Category Archives: independent film directors

Parasite: Class war in modern Korea

Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho, is a rich, often shocking, and genre-bending look at class conflict in modern Korea. Unlike many films that tackle such topics, Parasite is fairly ambivalent about its heroes/villains. More accurately, there are no heroes and the villains slide helplessly into this role rather than due to any evil intentions.

Parasite starts off as a fairly lighthearted comedy, as a familiar genre piece about con artists. Failed entrepreneur Ki-taek Kim (Song Kang-ho) lives in a bug-infested tenement with his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). The children are grown but, like their parents, unemployed and without prospects. The family survives by doing odd jobs such as folding boxes for a takeout pizza place but even fail at this and have their meager wages cut when the boxes aren’t folded properly.

The family’s fortunes take an upward swing when Ki-woo is recruited by a friend headed for university to tutor the daughter of an affluent family. This is meant to be a short-term assignment but the family conspires to turn it into something much bigger. Taking advantage of Ki-jung’s computer skills (and her natural talents as an actress and forger), the family sneaks its way into the household. Ki-taek becomes a drive; Ki-jung an art tutor, and Chung-sook a maid. They do this in a humorously unethical manner, getting the legitimate household servants fired and scamming the socially insecure couple, pompous CEO Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) and his naive wife Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong).

Any further discussion of the plot would amount to spoilers, so I’ll just say that Parasite veers in a very different direction from its farcical opening act. I’ll just list a few key impressions the film left me with.

Much of the film’s impact comes from imagery rather than plot developments. For example, the stark contrast between the homes of the two families. The Parks live in a modern mansion on a hill while the Kims live at the bottom of a hill (a fact that becomes important). Elevation plays a both literal and metaphorical role throughout the film.

The very title of the film is a bit of a puzzle. The title complements an earlier film of Bong’s, called The Host, which was about a sea monster. Any parasitism in the current film originates in human nature. All of the characters can be considered parasites, depending on one’s perspective. While Bong is clearly calling attention to issues such as economic inequality, his approach is far more nuanced than simply pitting the noble working class against their evil overlords. It’s more like everyone is victimized by a faceless system that fosters inequality and, ultimately, tragedy and mayhem.

It’s worth noting, and a bit disconcerting, how globally relevant the fundamental issues in Parasite are today. While the film is set in Korea, it could just as easily be the U.S. UK, France, Canada, or many other places where the gulf between economic classes is expanding.

Parasite was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best International Feature Film. I saw Parasite at Bytowne Cinema, an independent theater in Ottawa, Ontario.

Glass Chin: Postmodern Boxing Noir

Glass Chin (2014), directed by Noah Buschel and starring Corey Stoll and Billy Cruddup is an interesting hybrid of a film and one of the most interesting and entertaining offerings I’ve found on Netflix in some time. It combines characteristics of Rocky with older (as in 40s and 50s) films about washed up boxers with some 70’s-style Martin Scorcese and 90’s style Quentin Tarantino thrown into the mix. The result may not be seamless perfection, but it’s engaging, intelligently written and has a story that’s actually compelling rather than a mindless sequence of action scenes that you usually find in this type of genre.

Stoll plays Bud, an ex-boxer who is torn between training a promising young prospect and working for a sinister bookie named J.J. (Cruddup). He and his girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland) live in a working class New Jersey neighborhood but discuss philosophy as they sit in diners. Even the film style of Glass Chin is a hybrid, between old school gritty and extremely stylized shots of city streets, more like you’d find in a French film. The effect, however, is always interesting. I especially enjoyed the dialog, which takes up a good part of the time, a fact that will no doubt bore some viewers.

This is mainly a character (and dialog) driven film with a rather simple plot. It contains not one but two outlandish psychopaths, J.J., a very up to date thug who admires Steve Jobs and owns an art gallery and his volatile assistant Roberto (Yul Vasquez). Bud is hired to collect money from gamblers who owe J.J. money and accompanies Roberto on these shakedowns. During one of these incidents, Roberto commits a murder and Bud is framed, all so that J.J. can compel him to fix a fight.

Glass Chin is full of contradictions. It’s a boxing film with no fight scenes (save seeing boxers train in a gym). It’s a gangster film with no on-screen violence. It’s an old school, noirish film with very stylized scenes more reminiscent of European cinema. It also ends on an inconclusive note that is somewhat frustrating.

The title refers to Bud’s own glass chin, as he was infamously knocked out to end his own boxing career (in what may or may not have been an honest fight). Yet it refers equally to his moral weakness, how easily he gets sucked into J.J.’s corrupt world due to his own dissatisfaction with his ordinary life.

This is actually one of the film’s central themes –the conflict between the ordinary and the glamorous. J.J., who owns a snow leopard, shuns the ordinary at all costs, while Ellen, a student of Buddhism, embraces it. Bud is a tragic character caught in the middle and doomed by his inability to choose.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

Boyhood is one of the most impressive films in the career of Richard Linklater, a director known for making innovative and captivating independent films -e.g. the Before Sunrise trilogy, Waking Life and Dazed and Confused, to name just a few.

Most of the publicity around Boyhood comes from its gimmick -the fact that it was filmed over a 12 year period, in which we get to see the characters, especially star Ellar Coltrane, grow older. This certainly adds something to the movie and makes it truly unique. The only films it has been compared to in this regard are the Up series, which follow the lives of characters every 7 years. Those, however, are documentaries, which are a different breed altogether. It is indeed fascinating to watch the protagonist Mason (Coltrane) grow from a 6 year-old to an 18 year-old college student by the end.

Boyhood, however, should ultimately be judged by its merits as a film, not by the method used by the director. And in this regard, it succeeds triumphantly. What I admire most about Linklater’s films is the way he blatantly violates the cliches of formula filmmaking and nevertheless manages to end up with movies that are so much more compelling than the paint-by-the-numbers efforts of his more conventional contemporaries. At the same time, his style is down-to-earth and doesn’t make you feel like you’re watching a performance piece that’s being clever and artistic just for the sake of it.

For this reason, a film like Boyhood ends up being far more interesting that it sounds like from the description -which is the exact opposite of most movies. A kid grows up; his parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) split up; his mother makes some questionable choices for replacement fathers; Mason dates a girl who ends up disappointing him…none of this is very noteworthy on the surface. Yet, with Linklater’s script and direction, there is scarcely a moment that’s not fascinating.

Boyhood has some of the philosophical, somewhat trippy dialogue found in other Linklater films, especially Slacker and Waking Life. Characters manage to convey intelligent and existentialist mindsets without coming off like people in a 1960s French New Wave film (not that there’s anything wrong with that -just that it could come across as pretentious and unlikely when the setting is 21st century America).

Creating dialogue-centered movies without having them sound like stage plays is a skill Linkater has perfected. In the Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight series, he avoids this (mostly; the final entry does get a little melodramatic towards the end) by the diverse settings. In Boyhood, there are similarly a multitude of settings, from backyards to wooded areas to the colorful streets of Austin.

Boyhood is a major cinematic achievement, both for the way it was created and, more importantly, the final result.

Blue Jasmine Review

In Blue Jasmine (2013), Woody Allen recovers a little of the brilliance his films from the 70s and 80s displayed, while at the same time reminding us that his outlook is dated. Cate Blanchett, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2014 for her role as Jasmine, is what really turns an interesting idea into a truly compelling movie.

Many reviewers have focused on how heavily Blue Jasmine borrows from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Indeed, the film follows the basic trajectory of that play quite closely, though changing the setting and dates. This is especially apparent when you consider that Cate Blanchett actually starred in a version of A Streetcar Named Desire only several years ago.

As the film opens, Jasmine is a formerly wealthy New Yorker who is forced to move in with her far less affluent half sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. As we meet Jasmine, she is the picture of decayed elegance as she mutters her life story to a stranger on the plane. Jasmine is alternately condescending and pathetic as she is forced to accept charity from someone she clearly feels is beneath her.

Much of the film consists of flashbacks that reveal Jasmine’s life with her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a wealthy but corrupt financier who is eventually arrested. Not only has Hal ruined Jasmine’s life, he has also wreaked havoc on Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) by getting them to invest in a crooked real estate scheme that bankrupts them.

While Blanchett’s performance, along with all of the other characters is brilliant, it’s hard to overlook some of the ways that Woody Allen is out touch. At the time Jasmine and Ginger meet up, Ginger is living in what is apparently the last non-gentrified block in the city of San Francisco. She is raising two boys and working as a stock clerk in a grocery store.

These details illustrate how Woody Allen does not understand how the other half lives. At a time when even white collar workers must share housing in cities like San Francisco, Allen’s notion of poverty is having Ginger inhabit a spacious, bohemian chic apartment that she and her boys have all to themselves (at least until Jasmine shows up).

On a similar note, Jasmine laments how she was forced to move out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn after her husband’s empire collapsed. Allen, as usual, is still living in the 80s, when Brooklyn was still considered a remote “bridge and tunnel” borough that only housed the less fortunate (at least from the insular Upper East Side-centric view of Allen).

Still another example of cultural myopia occurs when Jasmine takes computer classes so she’ll be able to study for an online interior decorating degree. This is, admittedly, a rather minor plot point, but we are supposed to believe that a sophisticated forty-something woman from New York City doesn’t know how to use the internet in the 21st century. This is more a symptom of someone from Allen’s generation rather than Jasmine/Blanchett’s.

The blue collar characters who revolve around Ginger are all borderline anachronistic stereotypes. Fortunately, the actors who play them succeed in making them actual human beings. Andrew Dice Clay, never especially funny as a self-consciously un-PC standup comic in the 80s, has just the right blend of menace and pathos to play Augie, a contractor who allowed himself to be swindled by Hal in a weak moment.

By the time Jasmine arrives, Ginger has begun dating another unstable blue collar type, played by Bobby Cannavale, a possessive, hard-drinking type prone to fits of weeping. As if this wasn’t enough, Ginger has yet a third suitor, played by another (more popular and successful) standup comic, Louis C.K., who infuses his character with just the right amount of nuance.

Jasmine, for her part, is also not lacking in admirers. First, an overly amorous dentist who she works for and then, more promisingly, a suave diplomat who she promptly lies to about her past, which everyone but she can see can only lead to disaster.

Blue Jasmine is certainly not an uplifting film, which is not surprising coming from Allen, who has been more influenced by European cinema than the feel-good Hollywood rom-com tradition. This film, however, doesn’t provide the kind of comic relief that, in many of his earlier works, balanced out the dark existentialism and nihilism. Jasmine is presented as a tragic and irredeemable character who is doomed to live in a world of self-delusion. The film, as much as any other Allen has directed, reveals the director’s cynical view of human nature, one that recalls the ancient Greek truism that “character is destiny.”


Inside Llewyn Davis Review

Inside Llewyn Davis is another compelling feature by Ethan and Joel Coen, who are among the most consistent indie film directors working today. This film has similarities with some of the former hits; it has a sullen protagonist reminiscent of Barton Fink and a music-centered theme like O Brother, Where Art Thou, but Inside Llewyn Davis is also a completely unique and original film.

The movie takes place in 1961, at the very beginning of the modern folk music revival in Greenwich Village. Aside from anything else, the set and photography of the film is quite impressive -it’s no easy task to recreate the lower Manhattan of half a century ago. The film is, however, more than just a period piece. Like many Coen Brothers’ films, it’s darkly humorous, with an almost-but-not-quite unlikable hero.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, who is also a musician and performs many songs in the film) is a sulky, self-centered but talented folk musician who hasn’t gotten his big break and, it is strongly suggested, never will. Although he doesn’t exactly have a winning personality, one reason why it’s hard to hate him is that he’s so poorly treated by everybody else in the film. Early on, he is beaten up in the alley of a folk club. We don’t find out why till nearly the end. He is verbally chastised by Jean (Carey Mulligan), an ex-girlfriend and another folk singer. Bad luck and bad vibes seem to follow him everywhere he goes, including on a bizarre road trip to Chicago. We also get the sense that the only time Davis is able to show his true self is when he performs his music.

Llewyn Davis has been called a surreal film, due to the way it plays tricks with the audience regarding time and the progression of events. I can’t be more specific or less cryptic without giving too much away. However, if you start watching the film expecting some kind of magical realism or fantasy, you’ll be disappointed. You don’t really see that there’s something mysterious going on until quite late in the film. There are, however, clues. One involves the motif of a tabby cat who keeps making appearances at unexpected times.

In addition to strong (musical as well as acting) performances by Isaac and Mulligan, the film features Justin Timberlake, John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham. Inside Llewyn Davis is an aesthetically satisfying look at the paradoxical world of music and creativity.


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Before Sunrise

Before Sunrise

This romantic, witty, and ultimately poignant glimpse at two strangers (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who share thoughts, affections, and past experiences during one 14-hour tryst in Vienna somehow remains writer/director Richard Linklater’s (Dazed and Confused, Slacker) most overlooked gem. Delpy, a stunning, low-key Parisian, meets the stammering American Hawke, as the two share a Eurorail seat–she’s starting school in Paris, he’s finishing a vacation. Their mutual attraction
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In the Soup

In the Soup

This is a low-key gem that is at once about the power of dreams, the power of suggestion, and the tyranny of artistic vision (when there really isn’t one to fight for). This disarming comedy by director Alexandre Rockwell was a hit at the Sundance Festival but barely registered commercially. Steve Buscemi stars as a hard-luck case: Adolpho, a wanna-be filmmaker with a phone-book-sized screenplay and no money. He lives in a hellish Lower East Side apartment and has a thing for hi
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