Movie of the Week: Red Sorghum (1987)

Zhang Yimou directs Gong Li, Jiang Wen and Teng Rijun in this epic romance where an organised marriage between a girl and a leper rice wine maker transforms a community when an unlikely suitor seduces her instead.

Just magical. Yet also earthy and adult. The film has the feel of an old fable and a slightly tongue-in-cheek Birth of the Communist Nation. I’m sure the Government officials at the time weren’t overjoyed with the depiction of thieves, drunks and lusty outsiders shaping their rise but the end result is so positive. There is a massive tonal shift in the last act… we go from bawdy and unpredictable peasant romance (with occasional kidnappings) to the Japanese invasions and brutal tortures. But maybe as we have been so fully invested in Gong Li’s tenacious go-getter and the down-to-earth people around her that to see their labour threatened so violently by outside forces means we truly care. Most war films only pay lip service to the back stories of those affected by international violence, here it is a true disruption to another tale. Wondrous use of vivid colour, pastoral location, weathered faces and traditional Chinese music combine to make a truly seductive, unique piece of cinema. Red Sorghum is almost a musical, it is so full of song and personality. But then a musical where a man is skinned alive.

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The Lighthouse (2019)

Robert Eggers directs Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe and Valeriia Karaman in this grim tale of two lighthouse keepers driven mad from isolation, booze and power struggles.

“Are you going to see The Lighthouse? Don’t it’s rubbish.” An posho old boy passes us on the stairs of the Filmhouse. Then we were surrounded by stinky hipsters, some of whom brain farted through the movie more than Dafoe’s very gaseous wicky! “Is it going to be square?” “I think that’s an octopus?” “Oh that’s gory.” Not the best conditions to watch a film all about simmering atmosphere and doom laden boredom. I want to enjoy my shock mermaid pussy and near-constant audible guffing in full focus. No wonder these pleb were bored and restless. The Lighthouse is a film without answers. You bring what you want to its mysteries. Fittingly for a film in high contrast monochrome, it is a bit of a Rorschach Test. You fill in the blanks. Obviously if you are a moron who needs to be lead to water you shan’t appreciate the craft of the puzzle or the endurance feat of the lead performances. This clearly wasn’t a comfortable location shoot. Would I have enjoyed Eggers sophomore effort more without the swirl of negativity at our screening? Possibly… though it is pretty thin. Marriage Story with facial hair, CastAway where wanking is more important than escape. You couldn’t put it down to laziness on his part though, nor his actors. What you find in the light or the darkness is up to you. If you don’t want to find your own horrors don’t peer into it for 110 minutes. But shut the fuck up if your mind is duller and more deafening than a foghorn blast.

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Emma. (2020)

Autumn de Wilde directs Anya Taylor-Joy, Mia Goth and Johnny Flynn in this Austen adaption about the matchmaker who goes too far in her meddling.

I had fears over the first hour of this adaptation – especially since the marvellous Gemma Whelan has a prominent role in it and we are mates. You always approach another trotting out of Emma with one question “Can it be as good as Clueless?”. This feels a little too dress up / doll house in the first half – everyone looks the part but it is suffocatingly a sledgehammer of pastels and silks and ribbons. Almost a chintzy tsunami. Once all the players are introduced the Austen wit and sharp characterisation comes to life, set dressing takes a back seat. It all become a bit more tight and worthwhile. And Johnny Flynn makes a very dashing, earthy Knightley.

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Richard Jewell (2019)

Clint Eastwood directs Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates in this 1996 true story of the ungainly security guard who heroically found the device at the Atlanta Olympics bombing only to be tarred as prime suspect by the FBI and media.

Solid adult drama with exceptional performances from Rockwell and Bates. Clint is one of Hollywood’s finest directors but he is also one of the most inconsistent. This drags due to pacing issues with Eastwood letting each scene unravel just a little too much, culminating in a story with a fascinating hook testing your patience by close of play. Well worth a watch but possibly at home in bed on your tablet.

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Underwater (2020)

William Eubank directs Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel and Jessica Henwick in this sci-fi disaster movie where a deep sea drilling rig is breached and the few survivors have to race to safety against falling oxygen levels, shifts in pressure and mysterious killer beasties.

As Alien rip-offs go this is slavishly faithful. The credits and the production design and the score and the graphic read-outs and the one size fits all casting and the set-pieces could all be assembled from forgotten drafts and unapproved sketches and discarded storyboards and ignored studio notes from Ripley’s off world adventures. Now there’ll be some who will find rehashing a film from 40 years ago with very few new aspects added the height of foolishness. But for some of us, we never got quite enough pure Alien… not even enough well budgeted “Alien… But Underwater!” mash-ups. I’m in the minority but I’d go see a new one of these every month. Why reinvent the wheel? The monsters are Lovecraftian terrors, the opening act is a take no prisoners rush and if you read this blog then you know of my massive soft spots for both Cassell and Stewart. TJ Miller does guff a section out as a very poor man’s Ryan Reynolds but the loudmouth sore thumb is credited as “… AND TJ MILLER” so you know he isn’t going to be a permanent handicap to the action. Sometimes you just want to watch a thing run its rail.

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Parasite (2019)

Bong Joon-Ho directs Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin and Choi Woo-shik in this dark satirical thriller where an unemployed family con their way in to becoming the help for a rich household only to uncover disturbing truths.

One of the pleasures of Parasite is going in as blind as possible. It is a plot that twists and turns almost constantly and to get full pleasure from it you’ll want as little spoiled as possible. Mainstream audiences are often impressed by releases that execute one great narrative rug pull but Parasite has at least three. To steal them prematurely from anyone would be a crime. Possibly it is best to just compare Parasite to the quality films it evokes and if you recognise a few favourites then you know Parasite is for you.

Like all Bong Joon-Ho’s back catalogue, here is a film that defies strict genre adherence – switching from farce to thriller to horror to drama. While sometimes, with The Host or Okja for example, this creates a tonally awkward aftertaste here he blends the phasing from one mode to the next expertly. There is the barbed social wit of a Billy Wilder movie, the disturbing maze-like setting of The Shining, the silent rich versus poor battles of La Régle Du Jeu. I enjoyed the Cinderella aspects of the visuals and note when one major character leaves the party in a rush there are abandoned shoes on the stairs they take. The more violent class war aspects explored in Jordan Peele’s Us are echoed here. There is an apocalyptic flood at one point where toilets spew sewage that feels like a witch’s curse or a biblical plague… one character, rather wonderfully, just sits and has a fag like she expected nothing less from the day.

I always saw in the skeleton of the script a structural borrowing from The Shawshank Redemption. The industrious but down on their luck Kims are characters trapped by financial circumstances and then they find themselves unwittingly breaking into a new prison. This conjures up lots of mini-chapters from a scheme involving peaches to a night spent under the coffee table. Each part, like Shawshank can be split into its own marvellous short story meaning the entire two hours is incredibly dense – rich with detailed characters and overwhelming incidences.

The final coda also shares the hidden message narration, openness and uncertain “happy ending” of the beloved prison drama. What unfurls in the aftermath can be interpreted in a variety of different ways… some flash-forwards can easily be dismissed as cruel fantasy but if you consider our final narrator’s mental state surely all of the last ten minutes needs to be read through a set of eyes with a very shaky, damaged grip of reality. Maybe the family living in the brutalist fortress by close of play don’t look that different after all? Their pictures are arranged the same way? Their diet hasn’t changed? Like Inception, does Parasite have a deeper twist than its most obvious ultimate one?

The joy of Parasite is that here is a film packed with cheeky foreshadowing, clues, misdirection (that “metaphorical” rock!). This obviously opens it up to repeat viewings and continued discussion. Yet I don’t think I’ll revisit it as often as the warm, salty hug of its Oscar predecessor Green Book. It is not as risky or as laugh out loud funny as the equally bleak Birdman. Compared to other Best Picture Winners it is a worthy addition to the pantheon but maybe one that might struggle to become a true favourite in The Carroll Household. That is no diss on Bong Joon-Ho’s precise and elegant direction or the superlative ensemble works which allows all characters to have their fiery moment when their mask slips. I just get the feeling Parasite for me will be a film I admire more than love, respect more than obsess further over.

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6 Underground (2019)

Michael Bay directs Ryan Reynolds, Mélanie Laurent and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo in this espionage action comedy where a set of anonymous experts fake their deaths and try to right the world’s wrongs.

Bright, brash and smug. The incoherent time structure strings together three big and not unenjoyable set-pieces. The stuff inbetween is pretty repetitive and predictable. Reynolds gets to have a few crowbarred scenes in where he sasses an authority figure and gets the girl. Very paint by numbers, but hits the dumb pleasure target if not the exact spot.

5

Le Dernier Combat (1983)

Luc Besson directs Pierre Jolivet, Jean Bouise and Jean Reno in this post-apocalyptic adventure where a pilot and a doctor find themselves besieged by a brute.

A future without dialogue – images of survival in abandoned office blocks and fallout zones. Armour made of sporting goods and weapons of simple ingenuity. It looks great, the sexual politics stink and the arty take on nu-medieval desolation is convincing. The jaunty synth score by Eric Serra is simultaneously the best thing about the whole production and the one element that really doesn’t chime with everything else. As debuts go Besson made a fine first attempt.

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Experimenter (2015)

Michael Almereyda directs Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder and Jim Gaffigan in this biopic of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, the genius behind some of the most infamous experiments around human interaction of the 20th Century.

A dark horse in that it takes the currently stale life story subgenre and breathes some fucking life into it. It helps that Milgram’s work is so fascinating and the ethics of his methods leaves unresolved ground for conflict. It helps that Sarsgaard brings his inherent quirk and untrustworthiness (a creepiness that Hollywood has mined for multiple dozen villains over the years) and repurposes it into an intelligent, flawed outsider. It helps that Almerayda’s stark visual choices first seem obtuse and synthetic but slowly make sense given its subject’s take on reality and obedience to normative behaviour. And the always compelling Ryder shines in the “underwritten” wife role. A bottom shelf, behind the display spinner gem well worth getting down on your haunches and finding in your video rental shop of choice.

8

The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008)

Josh Safdie directs Eleonore Hendricks, himself and Jordan Zaldez in this mumblecore crime drama about a New York pickpocket on a kleptomaniac spree.

Never has a film reminded me so much of the music video for Daft Punk’s Da Funk. We wander around aimlessly, lonely, witnessing cute Eleonore commit her small crimes. It all adds up to nothing. We shift into a joyride of unrequited romance and then low rent fantasy. She eventually nicks a copy of The Taking of Pelham 123. You enjoy that Eleonore. It is a good ‘un. Big up Manhattan guerilla location shoots.

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