Parasite; mmnah

Parasite.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Parasite, the seventh film from South Korean film maker Bong Joon-ho. And, had it arrived under the radar, as it were, much as his fourth film, Mother, did in 2009, then very probably it could have been forgiven its many glaring inconsistencies.

Sure, it’s about half an hour too long. And, like Mother (not to be confused with Darren Aronofsky’s execrable Mother!, with an exclamation mark, reviewed by me earlier here), it can’t make up its mind whether it’s a dark comedy, a creepy thriller, or a social satire – cant it be all three, you ask? On which, more anon.

Depardieu in Les Valseuses.

And sure, it’s the sort of film that Bertrand Blier was making eons ago, but with much more verve and brio. Films like Les Valseuses (limply translated as Going Places) from 1974, Buffet froid from ’79 and Tenue de soirée from ’86. All of which starred Gérard Depardieu in all his pomp, and which all displayed, not to put too fine a point on it, considerably more balls.

But it didn’t. Parasite arrived garlanded, anointed and verily festooned, blazing a trail of un-checked praise.

That it should have won the Academy award for Best Film is very much par for the course. It’s exactly the sort of skin deep, un-demanding social satire that the Academy likes to pat itself on the back for applauding. What’s much more surprising is that they should have given the nod to the genuinely edgy Moonlight (reviewed by me here) three years previously.

Tim Robbins in The Player.

But it’s baffling that the grown ups at Cannes should have been equally wowed, albeit in a particularly weak year. Mind you, they gave the Palme d’Or to The Square in 2017, which was similarly unfocused.

So, what’s wrong with being a dark comedy, a creepy thriller, and a social satire? Well, nothing. It can be done, as with Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (’82), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (‘90) and Twin Peaks (’92- present) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (‘73) and The Player (‘92). All of which of course were completely overlooked by the Academy. 

You just need to answer the three fundamental questions that all stories must answer; whose story is it? What do they want? And what’s stopping them?

The Long Goodbye,

So whose story is being told in Parasite? To begin with, it’s the son’s. Then, 20 minutes in, it switches to his sister. Then his father. Then it’s a mix of all four, their mother now joining them. Before finally reverting to the son once more. This does not produce a whimsical mixing of genres and a delightful flitting hither and thither. It’s all just a bit of a mess.

If we don’t know whose story it is, we can’t know what they want, and what therefore is stopping them from getting it. So we’ve nobody to root for, and there’s no way for us to get emotionally engaged, so there’s nothing at stake. This is not some optional extra. It’s the very foundation upon which all stories are built.

Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks.

Not that any of this should really have come as a surprise. After all, before making Mother, Boon hooked up with Michel Gondry and Leos Carax, two of the most inconsequential and insubstantial film makers to have ever come out of France, to make Tokyo! (08) together.

Let’s hope nobody introduces poor Boon to Terrence Malick and the aforementioned Aronofsky, America’s answer to messers Gondry and Carax. Perish the thought.

You can see the trailer for Parasite here.

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“Never Look Away”, new film from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Never Look Away.

The Lives of OthersFlorian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s feature debut from 2006,was one of the standout films of the last decade. His follow-up, The Tourist from 2010, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, and costing over 100 million dollars, wasn’t merely disappointing, it managed somehow to pass everyone by, going completely un-noticed. 

The Lives of Others.

Which was quite a feat given its cast and cost. So was that debut a chance accident of converging talents, or did it genuinely herald the arrival of a serious film maker?  

In his new film, Never Look Away, Tom Schilling plays Kurt, an artist struggling under the restrictions of life in post-war East Germany. Married to the daughter of a former SS officer, who does everything he possibly can to sabotage their union, they flee to freedom in the West. 

There’s little enough to get excited about in cinema these days, so when you do seem to have stumbled upon an actual find, you cross your fingers that whoever it is turns out to be the genuine article. So I desperately wanted to be wowed by Never Look Away. But it’s felled, alas, by two fatal flaws.

Sirk’s Imitation of Life.

First, it’s a melodrama. Personally, I love melodrama, it’s probably my favourite genre, being to cinema what country is to music. And Germany has a proud tradition of brilliant melodrama. 

On the one hand, there are those glorious, Technicolor weepies that Douglas Sirk made in Hollywood in the 1950s; All That Heaven Allows (’55), Written on the Wind (’56) and Imitation of Life (‘59). Gloriously over the top, unashamedly mannered and defiantly theatrical. “You don’t believe in the happy ending,” Sirk said of that last named, “and you’re not supposed to(!)


Fassbinder’s the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

And on the other, there are those flurry of do-it-yourself, handmade films that Rainer Werner Fassbinder produced in the 70s, before burning so spectacularly out at the tender age of 37. Films like Fear Eats the Soul (’74), Despair (’78) and the peerless the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (’72). Archetypally art house, brazenly intellectual and comfortably, almost casually avant garde. 

The problem with Never Look Away is that it is neither fish nor fowl, falling midway between those two twin poles. Much of it is gloriously silly, but how intentional that is, is impossible to say. What, for instance, are we to make of the fact that the artists Kurt meets on his arrival in the West look like they’ve stepped out of one of those paintings produced back in the Communist East, that they are supposed to be critiquing? And what about that ending – no spoilers -? Are we meant to smile knowingly, à la Sirk, or are we supposed to take it seriously? In short, it’s a film that desperately wants to be taken seriously, but devotes its entire energy into merely looking wondrously pretty.

David Lynch’s Dune, which is every bit as bad as that poster suggests.

It’s not hard to see where the project went wrong. Donnersmarck befriended the great German artist Gerhard Richter, interviewing him at length, which you can read about in the New Yorker profile here. But with what in mind? That intimacy meant that he was then incapable of producing a distanced, warts and all biopic of the man. So instead, he made a fictionalised film about someone quite like, but not actually, Richter. The result is polite, well mannered and extremely dull. It’s not even the sort of spectacular failure that we got with Dune. Which somehow makes it even more of a disappointment. 

Hopefully, just as David Lynch did after Dune, Donnersmarck will go back to the sort of small, intimate film that he began with. But as of now, so far as his gifts as a film maker go, the jury is very much out. He seems, at least for the moment, to be more of a Darren Aronofsky than he does an Asghar Farhadi.

You can see the trailer for Never Look Away here.

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The Leftovers, another gem from HBO.

the Leftovers.

the Leftovers.

HBO’s the Leftovers is a deceptively high concept series. On October 14th 2011, 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappear. Which doesn’t sound terribly catastrophic until you do the maths. In a village of 100 people living in 25 houses, two of those house will have suddenly lost someone, literally into thin air, never to see them again, without ever finding out how or why.

Understandably, the suburban town we find ourselves in, in upstate New York, has been utterly devastated, as has every other corner of the country. The Departure, as it’s referred to, is effectively a What If addressed to the Evangelicals.

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Father and daughter.

Evangelical Christians believe that the Rapture is imminent, by which they mean they expect it to occur within the decade. When it does, the chosen few will be spirited up to Heaven, and the rest of us will be left behind. The Leftovers asks us to imagine, what would that actually look like, in practical terms.

Except it doesn’t. Because it’s even worse than that, as no one can identify anything that might connect those who were spirited away – if that was what happened to them – any more than they can explain why they, the leftovers, were not. So nobody can be sure exactly what happened on that fateful day, and all too many characters have their own particular theory.

The result is a post-apocalyptic landscape where heightened religious fervour merges with unmanageable guilt and suspicion, so that everyone and everything, however apparently mundane, is viewed with unimaginable anxiety. Dogs have become feral, deer conversely wander in and out of houses. Messiahs materialise, cults are formed and everyone’s addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. Smoking increases, and there’s a general sense of lawlessness. But more than anything else, families fall apart.

Oh dear.

Oh dear.

The series revolves, just about, around the figure of Justin Theroux, the local cop whose marriage fell apart around the Departure, and whose father, who was the chief before him, is currently hospitalised in an institution. But as often as not, an episode will focus on a peripheral character. A pastor, a member of a cult, a woman who lost her husband and both her children, immediately after arguing with her youngest, all of whom are connected to Theroux in differing ways.

The Leftovers was aired on HBO and is effectively the follow up to Lost for Damon Lindelof. And whatever he might say publically, he clearly has leant many a lesson from that less than satisfying experience. The principle improvement is scope. This is a far more focused affair, homing in on a much smaller group of characters.

Lyv Tyler.

Lyv Tyler.

Ironically, what this allows for is a far more experimental approach to storytelling. The Leftovers is surprisingly fluid and nebulous, which only adds to its sense of eerie dread. None of us know what’s going to happen next any more than any of the characters do. There’s a particularly memorable dream sequence – almost impossible after David Lynch – where you only realise that what you’ve been watching is in fact a dream at exactly the same moment as the character does, as they wake up out of it in a panic. Which is staggering hard to pull off.

Impressively, seasons 2 and 3 are, if anything, even better. And, best of all, and he clearly did learn this from his Lost experience, there only a total of 3 series. The only blot on an otherwise perfect copybook is the series’ finale. Apart from the damp squib that is that concluding episode, the Leftovers is a triumph.

You can see the excellent trailer for the Leftovers here

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How bad is “Mother!”?

Darren Aronofsky's Mother.

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother.

So just how bad is the new Darren Aronofsky film, Mother!? Well, and at the risk of bamboozling you with arcane technical jargon, it is what we in the industry refer to as pants. Which is extremely disappointing, because for a while Aronofsky seemed as if he might be the great white hope of independent cinema.

He made his impressive debut in 1998 with Pi, and followed it up two years later with the genuinely dazzling Requiem for a Dream. Here gloriously, form is content, and content form, as Beckett had defended Joyce with. The highly stylised exploration of the language and grammar of cinema was the perfect way to delve deep into the topic of addiction. The result was the film of the decade.

Jarred Leto and Jennifer Connolly in Reqiem for a Dream.

Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream.

Next up was The Fountain in ’06. And, suffice it to say, we all put that film down to the immense pressure he must have been under to produce a worthy follow-up to what had come before. So he was forgiven that.

Then came The Wrestler in ’08. So okay, before earning the right to go back to making the sorts of films that he really wants to make, he needed to accommodate the bean counters in Hollywood. And as nice as it was seeing Mickey Rourke back on the silver screen, it really is little more than your runofthemill, feelgood Hollywood film.

The dream master, David Lynch's Mulholland Dr.

The dream master, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.

But then came Black Swan, reviewed earlier here, a further a n other Hollywood picture. And then, worse again, Noah in ‘14 which couldn’t have been more Hollywood had it been directed by Cecil B DeMille and starred Charlton Heston. So just what kind of a film maker is Aronofsky?

Well let’s just hope that Mother! isn’t the answer to that question. True, for periods of ten, even fifteen minutes, the film trundles along inoffensively enough. And you begin to wonder what all the fuss is about. But then there’ll be a plot point, a quote development unquote in the ahem, story, that’s so implausible and so completely unconnected with what had gone on before, that your only response is an almost overpowering urge to get up and leave.

I don’t remember ever seeing a film that left me so permanently on the edge of my seat, about to leave, only to remain where I was on the assumption that any moment now, it was surely going to improve. It was like re-living the 2016 election night all over again.

Jodorowsky's most recent pair of comeback films, Santa Sangre and the Dream of Reality.

Jodorowsky’s most recent pair of comeback films, Santa Sangre and the Dance of Reality.

For a while there, you wonder whether what’s being explored here might perhaps be some sort of dreamscape. But as Freud so memorably summed up, dreams are about “the transformation of manifest dream material into latent dream content”. The whole point of dreams and their reading in other words, is the connection between what you dream about, and the stuff of your everyday life. The different elements need to be connected, otherwise they are literally meaningless. And if what we’re being offered on the other hand is some sort of metaphor, allegory or parable, then we need to be able to identify with whoever it is that is experiencing the lesson to be learned.

There are no connections between the beginning, middle and end of Mother!, or for that matter, between any of its major scenes, and you couldn’t possibly identify with any of the characters involved. There are the same two principal actors, poor old Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, on the same set, of the same house, and all the props are the same. But there is almost nothing to connect what happens in one scene with what happens in the next.

Fellini's 8 1/2.

Fellini’s 8 1/2.

Dreams have been central to cinema, which is hardly surprising for a medium designed to produce illusion. Fellini’s 8 ½, Bunuel’s the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Polanski’s Repulsion and, more recently Alejandro Jodorowsky’s the Dance of Reality, reviewed earlier here, and, of course, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., where, as David Thompson astutely pointed out, D R stands first and foremost for Dream, and only secondly for Drive.

If there are any of those films that you haven’t seen, do so now. If however you’re curious about what happens when you try to make a film without having a script or, therefore, a story, then if nothing else, Mother! will put you right on that.

Here’s the trailer to Mulholland Drive. And for the record, you can see the trailer to Mother here.

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Asaf Avidan’s new album “Different Pulses”, Israel’s answer to Jimmy Scott.

"Different Pulses".

“Different Pulses”.

When Bob Boilen played the title track from Asaf Avidan’s 2012 album Different Pulses on NPR’s All Songs Considered (reviewed earlier here) a few weeks ago, you could hear the sound of various jaws hitting the floor. That’s because the voice of this latter day Janis Joplin belongs in fact to a 33 year old Israeli man.

Unlike poor old Jimmy Scott though, there’s nothing unfortunate about the sound that he produces. It’s just very unusual.

Little Jimmy Scott, as he was dubbed, was born with Kallmann’s Syndrome. This meant that he grew to be no taller than four foot eleven until he was into his late thirties, when he suddenly spouted another 8 inches. The result was that the diminutive Scott sounded for all the world like a female jazz singer.

Little Jimmy Scott, with fans Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie and Antony Hegarty.

Little Jimmy Scott, with fans Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie and Antony Hegarty.

And sure enough, he was right royally screwed by most of the people he seems to have met in the music industry throughout the 50s and 60s. Thoroughly dejected and unfairly ignored, he retired in the 70s.

Happily though, he was rescued again in the 1990s by the archetypal outsiders Lou Reed and David Lynch, who provided him with a belated renaissance. Reed invited him to perform on his 1992 album Magic and Loss, which was dedicated to their mutual friend Doc Pomus. And Lynch brought him in to work on the second series of Twin Peaks, which you can hear here.

Avidan in contrast seems to be a perfectly conventional man physically speaking. Which makes the sound he produces all the more remarkable.

Avidan began touring his native Israel with his band in 2006, and over the next four or five years they produced 3 hugely successful albums, where they quickly amassed a sizable cult following. They went their separate ways in 2011 though, and Different Pulses is his debut solo album.

If Jimmy Scott had had Janis Joplin’s oomph, and she his vocal range, this is what it might have sounded like. Impressively, it’s a range and emotional depth that’s maintained across the whole album.

Asaf Avidan.

Asaf Avidan.

There’s very little sense however of the East or of the Orient. There is occasionally a slight hint of the few years Avidan spent on Jamaica soaking up their rhythms. But for the most part it’s a richly sophisticated RnB album that would 40 years ago have been put out by Stax and distributed by Atlantic Records. Doc Pomus would been called in to provide a lyric or two. And Jimmy Scott could easily have been smuggled in to provide backing vocals. Un-credited of course.

You can see the video for Different Pulses and hear Avidan for yourself here.

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