I’m also politically conservative. Guess who I voted for last week! Poke around this blog, and you’ll find that I don’t care much for divisive identity politics. This blog is full of microaggressions and triggers!

I also recognize that the cast of The Last Jedi is perfectly—and improbably—racially diverse and gender-balanced. And yes, I caught the not-so-subtle feminist messaging in the film, too. Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) reminds me of an officious manager I had to endure for three years in the corporate world.

And finally, all the bad guys in The Last Jedi are white dudes.

Yes, all that’s true. But…so what? I didn’t think it was racist to make Lando Calrissian a shady (and Black) character in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I never complained about the predominance of white males in the original Star Trek. I could have cared less! I still don’t care.

In 2013, there was a loud and unnecessary brouhaha over actress Alice Eve appearing in her underwear in a scene in Star Trek Into Darkness. I was like, “Big deal; Alice Eve looks damn fine in her skivvies.” Because she does.

Alice Eve in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Therefore, I’m not going to get worked up over a little self-conscious diversity in The Last Jedi. Furthermore, I rather like the characters Rey (portrayed by Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega).

This isn’t 1978; and yes, I understand that filmmakers, novelists, and television show runners take diversity into account. Partly this is politics, but partly it is just good marketing.

For example: It would be self-defeating to create a story/film/TV series with no interesting female characters. Women are one half of the viewing/reading audience, don’t forget!

I frankly roll my eyes at the outrage over The Last Jedi. But then, I rolled my eyes at the outrage over Alice Eve’s underwear scene in Star Trek Into Darkness.

I have a message for everyone: Lighten up! Life is too short to get worked up over freakin’ science fiction movies.

That said, all of the Star Wars films to come out after the original trilogy (1977 – 1983), have been lesser films for me. I remember watching The Phantom Menace in 1999, and thinking: This isn’t as good as any of the first three films.

Part of that is nostalgia, perhaps. I’m open to that possibility. Also, my youth at the time. I was nine years old when I watched Star Wars (1977) for the first time. I was in my early thirties when I saw The Phantom Menace

I rather think, though, that Star Wars should have ended in 1983. All of the films since then have failed to capture the dramatic feel of the original trilogy. At the same time, they haven’t been equally compelling in their own right. To me, they feel like movie versions of fan fiction.

Speaking of Daisy Ridley: She was born in 1992, fifteen years after the first Star Wars hit the cinemas. The Star Wars franchise is now more than 40 years old. It was great! But it’s time to move on to other stories.

Allow me to reiterate: I don’t like divisive, bean-counting identity politics. I don’t like contrived outrage over innocuous cheesecake scenes like the Alice Eve scene in Star Trek Into Darkness. (Everyone really, really needs to lighten up.)

But I’m good with diverse characters and strong female characters. I would just like to see them in something other than yet another Star Wars sequel/prequel/standalone. That universe has already been milked for all it’s worth.

‘The Howling’ (*very* quick review)

I watched The Howling (1981) tonight. This is one of a handful of enduring werewolf films that came out in the early 1980s.

Here’s the setup: After a television newswoman (Dee Wallace) has a harrowing experience with a serial killer, she goes to a mountain resort to recover. The problem? The locals are all werewolves. Predictable hijinks ensue. 

This movie is almost 40 years old, and well…it shows. The soundtrack sounds like elevator music. The choreography is dated. When blood splatters (as it often does in werewolf movies), it looks like something from a can marked Sherwin-Williams. 

Nevertheless, there are some genuinely creepy scenes in this movie. One of the strengths of The Howling (noted even at the time) was the makeup artistry of Rob Bottin. The werewolves in this movie do look real, even if the blood doesn’t.

Strong performances in this film by Dee Wallace, as well as the late Christopher Stone and the late Elisabeth Brooks. 

This movie does, nevertheless, contain a few clichés that would be best avoided by a savvy filmmaker approaching this subject in the modern era. For example: two metamorphosing werewolves having explicit sex. This would be hard to do convincingly even with today’s CGI technology. It was really hard in 1981, and should not have been attempted, in this viewer’s opinion. 

This is not a bad movie, but it isn’t a particularly memorable one, either. Among werewolf films of that era, I much prefer An American Werewolf in London, which was released the same year.

‘The Good Lord Bird’: much better than I expected

John Brown (1800 – 1859) is remembered today mostly for his attack on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The attack ended with Brown’s arrest, conviction, and hanging.

Before Harper’s Ferry, though, John Brown was also involved in the troubles in Kansas. During the 1850s, pro-slavery southerners clashed with anti-slavery free soilers. The results were often bloody—hence the term, “Bleeding Kansas”. The violence in Kansas never really extinguished itself; it spilled into the larger violence of the U.S. Civil War.

While in Kansas, Brown carried out operations with his own small militia group. Brown was fueled by a mixture of abolitionist fervor, religious zeal, and (probably) mental illness. Stark egotism was also a factor. Brown occasionally freed slaves. But mostly he killed whites whom he deemed guilty of association with slavery—sometimes rightly, and sometimes wrongly.

John Brown was—-in some ways—not unlike the violent white progressives of modern times, who foist themselves on Black-dominated groups like Black Lives Matter, often for purposes of their own agendas and their own self-aggrandizement. For this reason alone, I was extremely skeptical of The Good Lord Bird, a historical miniseries about the latter days of John Brown. This is an election year, and I figured that The Good Lord Bird would be some kind of leftwing Hollywood agitprop.

Having watched the first two episodes, I am happily surprised. The series is actually quite good, and not overtly political.

The Good Lord Bird is told from the perspective of Henry Shackleford, a fictional escaped slave who joins Brown’s militia operations with mixed emotions. We get the sense that Shackleford just wants to get on with his life, but Brown is determined to draft him into a higher spiritual/political cause.

Ethan Hawke is cast as John Brown. Having read several biographies of the real John Brown, I don’t find Hawke completely convincing. I don’t fault Hawke for falling short here. John Brown would be an extremely difficult role for any actor.

John Brown, moreover, isn’t really the star of The Good Lord Bird. Despite the weightiness of this historical period, the miniseries is best described as a coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of American history. Henry Shackleford (played by the young actor Joshua Caleb Johnson) is the real star of The Good Lord Bird.

In the second episode of the miniseries, Shackleford disguises himself as a young woman in order to make his way through pro-slavery territory with another escaped slave. The two are diverted to a town that is a staunch pro-slavery enclave. While there, Shackleford takes refuge in a brothel, where he teaches a worldly prostitute how to read, even as he develops an adolescent boy’s crush on her.

The Good Lord Bird is set in the 1850s. At this time, slavery was legal in much of the United States. Racial inequalities were taken for granted. What we now refer to as racial epithets and hate speech were then just common speech.

Where appropriate, The Good Lord Bird deals frankly with these shameful aspects of our history. What The Good Lord Bird does not do (so far, at least) is descend into racial guilt porn. The writers and producers of the miniseries assume that you already have a negative view of slavery.

Nor is this a hagiography of John Brown. The Good Lord Bird depicts Brown as the very conflicted moral figure that history reveals him to be. For example, one scene shows Brown executing an innocent Southern sympathizer and family man in cold blood. In another scene, Brown is shown blithely risking the lives of escaped slaves and white accomplices alike in an ill-conceived militia operation.

The Good Lord Bird also has a sense of humor about its subject matter. This is not needlessly edgy, inappropriate humor of the Quentin Tarantino variety, but rather the kind of humor that one would expect in a well-written coming-of-age adventure story.

If you like good storytelling set against a historical backdrop, you can’t go wrong with The Good Lord Bird. The miniseries is available on Showtime.

‘Night of the Lepus’: rabbits gone bad

In order to combat a crop-eating plague of ordinary rabbits in the American Southwest, a scientist experiments with hormone injections that will hopefully make the long-eared Leporids sterile.
 
But of course, something goes wrong, as it always does in horror movies. Instead of making the rabbits infertile, the hormones transform them into hyper-aggressive bunnies that are as large as Bengal tigers. They don’t eat people. (That might have been too much of a stretch, even for a movie like this.) But they sure like to kill and mutilate their human enemies.
 
That’s the setup for Night of the Lepus, a 1972 horror film.
 
Hokey? Sure. But this Nixon-era movie is actually not as bad as it sounds.
 
To begin with, some of the best acting talent of the day was involved. The cast includes Janet Leigh and DeForest Kelley, of Psycho and Star Trek fame, respectively. The screenplay, moreover, is written so as to make this outlandish premise as believable as it possible could be.
 
Not that there aren’t problems. The special effects are really, really bad—-even for fifty years ago. And then there’s the basic concept: Giant killer rabbits?
 
In one scene, a police officer grabs a bullhorn and announces to a crowd that killer rabbits are on the way, and everyone must take shelter. It must have been difficult for the actor to recite that line with a straight face.
 
Don’t cancel anything important to watch this movie. But if you like vintage horror films and you’re capable of suspending your disbelief for 88 minutes, you might enjoy Night of the Lepus. As bad horror movies go, this one is pretty good.

‘Ford v Ferrari’

It’s been a while since a movie has grabbed me from the opening scene, pulled me in, and not let me go for more than two hours. That’s exactly what happened, though, when I watched the sports drama Ford v Ferrari, which lasts for an enthralling 152 minutes.

Here’s the setup, based on a true story: In the early 1960s, Ford Motor Company is stuck in a sales and image slump. Henry Ford II, the grandson of the company’s founder, charges vice president Lee Iacocca (played by Jon Bernthal) with bringing home a victory for the Ford racing team in the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France.

Iacocca initially approaches Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari about a Ford-Ferrari partnership. (Ferrari was the reigning corporate champion of auto racing in Europe.) But after a humiliating refusal from the Italian CEO, Iacocca must build an American team that can bring Ford’s new GT40 race car up to the task. Oh, and he also needs the right driver for the Le Mans.

This leads him to California, where he enlists the talents of performance car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon). Shelby is a brilliant designer, but his company is struggling financially, so the contract with Ford is a godsend.

And Shelby knows just the right driver for the race: Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a decorated World War II British bomber pilot turned racer. Miles has an instinctive understanding of every nut and bolt in a race car. He’s difficult to work with, though. In an early scene, Miles hurls a wrench at Shelby. In another scene, he sucker-punches him. And Shelby is his chief benefactor. Continue reading “‘Ford v Ferrari’”

Ouija: Origin of Evil

I’ve written multiple horror novels, and I have an interest in things that go bump in the night.

Nevertheless, most horror movies don’t scare me. 

This is because at the end of the day, a horror movie is the product of someone’s imagination. As a writer myself, I can’t completely set that aside. I can only suspend my disbelief so far. I might find a horror movie interesting, or suspenseful. But rare is the horror film that makes me look over the edge of my bed at night, wondering if something might be there.

But I found Ouija: Origin of Evil to be genuinely creepy. Continue reading “Ouija: Origin of Evil”

Cincinnati in TV and the movies

My hometown of Cincinnati isn’t exactly Paris or New York. It is therefore somewhat understandable, I suppose, that our local news media is making a big deal of the episode of The Brady Bunch that was filmed here nearly a half-century ago:

47 years ago, The Brady Bunch visited Kings Island

While I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, going to Kings Island—Cincinnati’s only real amusement park—was a “big deal”. Much of the scenery in the above clip from The Brady Bunch therefore looks familiar. 

Kings Island is still there, by the way. But it’s changed a lot since 1973.

***

A few feature-length films were shot in Cincinnati in the 1980s. Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, comes immediately to mind. This movie was filmed in various locations in and around Cincinnati.

I’ve had lunch in the Italian restaurant Pompilio’s, in Northern Kentucky, where Rain Man‘s iconic “toothpick scene” takes place. Continue reading “Cincinnati in TV and the movies”

‘Blazing Saddles’ is a politically incorrect classic

Watch the Mel Brooks satirical Western comedy, Blazing Saddles, if you haven’t seen it before.

There is one memorable scene in Blazing Saddles in which the African American Sheriff Bart  (played by Cleavon Little) distracts a pair of Klansmen, so that his sidekick, Jim (played by Gene Wilder) can carry out a necessary mission of reconnaissance.

Jim pretends to catch Bart for the Klansmen. He grabs Bart by the collar and calls out to the Klansman, “Hey boys, look what I’ve got!”

Bart then says, in a Southern black dialect, “Hey, where the white women at?” Continue reading “‘Blazing Saddles’ is a politically incorrect classic”

‘The Stand’ (1994) now available in blu-ray/DVD

It was the late spring of 1994. Bill Clinton was in the White House. Seinfeld was the country’s most popular sitcom. (Friends wouldn’t debut until the autumn of 1994.)

I was living in Wilmington, Ohio. I had a job I liked, and I lived in a cheap apartment with wood panel walls and worn shag carpet from the 1970s. I was 25 years old. Those were good times, all the way around.

For five days, from May 8 to May 12, 1994, ABC aired a miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic novel, The Stand.

In case you’re not aware, The Stand is one of King’s most popular books. The Stand is a good-versus-evil epic about a supernatural battle between good and evil.

Oh, but before that happens, 99% of the world’s population is wiped out by the Superflu, or ‘Captain Trips’. That was years before COVID, of course. But the end of the world is always a good place to start a story. Right? Continue reading “‘The Stand’ (1994) now available in blu-ray/DVD”

Remembering ‘Red Dawn’

80sThen80s now is one of the few accounts I follow on Twitter, because, well…I’m nostalgic for the 1980s.

Today the account tweeted this post about the movie Red Dawn (1984). In response to the poll, I gave the movie a 9. 

Red Dawn wouldn’t necessarily be a 9 if it were released today, mind you. But you have to evaluate a movie by the filmmaking standards of its era. A lot of movies in the early 1980s were pretty rough, compared to the slick, CGI-enhanced productions of today. And so it is with Red Dawn. Continue reading “Remembering ‘Red Dawn’”

‘Midway’ (2019): mini-review

I watched Midway (the 2019 version) tonight.

This is a compelling historical film that blends history with action. Although Midway is focused on the great battle that took place in June 1942, the first half of the movie covers events that led up to it—including Pearl Harbor. 

The film is well cast. For once Woody Harrelson appears in a role in which he is not personally annoying. (That hasn’t happened since Cheers.) Dennis Quaid is a convincing William “Bull” Halsey.

But the star of the movie, by far and away, is Dick Best (1910~2001), the US Navy pilot who sank two Japanese aircraft carriers in a single day. I enjoyed Ed Skrein’s interpretation of the role. Continue reading “‘Midway’ (2019): mini-review”

‘The Kids Are All Right’ (quick movie review)

Here’s the setup: Two married lesbians are raising two teenagers that they acquired from a single sperm donor. (They each gave birth to one child.) 

Then the kids (one of whom has just turned 18) decide to contact their sperm donor/biological father.

Hijinks ensue. Unexpected clashes of familial roles (and attraction) throw this perfect little lesbian-headed family out of balance. 

I found this to be an interesting look at the ambiguities of “nontraditional families”. I’m a Roman Catholic guy from the 1980s, and well…I guess I just never thought much about some of this stuff. Continue reading “‘The Kids Are All Right’ (quick movie review)”

‘Greyhound’: Tom Hanks’s next WWII movie

I grew up on stories of World War II–real ones. My maternal grandfather served in the US Navy, mostly in the North Atlantic. He made numerous runs between the US and the United Kingdom. And he told me many tales of dodging Messerschmidts and “wolf pack” U-boats. 

There was never really a modern movie done about his war, though. There have been lots of movies about combat in the South Pacific and in the Middle East. There have been many, many films about D-Day. Not so many about the perilous North Atlantic runs between the United States and England.

That’s why I’m especially looking forward to seeing the next World War II movie from Tom Hanks, Greyhound, which is all about my grandfather’s war—naval combat in the North Atlantic. Continue reading “‘Greyhound’: Tom Hanks’s next WWII movie”