A new Netflix movie is tearing through the Internet, igniting accusations of glorifying child porn, accusing Netflix employees of pedophilia, and triggering some to even cancel their subscriptions. Even if you’ve never watched Cuties you have probably heard something about it through the controversy that has inflamed innumerable conversations and condemnation. Cuties is a French drama that follows a young 11-year-old Amy (Falthia Toussouf) as she embarks on a new school. Her religious Muslim family has set her up for one way of life, but the popular girls at her school look so much more free, fun, and wild. The “Cuties” dance team dreams of stardom, envies the older teen dance team, and emulates salacious dance moves from videos. It’s easy to see why the movie has generated its controversy and it’s understandable why many people would ever refuse to watch it based on subject matter alone. No matter the artistic merit, watching kids behaving this way, and the natural discomfort it produces, can be too much to endure. However, for those willing to give Cuties a chance, I do think it has some artistic merit as it tells, what is essentially, a familiar story of a youth going down a wayward path of temptation and rebellion.
There are three standout moments to me in Cuties that exemplify what writer/director Maïmouna Doucouré was going for as well as the commentary attached to the controversy. I’ll be going into spoilers to discuss these scenes and why I think it adds up to a whole that has more thoughtful intentions than exploiting children for cheap buzz and leering perversion.
1) Early on, like around the ten-minute mark, Amy is dancing and hides under her mother’s bed to not get in trouble. Her mother walks around with the Great Aunt and she overhears their conversation and learns some upsetting news. Her father, who is away and yet to move back with the family, will be marrying a second wife and bringing her home. The mother is trying to put on a brave face and play her part, calling relatives to dutifully inform them about the development, but she is clearly devastated and wracked with emotion. She feels replaced and inadequate and harmed by the man she loves, and Amy registers the pain and degradation her mother is going through on a deeply personal level, and this is what serves as motivation for her later actions. When she’s making new friends and wearing crop tops and pushing her boundaries, it’s not just a young Muslim girl who wants to escape the conservative trappings of her culture; it’s a young girl who is looking to rebel and stick it to her father. Her sense of a woman’s place in this family is to be subservient to the man and his authority, and she’s angry with him, angry at causing her mother pain, angry at viewing her as a collectible, and angry at what she views is a culture that restricts her to a life she does not want for herself but worries may not have a choice. Again, this isn’t a judgment on all Muslim families but merely the relationships within this one. This overheard phone call is such an immediately powerful scene with such an emotional wallop that I was tearing up. Amy’s motivation is more complex than simply wanting to dress provocatively. She’s rejecting a fate that could as easily befall her, and in doing so, a viewpoint on women.
2) There is a moment where the girl gang is just hanging out in the woods and laughing. One girl, Coumba (Esther Gohourou), finds a deflated condom on the ground. Not thinking anything of it, she blows it up like a balloon and the other girls freak out. They declare that their friend is now tainted, gross, and possibly exposed to AIDS. Coumba, who was the loudest and most outspoken joker among the group, is frozen in embarrassment. She didn’t know what it really was because she’s simply a child. She had no real conception, and now that reminder and the embarrassment and the hysteria from her friends is making her feel so small and humiliated. She’s desperate for her friends to excuse this misstep, to be accepted by her peer circle once again, and she meekly defends her ignorance. A single tear rolls down her cheek and this scene was a fitting reminder for me that the filmmakers have never forgotten that these girls, no matter how they dress and how they act, are still very much children. They talk about sex and porn but through an uninformed understanding of the larger meaning and context let alone sense of anatomical accuracy. It’s because they’re still children! This moment was further confirmation for me that the filmmakers had not forgotten that their subjects were to be presented thoughtfully. These 11-year-olds aren’t to be sexualized, just like teenagers shouldn’t be either, no matter how eager these young people are to jump ahead in maturity and be seen as desirous and incendiary.
3) The last scene of the movie involves the father’s wedding, a moment that mother and daughter have been dreading. Amy has run away from her dance team’s big show and made her choice, choosing to return to her family and as a support for her mother. She reminds Amy that she does not have to attend the wedding but Amy is determined to be there, knowing fully what it means for her mother and the larger implications for her family. Amy must decide what to wear for the festivity and stares down the traditional dress her Great Aunt had brought. Amy looks at her skimpy dance outfit, a guaranteed attention-seeking statement if she were to wear it to her father’s wedding ceremony. Instead, she chooses a middle path and simply wears a comfortable sweatshirt and some blue jeans. She rejects the restrictions of her family’s conservative culture, she rejects the extremes of the dance troupe, and she starts to form her own sense of self. She sidles into a game of jump rope and the camera pans up, and as the camera moves so too does Amy, locked into the camera shot, rising above the world, and she’s smiling so broad that her face seems to glow with happiness, a relief and joy she hasn’t felt in some time. By the end of this tale, our heroine has rebelled, overstepped, learned something about herself, and now seems a little surer of who she wants to be as a young woman charting her life in France. For me, this conclusion reaffirms the intentions of the filmmakers and commentary that those feelings of discomfort were on purpose.
With that being said, there were of course scenes that made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and I would question anyone who didn’t feel the same. The Cuties’ final dance is shockingly adult. Children should not be behaving in this manner but, and I again I stress this, that is the point of the movie. The audience at the dance competition does not approve of the tween twerking; they boo, they make disgusted faces, and one mother attempts to cover her baby’s eyes. “THIS IS TOTALLY NOT A GOOD THING,” Doucouré’s film is vociferously pronouncing. When the girls are simply dancing, her camera favors wide angles or framing that doesn’t ogle their bodies. Often dances will be seen as a whole or with shoulders-and-up framing. Whenever the girls film their dances, the camera adopts the intended lascivious emulation they seek, lingering more on butts in shorts and their attempt at sensual gazes they’ve adopted from Instagram influencers and aspiring models. It’s icky but it’s only a sampling compared to the in-your-face final dance performance. What I’m trying to articulate is that the portrayal of these young girls letting loose is more tasteful than the detractors have given Cuties credit for. I’ve seen scuzzy teen-centric movies (notably by Larry Clark) where the camera was continuously fetishizing its teenage subjects as a default setting. Cuties isn’t that until it really wants to grind its cautionary message into your horrified face as you try to shield your eyes.
I had a student ask why did it have to be 11-year-olds, why couldn’t the same message have been told through slightly older figures, maybe 15 or 16-year-olds, and I didn’t have an answer. Maybe because we’ve already seen “teens go bad” movies with 16 years-olds (Kids), or even presumably 13-year-olds (Thirteen), and maybe Doucouré felt she needed to go younger to be different, or push the envelope, or to grab attention from an increasingly blasé public. Maybe the filmmaker felt we needed to go to an age before puberty so it’s less a “becoming a woman” transition and more a constant of being acknowledged as a child. I cannot say. At its core, Cuties doesn’t have to be a story that is told from a particular age because it’s a formula that we’re familiar with and it embodies universal themes of acceptance, isolation, rebellion, and belonging. It’s a better movie than the alarmist defenders of childhood virtue claim (funny how these same defenders seem so quiet in supporting a president who literally bragged about spying on tween girls while they changed clothes, but that’s another discussion). I would also advise these same critics to look up how many season Toddlers and Tiaras ran for on TV. This is not the best movie. If you’ve seen enough teen movies you’ve likely seen this story already, but Cuties is a perfectly fine movie with enough artistic merit and social commentary to potentially make it worth sitting through the obvious discomfort. I can completely understand if any person would choose to pass on this movie but it would be better if more people actually gave it a chance before sharpening those pitchforks.
Nate’s Grade: B
It starts with an accusation from a child during a playdate. Natasha, the four-year-old daughter of Emily (Matilda Ridgway) and Danny (Mark Leonard Winter), has a very serious accusation against the older nine-year-old son of Bek (Geraldine Hakewill) and Joel (Tom Wren). They’re neighbors, friends, and both sides are certain they can work things out like agreeable adults. Danny and Emily feel only right to be upfront about the accusation and ask to send the son to counseling. Joel and Bek are wary of this getting into the news (Joel is a local politician) and want the allegation withdrawn. Natasha says it happened. The boys say it did not. Over the course of one very long day, writer/director Michael Betham will push both couples to the brink.
Disclosure (not to be confused with another 2020 movie by the exact same name) plays out for 80 minutes like a play, locking us in one location with four characters growing increasingly hostile to one another. It’s an uncomfortable movie because it traps you in that squirming discomfort of hard conversations and high-pressure tactics to relent or capitulate on ethics. It’s important that we never really know the full truth of what actually happened between the children. We have what four-year-old Natasha has said happened, we have the denials from the older boys, who are older but still children themselves, and we have two sets of parents trying to make sense of some pretty startling behavior. Bek is convinced her own children could never commit something so heinous, and therefore Natasha must be confused or lying. She argues the children were too young to understand what her account alleges. Emily is convinced because of her daughter’s youth that she must be telling the truth, because why else would she concoct this harmful account? Each gets dug in from their perspective and only becomes more hardline. Bek reveals a startling secret of her own, being a victim of sexual grooming and manipulation in her youth, and this confounds Emily even more, asking why Bek doesn’t then believe the word of the victim here? These discussions begin in a civil manner that begins at surface-level neighborly pleasantries, but once the central conflict emerges and the opposing resolutions are debated, you start to wonder whether you are watching people at their extremes or whether you are watching the characters as they really are at heart.
This is a patiently paced movie with every scene feeling like its own mini-movie or individual play, often a two-hander, and I was rapt with attention each time to see how the tension escalated. The couples think they can resolve matters, that they can convince the other side to the merits of their perspective and they can be persuaded to come over to their thinking. Naturally, this doesn’t happen. Given the seriousness of the alleged act, it brings out a ferocious defensive side, contemplating how far each member of each couple is willing to go to protect their children. It’s not like they get into a knife fight or anything that breaks the tonal reality of the scenario, but there is a clear moment where we have a divide between heroes and villains. That designation is a little flippant as nobody is portrayed in a strictly villainous manner; however, there are obvious moral missteps late in the movie that rely upon power plays and leverage. Bek and Joel have so much more immediate power between the couples and they’re not afraid to inflict it. They come over unannounced, catching Emily and Danny relaxing naked in their pool, vulnerable, embarrassed, and already discombobulated. Danny is eager to smooth things over and find a middle-ground because he loves his wife, and daughter naturally, but also because he doesn’t want to lose a prime career opportunity of working on a book with Joel. Eventually, the wealthier couple will use their wealth and influence to maximum pressure, even if they lament how much more they have to lose if the details of the allegation became public. For them, they have more at stake and Emily and Danny should be more reasonable and accommodating to their requests.
Eventually, there is a turning point where Disclosure goes from uncomfortably ambiguous to picking a side. A character clearly goes into the wrong, and at first you believe this transgression is to defend their child, but as it continues you begin to wonder whether or not it’s simply to “win” the argument and push aside a larger introspection over what this accusation personally means for this family. It made me loathe the character although it makes them more interesting and complicated. Ultimately, you will never know what happened with the children and the ending is somewhat unsatisfying because we end in a stalemate. I was genuinely hoping the movie would keep going for another 15-20 minutes to advance the plot and tensions further, but I understand the principle of Betham leaving on a point of disagreement and ruin and leaving the characters wanting. There are words and actions that will be highly unlikely to be taken back. They must deal with it all.
Thankfully, the performances are universally strong to match the intensity of the story. It’s the women that make the biggest impact. Hakewill (The Pretend One) begins with the impression of Bek being an entitled rich wife who is used to getting what she wants, and over the course of those fractious 80 minutes, she proves how much this is merely an act. In fact, her own troubled marriage and past are in conflict with this veneer. Hakewill has several moments of barely-veiled rage that can be chilling but also heartbreaking. Ridgway (Book Week) is the face that many viewers will adopt as their own, meaning her perspective of treating her daughter’s accusation as credible and demanding response. She feels betrayed by her supposed friends, ambushed and wounded, and that she needs to remind her own husband to support their side of the argument. Ridgway is terrific as she tries to process her righteousness and disappointment over how everything spins out of control. The husbands are able in supporting positions, especially Wren (Winners & Losers) who uses a chummy sense of empathy as a shield he’ll drop at a moment’s notice. Winter (Escape from Pretoria) has the least to do simply of the players because his character attempts to be the most active peacemaker in the group.
Disclosure could have serviced as a stage play and the adaption wouldn’t have been too challenging but I’m glad Betham made this for the medium of film. I’m glad I got to see the subtle expressions of great actors trying to keep their cool, trying to stomach their resentment, and trying to force their opposition to retreat. It’s a pugilistic match where each side is convinced that they’re in the right or, in the wake of contrary evidence, that they have enough worth fighting for to be declared the winners. Characters keep saying they just want to think “about the children” and what’s best for them, but nobody seems to be on the same page about what that means. This isn’t an easy film to watch and given the thin line of sexual violence versus sexual exploration, as well as the question of how old a child can recognize their actions, it made me quite uncomfortable throughout, but I was always intrigued with where it would go next. Disclosure is a small Australian film that is available for streaming rentals and while it’s not going to be the most fun 80-some minutes of your day, it will definitely make you think.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I never thought I would say these words but I am now reconsidering the artistic merits of the 50 Shades of Grey franchise, and that’s because 365 Days is an even more problematic and pathetic imitation of something that was already problematic and pathetic. The Netflix sensation is a Polish movie based on a trilogy of Polish books, and it’s been one of the most watched movies on the streaming service for months, all but guaranteeing that the remaining two novels by author Blanca Lipinski will find their way to the small screen in the near future. 365 Days is a gross distortion of romance and an uncomfortable watch for many reasons of taste and entertainment.
Massimo (Michele Morrone) is the son of a slain mafia boss. Laura (Anna Maria Sieklucka) is an ordinary woman in a bad relationship with a man who expresses little interest in her. One night, in Sicily, she’s kidnapped by Massimo and wakes up as a prisoner in his mansion. He’s been obsessed with her since he first saw her and is convinced that he can make Laura fall in love with him. He promises never to do anything against her will (as he literally gropes her that second) and that she will remain a captive for 365 days. If she doesn’t fall in love by then, he promises to let her go.
If you’re not troubled by that icky starting point for a modern romance, I worry about your concept of what consent means because this ain’t it. This is not the first story to use a brooding, dangerous, misunderstood man as its heartthrob, or a woman who despises a man before falling for him, nor is it even the first pseudo romance utilizing Stockholm syndrome. Laura even cites Beauty and the Beast by name. However, 365 Days seems inordinately confused about the simple concepts of consent and romance. Massimo is meant to seem gentlemanly when he says he’ll allow Laura to come to her own conclusions; he’s just so confidant in his charms. If that was simply the case, he wouldn’t need to kidnap and imprison her. He could try introducing himself and dating her. When her romantic desire is directly linked to her freedom, there is no real possibility for consent here. Laura attempts to run away at one point and inadvertently sees a mafia underling executed, which should motivate her more to flee or motivate Massimo even more to keep her locked up. It does neither. She never attempts escaping again even though she does leave the compound and runs into strangers. I suppose she accepts her captivity, though at one point she almost single-handedly instigates a war with a rival mafia family and that would have been an excellent act of rebellion. That would have been the more intriguing, feminist-friendly version. Instead we get the version where Laura bleaches her hair to appear more like Massimo’s blond ex-girlfriend. Commence heavy sighing.
Massimo isn’t some sad little puppy dog who needs love. He’s the head of a crime family, and the movie doesn’t present any potential softer side or moral code or vague introspection for the man. Sure, he kills a guy who was trafficking in children, but he seems to be nonchalant about trafficking adults. I was completely astonished that no redeeming qualities are ever presented for this dude (unless you count his bank account). He’s a creep. He’s awful. He’s got obvious anger and control issues. At one point, Laura starts wearing revealing lingerie and even stripping in front of him, all to tease him. It’s not so much an act of defiance and agency, and it only makes Massimo more agitated and aggressive. He grabs her forcefully and warns her not to “provoke me.” The implications are that he’s not responsible for his own actions because of her behavior. He tries to make Laura jealous but his actions are gross, like forcing her to watch another woman fellate him. He tries to charm her but his actions are gross, like his repeated use of the come-hither line, “Are you lost baby girl?” which is also the first thing he ever says to her face-to-face before kidnapping her. I shuddered every time he said it. The only selling points for this man are his physical looks (to me he looks like any disposable Euro trash villain in a Taken sequel) and his lavish lifestyle. The fantasy of living a life of privilege I suppose is enough for Laura, and fans of the movie and novels, to excuse the innumerable warning signs.
The bigger attention-grabber for this modestly budgeted foreign romance is the graphic sex. While not crossing over into un-simulated sex scenes, these uncomfortably long scenes cross more than a few lines. The first thing you’ll likely note is how aggressive Massimo comes across The very first sequence is inter-cut between Laura masturbating on her bed, to showcase her untapped passion from her bad boyfriend, and Massimo getting a blowjob from a stewardess who very much does not look to be enjoying herself. He is forcibly grabbing this poor woman’s head and repeatedly shoving it downward, enough to look to generate her tears. Again, I must stress, this is the first impression of sex we get from 365 Days. This behavior reappears when Massimo is trying to make Laura jealous through forced voyeurism. The sex scenes feel so drawn out that 365 Days does begin to feel like a high-gloss version of soft-core porn. The plotting is just as empty and careless as we fill time from one sexual act to another. Just because there’s a lot of thrusting and writhing bodies not make onscreen sex automatically erotic. You have to feel the heat, feel the passion of the characters being unleashed, but also have empathy for those coupling, and empathy is a hindrance for Massimo and Laura. This movie doesn’t even know how to do simple storytelling right. It should present some kink of Laura’s in Act 1, before she meets Massimo, to show she has a secret wild side, and then that’s the avenue that could have been accessed for her to peel away those inhibitions. Even that is sleazy but it’s better storytelling structure.
The ending of 365 Days also made me scream at the screen because of how disastrously incomplete it is. It’s not an ending but a cliffhanger and one that doesn’t even serve as a meaningful cliffhanger knowing there are two whole books left to adapt (366 Days?). I was baffled by the appeal of 365 Days, so I looked up the plot synopses of the other stories ahead and, dear reader, believe me when I say that it only gets worse and more outlandishly soap operish from here on out. We’re talking identical twin brothers, dead dogs shipped in the mail, and even more trashy love affairs.
365 Days is two hours of rearing back in your seat wincing and groaning. While the cinematography is lush and the locations in Italy are idyllic, there is nothing sexy about this movie whatsoever. That’s because it’s built on a reprehensibly flawed premise of romance that doesn’t remotely understand consent. At no point does Laura really have an actual choice here. She is a prisoner who falls in love (or so she says) with her abuser. The fundamental draw of an onscreen romance, the desire to see people together, is absent with this twisted power dynamic. I want to see Laura escape, not twirl around with a shopping bag and dressing up for her man. This should have been a completely foreign-language production because when the foreign actors speak in English, they already sound disjointed, affect-less, like they’re victims of a bad dub. When they speak in their natural languages, it’s remarkably night and day. This is bad. All the way bad. Please don’t even spend one solitary day of your life, even during a pandemic, on 365 Days.
Nate’s Grade: D
What better time to Netflix and chill than when the state is demanding it? I recently watched The Platform, a Spanish sci-fi flick steeped in mystery and metaphor. Get ready for what could be dubbed “a vertical Snowpiercer.”
Goreng (Ivan Massague) wakes up in what looks like an endless stone tenement building. There are two people per floor and a large hole in the middle of the room. The food arrives via a descending platform that begins as a feast. Each floor has two minutes to eat, cannot hoard any food, and will have to subsist off what those above them left behind. Goreng’s floormate, Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) is one month away from being released from his time. He also might be losing his mind and definitely resorted to cannibalism before. Goreng has to decide what lines he’s willing to cross in order to survive and also to protect others.
The metaphors for The Platform are very heavy-handed and obvious but that doesn’t mean they aren’t effective in their blunt force. It’s a literal dystopian tower of human beings with the lower floors eating off the spoils of those residing above them. There’s only so much to go around but charity isn’t on the mind of too many of the residents. Better to feed when you get an opportunity than worry about who comes after you. Goreng asks about trying to talk to the neighbors above and below and this notion is scoffed at by his floormate. The people above will not talk to them because, simply, they are beneath them. The ones below Goreng and Trimagasi? Who cares, they’re beneath and thus inferior. Trimagasi takes a wine bottle and smashes it rather than let the men below him have it. Why perform this spiteful action? “It’s what’s been done to me,” he says without irony. I’m reminded of the reticence some have about easing student debt and other penalties; “I had to suffer, so why should these people not have to suffer the same?” The disregard seems to fluctuate depending upon how close one becomes to the prized top floor. Every month the inhabitants will randomly change floors, so someone who was closer to the top must now reconcile with being lower, and the food only goes so many floors before it’s picked clean. This perspective of being on the bottom doesn’t so much alter behavior as engenders a ravenous sense of “get what you can when able” to pervade. The people so many floors down will simply never even be granted the opportunity to eat unless those above change their consumption habits and sense of empathy. Nobody even knows how far down the floors go. 150? 250? More? Where is the proverbial bottom?
The story is kept in a vague explanation but that doesn’t stop the fun. We enter with Goreng and learn as he does what this place does to its people. He learns the rules of this new reality which is part dystopian prison, part game, part experiment. The stated utility of such a place is rather hard to fathom, so it’s best that screenwriters David Desola and Pedro Rivero keep the action confined to simply exploring the world within the vertical structure. There are a handful of flashbacks showing the interview process to enter the facility (Trimagasi is shocked to learn his floormate volunteered to enter such a place) but they are brief and could have been excised. This is one of those sci-fi conceits like Cube where the location is the story and simply learning more about how the day-to-day operates, its rules of functioning, its punishments, and the dangers is where the real draw of the story comes from. With the monthly reallocation, the movie keeps things interesting by dramatically changing Goreng’s standing. Just as it feels like he’s understanding his surroundings, they change, and force him into a new dilemma. When he’s stuck on a far lower floor one month, will he resort to cannibalism to survive? When he’s high above, will he use his fleeting power to enforce some social justice on the floors below, ensuring that lower floors get an opportunity to dine by rationing the food? Each new placement keeps things interesting and challenging for our protagonist, which is what good sci-fi should do.
Because of its general vague nature, The Platform relies more upon the strength of its ideas, metaphors, and discovery than on its structure for answers. There really isn’t an ending here. There is an end but it’s more symbolic and implicit than definitive, which makes sense considering that the preceding 94 minutes is running off metaphor and mystery primarily. The last act becomes either a foolish or brave attempt to make a difference despite the unique conditions of the location. The characters have theories and rumors, as well as a nagging suspicion that something has gone wrong from the original design, but they don’t know like the rest of the audience whether or not change is even possible from above. The ending is pretty open-ended and left to interpretation whether or not this attempt would even be recognized. Do the people who engineered this whole experiment/prison really care? It can spark discussion with friends but it’s also a development that might leave as many viewers unsatisfied by the lack of substantial answers or anything that can be viewed as definitive. Much like Cube, the space just carries on with more bodies and that invites sequel potential as well as a feeling of inertia that could also frustrate.
It’s a very limited space to work with but director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia has style to spare. The general claustrophobic setting is played to fine effect but the bizarre touches are what makes the movie feel almost like it was ripped from the world of anime. The floating table, so affectionately adorned with fine foods and platters, is such a startling central image. The red-light late-nights conditioned me to be on edge because of the danger of the flying platform returning. The gore is sporadic but very effective at ratcheting up the suspense or horror. There’s also the subtle visual comedy of discovering as we travel from floor-to-floor the personal items each inhabitant has brought with them for their extended stay. I loved the absurd nature of some of them, like a surfboard or a child’s inflatable pool. Why would people bring these items?
I’m glad Netflix is able to bring small, strange, foreign movies like The Platform to, arguably, the biggest audience platform in the world. It’s an easy movie to plug into because there is much to unpack and learn. I was never bored throughout its brisk 94 minutes. Even as the movie’s metaphors are heavy-handed, the movie doesn’t become so in execution. It’s operating on a pure level of discovery and rejecting the status quo. There is plenty of room to score easy connections with its thematic interpretations but the movie still just works even as a collection of vignettes in a very strange setting. It’s not in the same level of ambition as Snowpiercer but I’d place it on par with the byzantine Cube series. The Platform is an enjoyable movie that may not be rich in much than its themes and mystery, but during our national time of need, 94 minutes of well-executed weird can be just enough to satisfy the soul.
Nate’s Grade: B
I can’t help but feel that France made a mistake when they selected their official entry for the 2019 Oscars. Les Miserables is a perfectly fine, if not good, cop thriller with a social urgency bubbling under the surface to provide added depth, but it’s no Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which was sumptuous and one of the best films of the year. Regardless, this movie follows a new officer on his first day transferred to his new unit in the ghettos of Paris where his experienced partners have harassed the mostly Muslim immigrants to the point of simmering community resentment. Then, in the middle of a pitched crowd of kids fighting the officers, an accident happens, the incident is recorded via a drone camera, and different factions are racing to get a hold of that footage and its inherent leverage. Les Miserables has a docu-drama cinema verite visual approach and plenty of authenticity in its details of beat cops, a minority community under surveillance and mistrust, and the corrupting influence of power. It’s an efficiently made thriller with some potent drama. However, it takes way too long to get going. That drone incident doesn’t happen until an hour into the running time, beyond the halfway point. Until then it’s setting up the various characters and grievances and starting to test our new transfer with how comfortable he will be accepting the borderline behavior of his fellow officers. I really felt like once the drone incident hit the rest of the movie would be off like a shot, a race to the finish, and it’s just not. It concludes too quickly and then introduces a revenge assault that made me yell loudly, and profanely, at my TV when it faded to black without any legitimate ending. I think writer/director Ladj Ly is going for the ambiguity of whether or not these characters are in their “corrupt” and “lost” boxes that society has forced them into, whether they will have their humanity stripped away to become another statistic in an ongoing struggle, but I don’t think a non-ending helps his cause. It makes the movie, already feeling misshapen in structure, feel incomplete. Ending on a quote by Victor Hugo is not the same. Les Miserables is a finely made thriller but at least Hugo’s version had an actual ending.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I recently watched two movies this holiday season that could not be any more opposite, so naturally I decided to pair them together as a joint review. 6 Underground is a chaotic and bombastic action-thriller that cost $150 million dollars, is directed by maestro of the machismo Michael Bay, and is widely available for streaming through Netflix and its bottomless pit of money. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a small, subtle French film depicting a reserved love story that takes its sweet time and is as much a repudiation on how women are commonly portrayed in art. One of these two movies is an obnoxiously arduous enterprise that many have dubbed represents the worst in movies, and the other is a hard-to-find foreign indie that is one of the best films you will see in 2019. Two very different uses of cinema, and I’ll let you decide which is which by the end of this double review, dear reader.
The mastermind of the special forces team of “ghosts” is billionaire inventor “One” (Ryan Reynolds). He’s assembled a team of specialists that have faked their own deaths to work as an elite team taking out an elite array of bad guys, tyrants, and war criminals. That’s the plot of 6 Underground. What follows is a collection of loud noises, colorful explosions, blood splatter, and mainlined madness pumping through all of your demolished senses.
6 Underground is like a direct pipeline into Michel Bay’s childhood brain. It’s Bay at his most unfiltered, which means that the tone isn’t just over-the-top, it destroys the top, establishes a new higher top, and then obliterates that designation as well. Watching the movie is like a descent into juvenile hysteria and I couldn’t help laughing at the excess. It’s the kind of action movie where cars don’t just fly and career off the road, they split in two and smash just so the driver’s dead body plops out in the camera angle. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guys don’t just get shot but get shot in lovingly disgusting ways, like a bullet going through a cigar and a pimple-popping setup leading to brain explosions. It’s the kind of movie where a dangling eyeball is played for giggles. It’s the kind of movie where people aren’t just getting hit by cars, they’re getting propelled into other objects from the blunt force. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guy names his generals The Four Horsemen. It’s the kind of movie where a character removes a bullet-proof helmet right before re-entering a firefight for… reasons. It’s the kind of movie with 100 needle-drop music selections, including, by my count, five Muse songs (but not one use of the Sneakerpimp’s “6 Underground,” which is an egregious oversight). It’s the kind of movie where someone unleashes a crashing crate full of metal poles and they launch like heat-seeking projectiles, filleting bad guys and bad guy cars. The opening twenty minutes is a non-stop car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy that must lead to billions in damages and, in one moment that screamed the only self-aware flash in the entire two-plus hours, the cars are racing through museums and laying waste to precious works of art. It’s like Bay is winking at his critics and saying, “This is how you see me, a gleeful provocateur that destroys the very concept of high art, so here I am, doing it for real.” To say this movie is crazy is a disservice to the word itself.
6 Underground is pure, testosterone-pumping id, and it can become exhausting without any foundation to hold it all together. The plot is extremely generic and fees like a relic from the 1990s, a billionaire assembling an elite team of criminals/killers/spies to go undercover and take out the world’s bad guys. They’re “ghosts” in the fact that they’ve faked their deaths, but what exactly is gained from this process beyond, say, going off the grid? The idea of them being dead is meant to be freeing, but their friends and family are still living and can be used to apply pressure on these still-living people. Except this never happens. The plotting is incredibly sloppy and elects to skip around in time in a misplaced attempt to seem cool. The entire opening twenty minutes feels like it’s one-upping itself out of naked fear that somehow an audience will be bored, like the viewer is somehow building a tolerance to the mayhem and will walk away unless it just keeps going up up up. The opening sequence has a florescent green sports car spinning through the streets, chased by armed vehicles, while bullet-removal surgery is being performed in the backseat, while an eyeball is being dangled to open a security code, while the narrative jumps back and forth in time to present whose eyeball this belongs to and what happened, and that’s even before the art museum smash-up and a slow-mo spin that twirls into absurd self-parody, where someone screams not to hit a woman with a baby, which we narrowly miss, followed by someone screaming not to hit a dog, which we next narrowly miss. Then there’s nuns on bicycles knocked onto the ground who respond with raised middle fingers. It’s so much, all the time, with Bay’s hyper edits and swirling camerawork that you feel beaten down. It’s all the outrageous spectacle we’ve seen in other Bay films but now it’s condensed to its essence and splashed into your eyeballs.
There aren’t so much characters in this movie but action movie avatars or, even simpler, Person-Shaped Entities Who Hold Guns or Drive Fast. Reynolds is playing the same variation we’ve seen for the last few years since his success in Deadpool, which makes me think this is the only Ryan Reynolds we’ll be getting in movies from now on. The plot even provides completely frivolous flashbacks to provide answers to the non-burning question of how the crew was gathered together. I suppose it’s an excuse to squeeze in more action sequences but that only ever happens with the parkour Brit member. Speaking of which, the parkour action sequences are, by far, the best parts of this movie and it made me wonder what a parkour action movie under Bay’s command could be like. Every character has three modes: Badass, Quippy, and, least convincing, Self-Serious. These are not recognizable people, and the female characters are even less versions of not-people. The movie thinks it’s being cool by assigning code names that are just numbers, like they won’t get close to one another without the convenience of names. It’s just another sign of how disposable every character is and how little thought was given to character arcs beyond redemption. There’s one mission in Hong Kong that utilizes them as a team but even that is fleeting as far as developing a more cohesive camaraderie. They’re basically like distaff superheroes that have been forcibly crossed over for some special event and are waiting to return home for solo adventures. You could create a sequel with a brand-new team and not miss a beat.
Is any of this bombastic silliness genuinely entertaining? Much of Bay’s popular works exist in that strange space where you willingly shut off your brain for the popcorn thrills. I like half of the Transformers movies (though quite dislike the other half) and think Pain and Gain showed real promise, before it wore out its welcome, that Bay hasn’t been able to better tap into. I’m not an automatic hater of Michael Bay as a filmmaker; he’s a born cineaste when it comes to style. Even when his movies are running off the rails, they’re never truly boring. With the unlimited freedom of Netflix, Bay was able to unleash his full chaotic imagination, and the results can prove to be entertaining in spurts. I found more bafflement just trying to process everything. Bay’s advertising instincts are part of his style, so every over-saturated moment of 6 Underground looks like it could be a commercial for the military, cars, perfume, or some expensive watch. It’s a world of wanton excess and disposable thrills, and that relates to its portrayal of women too. Women become another interchangeable object to be fetishized and commoditized by Bay’s roving camera. It’s the male gaze cranked up on high, lovingly depicting fast cars, sexy women, and human carnage. Even the brains and blood being blown apart feel fetishized (bad guys don’t just get shot; they ooze goop for several seconds from gory head wounds). It’s a movie that wants to overpower you by every means available, with the excessive trivialities of action movies, with aggressive style that desperately wants to be seen as cool, and with its exaggerated concepts of hyper masculinity.
At the complete other end of the movie spectrum is France’s gentle, understated period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 1760 on a remote island, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) for the purpose of snagging her a husband. Heloise had been planning to become a nun but her family pulled her from the convent once she became their only living daughter, a.k.a. hope for the family to secure prosperity through marriage. Marianne must hide her true intentions and grow close to her subject, memorizing her face enough to paint it in secret. An intimacy builds between the two women that will change both of their lives even long after the fateful painting is finished (spoilers?).
Writer/director Celine Sciamma has primarily worked with contemporary stories (Girlhood, Tomboy, Water Lilies) but, in stepping back in time, she has tapped into something elementally beautiful and poignant. It is very much a slow-burn of a movie but, in essence, that is the most relatable form of love, a feeling that builds, transforms, and can eventually consume. There’s a liberation for the characters in the time they share together, first as companions and then as lovers. This is a transitory time, one locked in isolation and free from men, though the presence of the patriarchy is unavoidable as it limits their life choices. For Heloise, she had no desire to become someone’s wife and then it was no longer her choice. Her greatest value lies in marriage, and a portrait during this era was essentially someone’s dating profile picture. It’s on Marianne to paint an accurate depiction that can ensnare this woman a husband, which gets even more complicated when Marianne falls for her. The movie tenderly moves along with guarded caution, as two women explore their feelings for one another in a time that didn’t care about their feelings. This is a love story that feels alive but also realistic in how it forms and develops. It’s about halfway through the movie before the ladies finally make their intentions known. I can understand why this might be too slow for many viewers but the movie never came across as dull for me, and it’s because I was so drawn into this world, these characters, and their yearnings being unleashed.
When it comes to movies exemplifying the difference in the female gaze, allow Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be one of the prime examples. This is miles away from the crass objectification featured in the likes of Michael Bay’s oeuvre and his very explicit definition of sexy. This is a movie where the only nudity casually happens after the sex (and body hair isn’t a big deal). There’s more ASMR action for the senses (lots of loud lip-smacking sound design) than ogling naked bodies. The emphasis isn’t on the contours of lithe feminine forms but more on the emotional and physical impact of a person as a whole. There’s one scene that is tremendously affecting and quite sexy, and it begins with the painter telling her subject every small physical response she has studied while painting her. It’s little observations that are romantically relayed. The subject then turns around and says, “Who do you think I’ve been looking at as I’ve posed for hours?” and proceeds to unfurl her own richly earned romantic observations about her painter’s physical responses. It’s such a wonderful scene bristling with palpable sexual tension and infatuation, so much more being said in glances than in declarative speeches. The movie also opens up a larger discussion of the male gaze as it pertains to the world of art. They must play into the established conventions driven by a rigid patriarchy designating how women are best represented in media, and the implications to modern cinematic portraits are clearly felt. Funny enough, Heloise is chastised for not smiling enough in her portraits to woo a worthwhile suitor.
I assumed this love story wasn’t going to have a happy ending given the confines of its era, but I want every reader to know that Portrait of a Lady on Fire just absolutely crushes its ending. You may expect it coming, in a general sense, but the resolution to this love story floored me. There are two consecutive scenes that each elicit different emotions. The first is a winsome feeling of being remembered, of having a sense of permanence after the fact, of a moment in time that will long be fondly recalled and celebrated for its fleeting perfection and lifelong significance. Then the next scene involves a payoff of great empathy that almost brought tears to my eyes. It delivers a long-desired payoff to a character’s lifelong request, and the camera simply holds for over a minute while we watch the indescribable impression this woman is experiencing. It’s so joyous, so heartfelt, and so luxuriously earned that I felt like my heart was going to burst. The fact that both of these emotional conclusions happen without a single word being uttered is even more impressive.
The acting from the leads is phenomenal and the nuances they navigate are so precise and subtle. This isn’t a movie about grand gestures and big dialogue exchanges. It’s a romance in that genteel fashion of furtive movements and words encased in subtext. We’ve seen this kind of restrained love story before in other period pieces, as well as gay cinema with its socially forbidden love. The intimacy between these two women must start slow and, like a fire, be given the right amount of oxygen to allow it to spread. There’s an understandable bitterness that this love will not be allowed but this cannot abate the desire to proceed anyway. These women are more than just tragic figures coming into one another’s orbit. They’re fleshed-out and multi-dimensional characters with their own goals and imperfections. They feel like real people, and while disappointed by their limitations within a patriarchy, they will continue to pursue their personal dreams. The portrayal is so empathetic that your heart can’t help but ache when it isn’t swooning from the sumptuously understated romance of it all.
6 Underground is a hyper-edited, hyper-masculine, and hyper-tiresome action vehicle that exhibits every unchecked impulse of Bay as a filmmaker. The plot is inconsequential because it’s all just gristle for action sequences, which aren’t even developed scenarios as they are (occasionally literal) eye-popping moments of excess. Someone in those Netflix suites really should have second-guessed giving Bay a blank check and little-to-no supervision. At the other end of the movie spectrum is an intimately felt and intimately developed forbidden love that feels natural, nuanced, and enormously engaging. It reminds us that movies only need compelling characters or a compelling scenario to grab us good. I’m fairly certain Bay’s music licensing budget was more than this French indie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t a revolutionary movie. We’ve seen variations on this story before, but what makes it unmissable is the degree of feeling and artistry crammed into every breathable moment. I know there’s an ample audience that will enjoy 6 Underground, especially with its wider availability, and that’s fine. Netflix paid a pretty penny betting there are enough people looking for the film equivalent of a drunken, disheveled one-night stand. If you’re looking for something more authentic, deeply felt, and, let’s face it, generous to women, then look for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful indie romance that warmed my heart, broke it, and then fastened it back together.
6 Underground: C-
Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A
I honestly have no idea who could enjoy Climax. I have watched dozens of movies where I knew it wasn’t for me but I could at least fathom some appeal to a select viewer. Climax is the rare film where I cannot even fathom any person enjoying it, because to even attempt to enjoy it on its fever dream level it purports would only lead to disappointment. I don’t think it’s even possible to enjoy this movie, and maybe that’s even some subversive point from writer/director Gaspar Noe. Is the very act of titling a movie called Climax with no climax itself a post-modern jape? Is that it? I’m confounded by this monotonous experimental triviality.
The plot: a Parisian group of dancers is practicing in an old school building one 1990s wintry night. One of the members spikes a bowl of sangria with LSD. The dancers unwittingly get high, freak out, and lash out, leading to one long sordid night of tumult. That’s it, folks.
Firstly, Climax is incredibly, unbearably, crushingly tedious. It’s 97 minutes that could literally be condensed into a music video for a three-minute song as far as substance is concerned. Apparently Noe was working off of a five-page script (note to readers: typically, in screenwriting terms, one page equals one minute of movie), so it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of this movie feels empty. The first six minutes or so are watching boring interviews of the various dance troupe members answering mundane questions. It’s still difficult to attach impressionable personalities or points of distinction for them beyond the superficial (Tall Blonde, Girl with Glasses, etc.). After that it’s an extended dance sequence, then about twenty minutes of chit chat where the dancers are improvising, and then we have another extended group dance, and then we get to the fateful spiked punch. What I’ve just described is the first 45 minutes of the movie, also known as half of the film, and it could have all been removed without missing a beat. That’s a serious storytelling problem. Oh, I hear others preparing the defense, the movie is intended to be an experience and not a story. If that’s the case I need more of an experience. Noe described the first half of Climax as a “roller coaster” but it feels more like the long wait in line and then the brief five minutes of actual activity. Even the opening dance sequence, while energetic, is less than extraordinary. It’s not exactly a sequence that would wow me any more than a deleted scene from a direct-to-DVD Step Up sequel.
Climax fatally errs by, of all things, restraint. I could accept the slow buildup, the tedium, and even the paper-thin characters if, and that’s a big if, Noe was able to pull out all the stops with his freak-out finale and just went bonkers. However, it’s not quite the same when we don’t also experience the hallucinations and madness befalling our dancers. Instead we watch them pace around and scream, cry, sometimes writhe, sometimes fall down, sometimes fall down and writhe, sometimes fall down and writhe and cry, and that’s about the extent. It can be downright embarrassing to watch especially as Noe’s penchant for tracking shots makes the performance takes so agonizingly long. There are brief moments of unpredictability where the dancers become violent and paranoid, but these are fleeting and we’re back to watching people we don’t care about scream about imaginary things. Imagine if Noe let the audience in on these personal, psychedelic, and monstrous drug trips. Imagine how much more visually alive that would be and also how much more it would connect us with the characters, perhaps linking their hallucinations to personal traumas and anxieties. I’ve had friends discuss going along for the ride with Climax, but what ride does it even offer? The final ten minutes consists of a confusing upside-down camera angle, a scathing red light, and more antic writhing on the floor with the occasional sexual copulation. At that point, I had long lost any interest to even attempt to decipher the screen.
None of these characters matter, so I kept waiting for the eventual bad fates to fall upon them as the movie ramped into its horror section but Climax doesn’t even do this. I was expecting things to get progressively worse and take on a tragic momentum of escalating mistakes. I was expecting something and all I got was an extended music video where the extras had taken over, trying to convince me that their little spheres of drama were worth following (there were not). The little moments of conversation between the characters feel like you’re eavesdropping on normal, ordinary, and boring people but also people without clear indication for character arcs, ironic reversals, or any of the sort of contexts that can make people interesting in narratives. There’s just no potential here for the characters and nothing that amounts to satisfaction (oh the ongoing irony of its title, I know). Here’s how bad Noe miscalculates: at the very end, we discover which character was responsible for spiking the sangria, and it’s treated like a big reveal, except this was never an important mystery and I didn’t even recognize the culprit. It didn’t matter because the mystery never mattered and the characters especially never mattered.
Noe has been a cinematic provocateur ever since his first film, 2002’s Irreversible, began with a grueling, graphic nine-minute rape scene. He seems more drawn to pushing button so he might devote an entire movie to a floating spiritual perspective (Into the Void) or shoot a love story with un-simulated sex including graphic 3D use of said parts (Love). He’s not exactly the kind of man who wants to tell a simple story in a simple way (though I would argue a majority of his stories are pretty simple). So, if it’s all about technical bravura and showmanship and pushing the envelope, then let the man be judged on those grounds, and he is found wanting with Climax. The long swooping camerawork can be impressive as it tracks all over the confines of this building but the positives are weighed down by the banality of the visuals. Far too much of this movie is simply following people walk down corridors. There aren’t key, striking visuals to sear into your memory and it feels like Noe’s heart just isn’t in this. There’s one scene where a dancer, goaded by an angry and accusatory crowd, starts stabbing herself in the face. I was expecting something far more graphic or bloody or consequential, but it’s like a shrug. It feels like he’s even bored by the assignment of directing his own movie and just keeping the camera running so he can cross the 90-minute finish line and call it over.
I come back again and again to the question of how it is even possible to enjoy Climax. I think, even if you were to be overly generous, Noe’s film just cannot measure up on any artistic or entertainment metric. If you’re eager for a crazy, trippy, immersive drug-fueled experience, get ready for something more akin to standing by and holding the hair of your friend while they vomit into a toilet.
Nate’s Grade: D
Parasite is the latest from award-winning South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host, Okja) and it won the prestigious Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. The filmmaker has never settled down in any genre and often goes for broke when it comes to embracing whatever genre he is dabbling in and then subverting, accelerating, and broadening that territory to show an audience what a master can do with these storytelling parameters. No movie under Bong Joon-ho’s guidance is ever limited by its genre. Needless to say, I’ve been highly anticipating Parasite, even more so since the critics started bandying about terms like “masterpiece.” Simply put, Parasite is a miraculous movie.
We follow the Kim family who live in a scummy basement apartment on a filthy street known for public urination. They scam free wi-fi off their neighbor and badly fold pizza boxes for little money. They’re barely hanging by on the outer edges of society when opportunity comes knocking. A rich family, the Parks, is in need of a new English tutor for their teenage daughter, and Ki-woo Kim (Choi Woo-sik) has the connection. He will pose as a college-educated English teacher, recommended from his friend, the departing tutor. He gets the job and sees further opportunity, eventually scheming to get each member of his family hired; sister Ki-jung Kim (Park So-dam) as an art therapist for the Park’s troubled son, father Ki-taek Kim (Song Kang-ho) as the personal driver to the family, and mother Shung-sook Kim (Jang Hye-jin) as the housekeeper and personal assistant for the family. The Kim family gains further leverage as they worm their way inside this house, but there are secrets that will force them to readjust how far they are willing to go to service this bourgeois family and keep their good lies rolling.
Parasite just unfurls with such natural ease, building and developing outward, building its characters, their problems and deceptions, and then, like that, it effortlessly turns gears toward another tone, and you weren’t even aware it was happening until after the fact. Bong Joon-ho’s film is so exact and impeccable and calculated that the pieces are move in tandem like a well-oiled machine. The synchronicity is so amazing that I often had to acknowledge how effectively the movie had surprised or satisfied me. There isn’t a wasted moment in the 130 minutes here, which begins as a fun con game between one family of shady grifters working their way inside a rich family’s trust. From there, the movie gets even darker, more mysterious, outlandish, and even more mournful and delightful. There are moments of slapstick comedy that had me howling, divine sequences of tension that felt ready to explode, and regular emotional punches to the system that reminded you that despite everything these are still people capable of great suffering and great feeling. Parasite is a rare movie that works on near every level, each facet of filmmaking operating at such precision that it blends together to create a masterwork of tone and tenor that is universally accessible, brimming with menace and glee.
There’s a simple pleasure to be had watching a con artist at play, so there’s even more amusement when we’re watching a family of con artists all spinning lies in tandem. The process of escalation is so clean and believable in the world’s universe, with the first family member using their position of influence to manipulative the family into hiring the next family member, even if that means scheming to get rid of the Park family servant already occupying that desired position. The Park family matriarch is all about personal recommendations and using a tight circle of trust; however, the Kim family exploits the obvious loophole of what if the initial link in that chain is untrustworthy him or herself? Initially I thought the movie was going to be watching this one family worm their way into the lives of the rich and powerful and take over, and while that is true to a certain extent, the movie is thankfully even more than that. Still, the con aspect alone is highly entertaining and so naturally plotted, with each new addition feeling organic from the last. There are natural complications that provide new challenges for the family of con artists to maintain their shifting covers and having to think on their feet, and there isn’t a moment relating to these antics where Parasite is not completely compelling and darkly funny even as it veers into extremes.
If you’re thinking that the Kim family is the obvious target of the movie’s parasitic titular allusion, slow down, my friend. While the Kim family is more obvious about their deceptions, the Park family too is filled with the deception of civility, kindness, and graciousness. At first, we laugh at them because of a general naivete that allows the Kims to flourish. As the Kims successfully roust different servants, they are routinely dismissed without much thought. Some of these people have been with the family for years and otherwise have spotless records, but all it takes is one whiff of impropriety and the Parks are already scrambling to cut them loose, usually very unceremoniously and immediately, with the misplaced idea that this will somehow be the “nice” and “respectful” way of handling a dismissal. They’re so quick to turn on people they feel are disloyal or incompetent, but really, it’s the disloyal aspect, that they can be manipulated so easily by the Kim family’s suggestions and assertions. Never once do Mr. and Mrs. Park ask for their servants’ side of the story; they accept the accusations with minimal evidence are gung-ho about removing their formally trusted help as if they have been waiting for these moments.
The movie becomes a parable of exploitation and the consequences of avarice, and I’m going to do my best to dance around some significant spoilers that reshape the film in its second half. At one point the Kims have all made themselves at home in the luxury of the Park estate while the family is away on a camping trip. It’s carefree wish fulfillment, lapping in the excess, and then over a drunken family dinner, Mrs. Kim says that if she had this kind of money that she would be as nice as Mrs. Park (appears). For her, money is like an iron and irons out all the problems of life, and as a family that has constantly been hustling for their next dollar, to be free of cares and worries would be the ultimate luxury. However, there is naturally more to this estate and the Park family, and the movie takes some dark turns into a battle over status and how far people will go to protect what they feel belongs to them. This is acted out in very personal ways and also in larger metaphorical waves, which adds to the overall class warfare satire. What starts off as a spiky little con comedy becomes something deeper and more challenging, expanding its targets to indict everyone jockeying for position in a system that seems corrupted to a fault.
Even as the Kim family is scheming and conniving, there are still moments that remind you that they aren’t these smooth, amoral con men of the movies and are real human beings with real feelings and real insecurities. There’s one moment Mr. Kim overhears his boss casually talking about him, and it’s very complimentary except for one admission. Apparently, Mr. Kim has an odor to him that the rich man finds to be rather unpleasant (he describes it like an old radish). No matter the suits he puts on, no matter the politeness and charm he manifests, no matter his skills when it comes to being a dutiful driver, no matter the gaps that Mr. Kim feels he is surpassing, there will always be something innate to him that stops him from being accepted and integrated in this cherished, cordoned-off land of the rich. His very smell is offensive to the noses of the rich, and this is something so personal, so nasty, that it genuinely wounds the man and we feel for him. Bong Joon-ho asks his audience to embrace all sorts of uncomfortable positions, taking characters you found despicable and asking to see them as real human beings capable of great loss and shame. It stops the movie from feeling like it’s treading into cartoon territory even as its violence and physical comedy ramps up in the second half. It never loses a sense of its soul.
Ki-woo Kim asks his father, after several setbacks, what their plan is next, how they will persevere against the latest setback. Mr. Kim answers that his trick is to never have a plan, because plans will inevitably fail. This is a nice character moment but also an insight into a perspective that leads to what I would argue is the emotional climax of the movie, where Ki-woo pledges to save someone through an elaborate and years-in-the-making plan. In that moment, is he rejecting his father’s philosophy and driving forward on what will be at minimum years of hard work to reach his goal, which is motivated through reclamation and salvation rather than personal gain? Or is the very fact that he is committing such an elaborate plan an act of folly he knows will never materialize because that is the nature of plans? I love that the film leaves you, the viewer, to determine whether this assertion is optimistic or pessimistic and how that paints the film’s message.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is another showcase of how Bong Joon-ho is brilliant at visually communicating his wonderful stories. The editing is so tightly precise to maximize tension and comedy, and sometimes both simultaneously. The photography is gorgeously composed with the use of space in the frame excellently communicating character relationships. The geography of the home is nicely utilized to ratchet up the tension of escaping around corners and hiding around furniture. There are moments that just made me want to applaud the filmmakers for their top-level craft.
Parasite is an effortlessly impressive movie that blends tones, insights, and entertainment to create one of the more unique and pleasing film experiences of the year. Bong Joon-ho once again shown himself to be a masterclass filmmaker who can tackle just about any subject and any genre and make it sing. I’d advise to avoid specific spoilers to maintain the surprise factor; however, this movie is so well executed, so astonishingly developed with precision and attention given to each of the characters and their individual whims and problems, that even knowing every single plot beat in this movie will not diminish the enjoyment factor. That’s because Parasite is a rare movie that is so sumptuously put together, so seamlessly calibrated, that to watch the movie is to simply sit in awe of how talented the filmmakers are at weaving their tale. Parasite is definitely one of the best films of 2019 and worth tracking down where able.
Nate’s Grade: A
I’ve been waiting years to finally see Uwe Boll’s take on the Holocaust. It was originally filmed around 2010 but never got a home release, making me scan the Internet for a chance to see a German movie that nobody in the world seemed to want to see. I’m not surprised it took almost eight years to finally see this movie, which was widely available on YouTube in its entirety, uncut, for over a year. If you’re curious, dear reader, you can easily see it for yourself, though I might caution you against that. It is, after all, the harsh reality of the Holocaust, and it is, after all, Uwe Boll, a filmmaker not exactly known for subtlety and tact in his career. I was worried that Boll’s Auschwitz (even that phrasing seems unduly unkind) would be a disservice to the men, women, and children who perished in that horrible atrocity. I’m relieved that Boll seems to have his mind on higher ambitions than exploitation, though I don’t know how well the academic intent translates.
It’s less a movie and more of an educational special on the practices of a concentration camp and the mentality of the people sentencing others to their doom. The opening four minutes consist of Boll speaking directly to the camera, switching off talking in German and then English three times, setting up his rationale for why he would tackle a filmed recreation of an Auschwitz gas chamber. He says that young people today do not know about the Holocaust and the concentration camps and are in need of a powerful reminder (more on this later). What then follows is about six minutes of Boll interviewing various German teenagers over what they know about Hitler, WWII, the Holocaust, and the systematic eradication of European Jews. After that, Boll’s film goes into a 35-minute live-action recreation of life at a concentration camp, leading dozens of people to their deaths in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. After that, Boll returns to his interviews with real German teens, interspersed with archival footage from WWII. That’s the whole movie, amounting to a little over 68 minutes long, not meeting the typical minimum.
As someone who has worked in education for ten years now, I can reaffirm that a distressing number of young people have a general ignorance about the Holocaust. I suppose part of this is inevitable with the passage of time; the more years pass the less people can get to know survivors and veterans of the war. As it recedes into the past it becomes less pertinent and in some ways less real for many people. This is the reason why I personally include Holocaust texts in my school curriculum to check the knowledge level of students and build upon it, to make sure something this dastardly would not be forgotten. The early interviews Boll conducts (in what appears to be a bathroom?) appear to have a slippery sense of what the Holocaust was about as well as the cruel realities that befell those Hitler found as sub-human. But the latter interviews involve different students who have an amazing command of the Holocaust, even citing centuries-old incidents of anti-Semitism. If Boll’s intent is to show that his movie is needed why include interviews with students who are clearly not ignorant of the subject? That seems self-defeating, even if I’m pleased that there are articulate, intelligent students out there.
The biggest discussion piece will be on Boll’s extended live-action recreations of the atrocities of Auschwitz. Recreating the crushing reality of the Holocaust is a delicate subject, trying to find a line to maintain respectful voracity to what the people suffered through and steer away from exploitation thrills that highlight the perverse depravity for titillation. Stanley Kubrick famously said to make a Holocaust film that would do justice to the events would make it unbearable. Boll said in a 2010 Vice interview that he didn’t want a narrative to dull the impact of his intents, citing Schindler’s List and The Pianist as fine films but flawed because they attempted stories. Ignoring that both as personal accounts, I think Boll misses the importance of narrative, a device that makes the horrors of history more palatable for viewing because of an accessible entry point. We focus on a character and their experiences, their character’s journey, and how the events impact and change this person, which provides a rooting interest to maintain watching. The other unfortunate reality of purposely removing a narrative is that it makes the recreations seem constructed merely for their shock value. They exist not in the larger realm of a story but as events meant to convey the horrific reality and nothing more. I think this was a misstep.
Boll has handled real-world violence and genocide before, from school shootings (2003’s Heart of America) to mass shooters with god complexes (the woe begotten Rampage series), to the genocide in Darfur (2009’s Attack on Darfur), and the results have been decidedly mixed. His heart may be in the right place but rarely do his message movies succeed at their ambitions. The messages often get lost amidst the exploitation elements or Boll goes overboard to wake up his audience, leaning into the suffering in a manner that can come across as indulgent. This too happens with Auschwitz, as it seems Boll is unable to restrain himself with a subject as well known as the factory of death. One could argue restraint dilutes the memory of those who died, but again it becomes a delicate balancing act to veer away from being pornographic.
Boll’s recreations are solemn and affecting. You can certainly feel his reverence for the topic and his desire to do right. The onscreen depiction follows a group arriving at the death camp, being separated, lead to a gas chamber, where the collection of women, the elderly, children, and the disabled choke to death on the fumes of poison gas. We then watch a handful of prisoners gather the dead, shave their heads, pull out their teeth, transport their clothes and shoes, and then dispose of the bodies in the ovens. It’s impossible to watch the recreations of these panicked deaths and not feel something, especially when Boll includes innocent young children in the mix. It’s horrifying and Boll films the reality of these scenes in an admirable docu-drama style. The nudity is not played for titillation but as a means of showcasing the vulnerability and humanity of the victims. It’s not shied away from but Boll’s camera doesn’t make a point of finding it either. Granted, the close-ups, especially once the gas hits, seem to predominantly feature the pained grimaces of women, but I’ll chalk that up to Boll viewing distressed women as more emotionally powerful. The people featured during these sequences are also admirably ordinary. These people look like who you would see walking down your street. They don’t look like models who were hired because their nude bodies would be something the audience would desire. There are children and they too are seen with the same vulnerability in the nude, though I’m sure the inclusion of naked children will sabotage any noble intent for some viewers.
However, Boll’s inclinations can get the better of him, like the majority of his more high-minded “message movies” that can transform into pulpy genre fare. There are moments where Boll just goes too far, chief among them the baby murdering sequence. Of course this was a reality of Auschwitz and other extermination camps because the Nazis had no need for babies. One of the most startling details in Elie Wiesel’s famous novel is his recount of watching babies hurled into a pit of fire, as it would naturally traumatize anyone for life. But just because it happened doesn’t mean it needs to be given inordinate attention. There’s a difference between unflinching and simply gratuitous. A child is held in the air and we see another SS officer point a pistol at the baby’s head. Rather than cut away and imply the ensuing violent death, Boll purposely stays within the scene, watching the muzzle flash and the CGI blood spray lightly (thankfully that’s the extent of whatever gore is applied to this scene). This happens three times and each time Boll makes sure we know this gun is firing at this baby’s head. Once gets the point across but three times is just excess. The same can be said for the gas chamber sequences. There are two, one presented at the very start of the arrival at Auschwitz, intercut with the people disembarking from the train and lining up. It’s unclear whether this is a flash forward but the faces seem different. Also, I have no interest in re-watching it for further study. That means in the course of 35 minutes we endure two groups of people asphyxiating to death. Here’s another instance where a lack of narrative is harmful. Without a story, without characters, this presentation is just nameless innocents suffering. What does the second sequence provide that the first lacks? It’s indulgent, and indulgence built upon human suffering is just bad.
Boll’s limited budget also constrains his ambitions. He filmed Auschwitz simultaneously as he filmed two other movies, a third Bloodrayne film and a bizarrely conceived satire of this same movie, Blubberella. Even for a workaholic like Boll, making three movies at once is insane. This might be why the live-action segment only amounts to 35 minutes and involves minimal dialogue. There are only three credited actors including Boll himself as an SS guard (the symbolism of director as participant seems ripe for dissecting). There is one extended sequence where two SS officers discuss mundane small talk, hammering home the banality of evil. But it’s right back to another gas chamber sequence from there, the director’s true preoccupation. The Auschwitz camp was half the size of Manhattan. What we see onscreen is a pittance. It feels so incredibly small. It makes me wonder why Boll felt the need to draft off the name recognition of Auschwitz. This setting could have been any concentration camp as the gas chamber outcome was not unique to Auschwitz, and that is really the only thing visualized with these recreations. It’s not life at the camp, the struggles of survival, it’s only a quick march to a painful death. There’s no reason this had to be Auschwitz.
Even with misgivings, I do think there can be an academic value to what Boll has put together. Written accounts and stories are a valuable tool, but sometimes a visceral and visual demonstration can bring to life history for people in powerful and valuable ways. This movie could rattle people and stay with them years after viewing, translating the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that is blunt, direct, and reverent. However, Boll’s yearning for profundity comes into direct conflict with his schlocky, exploitation-loving impulses, which pushes him to prolong the onscreen misery in the name of “staying true to how it was.” Without a narrative to provide a foundation, the movie becomes an uneven documentary with bouts of strained intensity. I wouldn’t judge this movie as harshly as Boll’s Rampage films. I sense his noble intents. There’s even a maturity with the filmmaking that I don’t think a younger Boll would have found. Ultimately, Auschwitz is more supplemental teaching tool than movie, and to that end it might do some needed good, proving that even Uwe Boll can make the world a little better.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Alfonso Cuaron won a bushel of Oscars for his last groundbreaking project, 2013’s lost in space epic, Gravity, and one of the most daring and innovative filmmakers working in cinema had what every artist craves — cache. He could do whatever he wanted with his earned credits. And so Cuaron told a personal story about growing up in Mexico City, a love letter to his own nanny. Roma follows the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) for most of the year 1971, through her ups and downs and the loping rhythms of domestic life. This review is going to come across sounding far more critical than I intend. It’s mostly because I’m trying to deduce why my own experience with Roma was not the rapturous, transformative experience that my fellow film critics have sang. It’s a good movie but I’m trying to pinpoint why it kept me from fully engaging, or what within me stopped from engaging further. I think it stems from the central intent of the film and its overall perspective that proves too limiting for my tastes.
But first the good and the exquisite. Roma is a lusciously photographed and composed movie that brilliantly recreates the time and place of Cuaron’s childhood with stunning black and white photography (Cuaron serves as his own cinematographer for the first time). There are moments that are stupendously put together, pulled directly from Cuaron’s impeccable memory. Sometimes these even stem into the surreal, like a forest fire that features a man in holiday costume singing to himself while life and the flames rage on behind him, the chaos of the moment centered on a beautiful focal point. There’s an extended sequence of a car trying to park down a narrow driveway that becomes a symbol of unchecked manhood. There’s a riot that feels like it is being captured live, even though your brain tells you it’s the work of hundreds of people all coordinated to bring about Cuaron’s vision. There’s even a subtle (maybe not so subtle) nod to Gravity at the local movie theater. There is one family relative who garishly hangs the heads of dearly beloved dogs from the past as if they were hunting trophies. It’s a peculiar and striking detail and something that carefully tells you more about a side character. Then Cuaron cleverly cuts to the current canine being pet, establishing the connection of present and future as well as past and present, an achingly affecting theme throughout the film, trying to better understand our beginnings and the people who impact us.
You can tell he has great affection for the women often responsible for the upbringing of children in rich homes. Cleo is the main character of Roma and given humble life by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio. She’s very passive and selfless to a fault, but her actions demonstrate the care she has for the family she works for, especially the younger children. The emotional thrust of the film is Cleo’s unexpected pregnancy. She’s single, young, and worried it might cost her employment. It’s a difficult decision and the would-be father, a friend of a cousin, seems to want nothing to do with this new responsibility. There’s a moment late in the film, filmed in Cauron’s signature long takes, that breaks your heart, forcing the audience into Cleo’s position where she is struggling for meaning as an agonizing reality sinks in. Aparicio shows that she is more than capable of communicating larger emotions when given the opportunity.
And yet, I kept waiting to be truly transfixed, and waited, and ultimately I found myself enjoying Roma but more as a lyrical long form memory piece from someone else’s life than as a functioning drama. This is a love letter to Cuaron’s childhood nanny (it’s dedicated to her by name) and it’s a recreation of his childhood memories, which makes it deeply personal and lovingly realized from the basis of plucking fully formed moments and bringing them to startling life. The visual arrangements, movements, and bustling activity of life feel beautifully reconstructed. The problem starts to be that the movie feels like a series of moments rather than a larger story, and the argument for many will be that this is by grand design, that Cuaron is intending to comment upon the nature of life and memory through the smaller details, the kind that find their sticking places in our senses, and I do not dispute this intention. However, the end result can approach feeling like watching someone else’s dream of their past, a collection of home movies. The entry point for an audience member is going to be narrower because we didn’t live these memories.
Roger Ebert said that cinema was an empathy machine and with the right storyteller an audience should have no problem being able to experience a plethora of emotions and experiences from a wealth of characters in an array of circumstances and settings. The added problem with Roma is that Cuaron purposely chooses an outsider perspective but also choosees to film it as an outsider. Cleo is an outsider presence, which is a good starting point for drama and contrasts. She’s an indigenous Mexican, working poor, and the family member who isn’t really family. She floats through different communities feeling like she doesn’t fully belong, reminded of what sets her apart and unable to fully immerse herself in her surroundings. She’s left her family, her old way of life to move into the city and be a surrogate parent, and when she becomes pregnant she has to question her commitment to having her own child. The character of Cleo has great potential for human drama, though Cuaron seems to idealize her and hold her as a romantic symbol of his childhood, like he’s trying to do right by her legacy and memory. She’s a little too simplified, a little too selfless, and a little too opaque for the lead of a movie.
Being an outsider is a good starting point for a story, allowing insight and criticism. This perspective is nullified by Cuaron’s storytelling and filmmaking choices to make the audience feel like a passive observer. Cuaron favors long wide shots that keep the viewer at a relative distance, both literally and figuratively. We’re soaking in all the details of the scene but those details are set dressing and visual compositions (Cuaron even imported his family’s old furniture). We don’t delve deeper into this realm because we are observing it from afar, from the added distance of time. It’s like a museum piece of a middle-class Mexican family’s life, safe for consumption and minor consideration before an audience is free to move onto the next exhibit. There’s a compassion that almost feels clinical, like the artist too afraid to spoil their art. I have no doubt how meaningful the movie is personally for Cuaron but he curiously forgoes the tools to make it more accessible, more open to others to empathize, and more meaningful for people who unfortunately didn’t have a Cleo.
Roma is a gorgeous movie that is handsomely made and lovingly dedicated to the people who often go unseen and undervalued in a lifetime. It’s elegantly photographed and often has the feel of a living dream built from Cuaron’s childhood memories. It’s well intentioned and with obvious artistic flair. However, when it was all done, all 135 minutes, I felt surprisingly unaffected. It’s a movie of moments, some of them vivid and others lyrical, but the outsider perspective and filmmaking choices made it hard to find an entry point and to fully engage in Cleo’s plight and the characters as a whole. So much more attention seems to be placed upon recreations of time, place, and people that were meaningful to Cuaron, but that doesn’t make them meaningful to me without added efforts. Roma is a quality movie with quality production and an okay story that holds back the intended reach.
Nate’s Grade: B