Early 2020 Catch-Up Post

Hello, there. The charge on my credit card for the continued ownership of this domain tells me that we’re still in business here at the Dayton Upstairs Recording Studio, although things have been quiet lately.

Over my Winter Break I spent the first half doing family stuff and the second half working on my house, including reworking my bedroom. Since then I’ve started another term of college, and it’s one which is very reading-intensive, so it has been difficult to find time to record. Besides that, the groups with which I’ve seen movies these past months have been all over the place, and I have wanted to do group shows rather than just sitting down with one other person. I don’t know why, Adam and I used to record two-man shows all the time. I guess it’s because most of these movies are seen, sooner or later, or expected to be seen, by more than just one of my potential co-hosts, and so I’m always holding out for someone else to see it and make the potential recording pool bigger.

At any rate, I will try to have something recorded soon, and in the meantime, after the break are are some scattered thoughts about the following movies:

  • Parasite
  • Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack
  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  • Ninja Scroll
  • Knives Out
  • Marriage Story
  • Uncut Gems
  • 1917

I loved Parasite when I saw it the first time. I thought it lived up to the hype, and it beat out some other great movies to make it to the top of my 2019 list. Granted, I only see so many movies per year, so my list is essentially meaningless, but of the films I saw, they were mostly excellent, and Parasite was the best among them.

I saw Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother well over a decade ago, and this was my first film of his since then. It was also my first Korean film in as long as I can remember. But it does wha I’m told Korean films do so well, which is to seamlessly drift between tones. It can go from comedy to thriller, to horror, and back in a matter of minutes, and unlike the way I reported feeling about the last act of Jojo Rabbit, I never felt jerked around. The script reflects the complicated nature of life in all its nuances so well that I don’t feel it owes it to me to stay in one lane if it doesn’t want to. Where it goes tonally, I fully trust, and am along for the ride.

My local art house theater the Neon, brought Parasite back as they are bringing Jojo Rabbit back this weekend, in honor of awards season, and because Brooke had not seen the former yet, we went together on its last night. We’ll be going back to see Jojo as well. But now that she has also seen Parasite, I intend to put together an episode with her and Jon.

But for the lack of surprise this time around, I think Parasite is better on second viewing. The reason is that its every last detail is in some way foreshadowed and reincorporated. I could not have fully processed on first viewing what a genius screenplay this is. I would almost argue that a second viewing is required to fully appreciate its brilliant placement of its props, its symbols, and the moments that bring its themes to life.

Parasite is also wonderfully acted, with characters who feel unique, real, and tragic. And tragedy is ultimately how the film winds up. I could not have articulated it after my first viewing, but I can now: in the spirit of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem For a Dream, this is a film about what it is like to be cripplingly addicted to hope.

Spoilers

The least interesting characters in the film are the Park family, and they are arguably the ones to whom this analysis applies the least. Rather it is the Kim family who are most analogous to Selby-style characters. They are poor, in-between jobs, not unskilled, but lacking in opportunity. Father Ki-taek has had many jobs in his life, but was a skilled driver. Mother Chung-sook was an accomplished athlete in school, but now has nothing going on besides odd jobs. Daughter Ki-jeong is a talented artist with computer skills but no way to apply any of this. Son Ki-woo is trying his hardest year after year to pass university entrance exams, but his best efforts have not gotten him there yet.

Living in a half-basement (an apartment mostly below-ground, with windows near the ceiling to let in light), the family scrape by, until fortune gives them, one by one, opportunities to siphon off the money of the wealthy Park family, in a series of increasingly unethical ways. They replace the staff of the Park home, and when we can understand but no longer condone their behavior, this addiction to hope begins to show itself.

They were so poor to start with. Why were Ki-woo’s and Ki-jeong’s (only somewhat unethical) jobs not good enough? Why be so greedy? Ki-woo, who pronounces often in the movie that things are “metaphorical”, comes back over and over to clutch a rock, a literal weight, which is said to bring wealth to its owner. In fact, that’s what we all want, and we lower down the social ladder want it even more than those who hover around the middle of financial security. No one wants to be poor less than the poor, because they know how bad it is.

And so they get greedy, fly too close to the sun, and when the movie’s plot twist reveals itself, we find that former housekeeper Moon-gwang and her husband Geun-sae are also doing everything they can just to make it, also being parasites of a kind on those who are well-to-do. And rather than find some way to co-exist, and perhaps they never could have, they compete, in greed and desperation, spite and hunger, for the position of parasite rex, at the top of the bottom of the food chain.

In the end the Kims, the Parks, and everyone caught in-between are not undone by simple poverty, avarice, greed or resentment. They are undone by the belief of those on the bottom that they deserve better, and their willingness to do anything to get up and out. They are undone by hope. Just hope, to be sure, and righteous, but still, fatal hope all the same.

In the end, Ki-woo returns his metaphorical rock to a creek bed, seeming to say he is no longer relying on his superstition, that luck will find him. We are given the idea that he has a great plan, to work hard, to make money, and to save his father from his fate. And as he sits, alone in his family’s living area with nothing but a plan, a dream, that same hope and only that, the screen fades to black and we are left with the knowledge that this hope is a hell of a drug.

I think Hubert Selby Jr. would have loved this film.

★★★★★
Good

I had never seen Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack. I had, frankly, never seen more than brief clips of the original Mobile Suit Gundam. I love classic anime, but boy, when that one finally came to the United States on Toonami, I wasn’t sure I had the patience for an anime that classic.

I feel bad about that, because I truly love the look of 1970s and 1980s anime. Super Dimension Fortress Macross and Lupin III are a couple of absolute favorites, not just from that time period, but among all the anime I’ve ever consumed.

I was very excited to see a classic anime on the silver screen when a friend invited me to see it by way of Fathom Events, but it turns out I did myself a major disservice by skipping Mobile Suit Gundam (and Zeta Gundam, and anything else crucial to this timeline) because I had not one fucking clue what I was watching in Char’s Counterattack. Even armed with the basics—the Universal Century, Amuro Ray, Char Aznable, Newtypes, mobile suits, etc.—I was completely unprepared for this experience. I actually fell asleep for a few minutes in the theater. There was a character that was so chibikawaiidesudesudesu that it made me want to get up and leave, but I stuck it out, and went home to look up reviews of the film on Letterboxd. It was a perfect example of how there is no accounting for taste, because people called this…thing…one of the most meaningful and powerful filmgoing experiences they’d ever had. At the risk of being rude, I think those people are wrong, and stupid, and should feel bad.

While I can wrap my head around the idea, in the abstract, that this picture moved people, I could not understand it in practice. Part of my growth as an anime fan has been to run out of patience for tropes. Quess Paraya is the peak of everything I hate in an anime character. She is a jealous, dramatic teeny-bopper, a grown female character with the personality of a child, and she has no place in war. Rather than making that the plot, as with something more deconstructive like Evangelion (or its derivatives like RahXephon), she’s just…there. And you’re supposed to take her presence seriously. And it’s excruciating.

I genuinely did not have a good time. There was not enough in the way of mecha action or beautiful art to justify the time I spent with this film. I’m glad it makes some people happy, but I hope I never see it again.

★☆☆☆☆
Bad

I’d like to save most of my thoughts on this movie for a podcast, and that’s due in part to the fact that nothing I can write here would be distinct enough, uniquely enough my own, that it would justify itself. Anything I have to say about this movie has been said and said to death by more famous and important critics. I’ll keep it very brief:

This was one of the most impressive disasters I have ever seen. Its entertainment value came from a “so good it’s bad” place, the proverbial train wreck from which you cannot avert your gaze. But this train wrecked for two and a half hours.

They did not plan this trilogy out. Why did it have to be a trilogy? Dunno. Why didn’t they plan it out? Dunno. But the haste with which this ending was cobbled together by a committee to try and appeal to every kind of fan, and the end result, this shambling Cronenberg, this Lovecratian horror, this Ludwig, the Holy Blade of movies, was one of the cringiest, most fascinating missed opportunities in the history of cinema. It was one of the greatest mishandlings of any business property, ever.

And that’s a shame, because it had all these wonderful elements. The whole trilogy did. Great actors, characters with lots of potential, new ideas, interesting locations.

And it was all squandered. Absolutely, stupefyingly squandered.

But.

I expect I will soften on it. It was bad, but it was not boring. It was embarrassing, but it contained the elements of something good. And when time has passed and it no longer feels important, nothing so great is any longer resting on its shoulders, when I revisit it, I think I’ll be able to shrug it off as “whatever.” And I’m looking forward to that.

1.5/5
Bad

Ninja Scroll was somewhat the opposite of my experience watching Char’s Counterattack. I used to know this movie very well.

As a gory, well-animated showcase of bravado, sex and hyperviolence, I would have been a failed teen-weeb if I wasn’t familiar with it. Teen-weeb that I was, I consumed and created a lot of anime music videos (I’m sorry) and Ninja Scroll was ripe for the picking in that regard.

And at the time, I didn’t think much of the movie, really. I didn’t think it had much in the way of depth, or even story. I saw it more as a series of boss fights, like an anthology of battle scenes. And that is honestly a disservice to what Ninja Scroll was.

Ninja Scroll aged a little weirdly. Like Wicked City, there’s a little too much sexual assault for my liking. But that aside, it is a genuinely engrossing, if simple, samurai movie, and one of the most beautifully-animated films of its time. It certainly still holds up today.

Going back and watching old anime with more mature eyes and modern attitudes is an interesting exercise, and one I enjoy, even as it often leads to disappointments like Char’s or Vampire Hunter D, the latter of which I watched for the first time over the Summer. After hearing about a movie for most of my life, and finally seeing it, and finding it wanting, it can be a disappointing result. However, the process, the intrigue, the formation of opinions, that is still fun for me.

I loved finding out that Ninja Scroll is still enjoyable, if a little problematic. I certainly like it now more than I did as a dumb, hormone-filled teenager, and that will certainly be one of the biggest cinematic surprises I ever expect to experience. I’ll watch it again sooner or later, I’m sure, and recommend you do as well.

★★★☆☆
Good

I was disappointed and surprised to read the reviews of Knives Out after I had seen it for myself, because while they were overwhelmingly positive in number, they were often very mild in content. This was a genuine surprise for me, because I found Knives Out to be one of the funniest, most clever, enjoyable filmgoing experiences I’ve had in recent years. It certainly helped me forgive Rian Johnson for The Last Jedi.

This genre tribute, an anti-whodunnit, had a wide and stellar cast of excellent actors, all of whom were playing varied, excitingly believable character in a wild situation, acted in colorful wardrobe across beautiful sets, shot by the creative eyes of Steve Yedlin and written by the relentlessly creative Johnson, whose penchant for subverting expectations is put to good use here, as opposed to The Last Jedi, where it arguably should not have.

This movie surprised me so regularly that I gave up guessing almost immediately and just let myself be taken along for the ride. I laughed a lot, and was smitten with the lead actors. I was excited to see some faces that deserve to be getting more and more work, like Ana de Armas, LaKeith Stanfield, and Katherine Langford. This was also the first time I’d seen Michael Shannon outside of The Night Before, and he had much more to do here, which was exciting. This movie really deserves the label of “star-studded”. The casting was brilliant, and everyone did a great job.

And I, for one, loved Daniel Craig’s accent.

I fancied this one of my favorite movie experiences of the year, recommend it to anyone, and can’t wait to see it again.

★★★★☆
Good

Marriage Story was the film that helped me finally get over my lack of affection for Scarlett Johansson, who I have previously been unable to see as characters, but only as Scarlett Johansson playing some role. This movie is simple, a parade of wonderful acting and painfully real situations, as accurate a picture of the dissolution of a loving relationship as I’ve ever seen.

Adam Driver is predictably wonderful, and most people won’t be surprised to hear the same of Johansson who, outside of my weird bias, is known for her excellence as well. Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta are all delightful as the lawyers in the picture, and Wallace Shawn cameos as a pleasant little actor just for good measure. The child actor here does a respectable job, the script is brilliant, and I don’t have a bad thing to say about it. Because it is all driven by dialog, I don’t have much else to say, but to recommend you watch it. My Letterboxd profile has the movie at a 9 out of 10, and because unicode doesn’t support half-stars, I’ll just mark it that way here.

Frankly I’m thinking of switching to a 10-point system anyway. It’s all arbitrary, you know? Five is weird, because any sub-division of points seems silly, especially in a world where we do all our math in base-10.

9/10
Good

Uncut Gems was not the film I thought it was going to be. I have taken to avoiding movie marketing, and so only knew that it was another serious role for Adam Sandler, a man who does well in serious roles, and that it was apparently very tense and thrilling.

I expected some kind of action movie, which is not what this was. This was more an exercise in dramatic tension raising, like an experiment to figure out what will happen if at every opportunity a character makes the wrong choice for two hours of screentime.

It was definitely good. And I definitely didn’t ever want to see it again when I got out of the theater.

Then I listened to a Chapo Trap House interview with the Safdie brothers.

And now I want to see it again.

I had some quibbles with it, like the insistence on dating the film in 2012 (like, I get it, there’s The Weeknd, he was rising to popularity in 2012, and these characters are acknowledging that, wow, things I recognize!). But generally speaking, the movie doesn’t make any truly wrong moves. As you will hear about it, when it finally ends, you will feel an amazing sense of relief. There’s something to be said for a movie that can get that firm a grip on you.

7/10
Good

I wanted to like 1917 more than I did. I also liked it more than I expected to.

What a funny position to be in.

By now you probably know the film’s gimmick: it is presented as if in real time (except for at least one moment when that premise is completely abandoned). For the most part the necessary cuts to construct the film are well hidden. I probably counted five or fewer, but the ones I noticed, I really noticed, rather than simply supposed. This is disappointing. It feels like a movie that is intent on coming so far should go all the way, and there were some cuts that were so thoroughly driven by CG and foreground movement that it was a genuine disappointment. These moments were head-smacking, “aw, come on, man,” moments.

And yet, I think it is still something of a technical wonder. And there’s something to be said for a film focusing on World War I, which is not a popular subject among filmmakers. At least not compared with other wars like World War II, Vietnam or the wars in the Middle East.

More than that, it is largely very well acted. While the dialog is often ho-hum, its leads make it feel real once it hits full speed. Dean-Charles Chapman is endearing and George MacKay is perfect as the reluctant hero.

This movie also looks wonderful most of the time. When it does not, it often has to do with CG, and while I understand the effect of color grading it to look washed out like an old photograph, I think it hampers a lot of the daytime shots. The scenes that take place at night look wonderful, though, and lighting is used very smartly with shadows, barrel flashes from guns, and ambient light making for some extremely artistic, pleasing shots.

The finale of the film is cathartic and well-acted, with a moving performance from Richard Madden near the end. I had mixed feelings about casting such high profile actors as Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbach in roles which appear so briefly, because it is something of a distraction, but ultimately I think they did fine and it really didn’t do the movie much harm at all.

I was skeptical as the movie started, but very pleased at the end, and I expect to see it again sometime.

7/10
Good

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