Thriller

Parasite

First Hit: I really enjoyed this story as it dives from the hilarious into the absurd.

We are introduced to this South Korean family (the Kim family) as they are getting ready to eat. The below ground level home has few street-level windows as they look up from the table to see a drunk young man peeing on a wall near their home.

We can tell the family is barely making it financially from the looks of the room, the view outside the room, and by their sparse, cryptic, and entertaining conversation. However, they seem to be engaged in their lives and hopeful because they are talking about the language of scheme making.

The family consists of the father Ki-taek (played by Song Kang-ho), the mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), the son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and the daughter Ki-woo (Park So-dam).

Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) comes by their home, wanting to give Ki-woo a present. It is a rock sculpture that is supposed to bring economic well-being. Because Min-hyuk has to leave town for a while, he tells Ki-woo about a tutoring gig he wants him to take over while he’s gone. The subject of his tutoring is a rich high school girl named Park Dye-hye (Jung Ji-so). Dye-hye’s mother, Park Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong), Min-hyuk says, isn’t too bright, so he should easily pass the interview. Ki-woo expresses his worries that he’ll be found out and may not be good enough, but Min-hyuk assures him that even though he’s only got a high school education, he’ll dazzle the ditzy Mrs. Park.

When asking Min-hyuk why he’s giving him this offer, Min-hyuk explains that he didn’t want one of his college friends doing the gig because he loves this girl, wants to date her when she’s out of high school and knows that Ki-woo is a true friend and wouldn’t cross him in this way.

Arriving at the Park home, he’s let in by the housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun). Walking through the house, he’s amazed at what a sizeable beautiful home it is. It’s very modern and filled with all the luxuries he’s never known and only dreamed about. The interview with Mrs. Park goes very well, and he’s hired to tutor Dye-hye. Noticing artwork around the home, he asks about it. The mother explains that it is her wild son who shoots bows and arrows around the house. But he’s also an artist and Mrs. Park thinks her son could be compared to the Andy Warhol anointed artist Jean-Michael Basquiat.

Seeing an opportunity and because the family is wealthy and pays well,  he says he may know of a young woman who is an Art Therapist that could work with the boy to become a great artist. Getting home, he tells his family about this and his sister is ready to do her part and take on a new role as Art Teacher and Therapist.

I’ll leave the rest to your imagination, but let’s just say the family all participates in this adventure.

But when the wealthy family takes a camping vacation, and the old housekeeper comes to collect something she left behind, the whole story starts to turn towards the macabre.

Parasite is a perfect name for the film, and it is not easy to pin down all the aspects this film offers the viewer. As it won the Cannes Palme d’Or for best film and I can see why.

Song, as the patriarch of the Kim family, was exquisite in embodying this character. Early in the film, when he announces that they need to leave the windows open when the street fumigators come down the street, I knew I was in for a ride. It was perfect for setting up his mindset. His silent looks while driving Mr. Park around after he learns that the Park’s think he and his family smell, are spot on. Jo was excellent as Mrs. Park. Her expressions when buying into the stories shared Ki-woo and Ki-jung were priceless. She was the perfect foil and focal point of the Park family. Choi was terrific as the Kim family young man. His wistful story at the end of the film about finding his father was excellent. Park was sublime as the Kim family daughter turned instant Art Therapist. Her embodying the story she made up for herself was funny, engaging, and perfect. Jang, as mother to the Kim children, made me laugh. Her actions and responses during the opening scenes while the family was eating were scene-stealing. Lee Sun-kyun was outstanding as Mr. Park. His command of the family as he waltzed in from work was evident and clearly identified who was in charge of the Park family. Lee Jung-eun, as the housemaid for the Park family, was engaging. Her arriving back to collect what she left in the basement under the kitchen opened the door for the film to move to another level. Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won wrote a wildly entertaining screenplay that had both funny and dark edges. Joon-ho was outstanding directing this film. Some of the shots, especially as the family tried to get back home during a major storm, told much of the story. The direct downward view of the slums in which they lived, being flooded, was telling. Just as the shots of the luxurious home where they worked were just the opposite; clean, crisp, and wonderfully shot with various angles.

Overall: This is a contender for Best Foreign Film and maybe even Best Picture.

Joker

First Hit: Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is powerfully twisted in overt and subtle ways.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix, aka Joker) works as a clown. Living with his mom Penny (Frances Conroy) in a dark Gotham low rent slum apartment, he’s very thoughtful of his mother’s inability to take care of herself. He has a semi-secret wish to become a standup comedian and bring smiles and joy to everyone.

While watching his favorite program, The Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) Show, he fantasizes about appearing on the show and becoming famous.

In an opening scene, Fleck standing and dancing in front of a going out of business shoe store twirling a sign to entice people to visit the store. He’s got his clown outfit on, face painted, and seems to enjoy what he’s doing. This is the first sign of the subtle way Phoenix shares the depth of his character. There is a glint in the facial expressions that give the audience a notion that all is not right with him. He gets mugged by some kids who take his sign and, in the chase, ends up being beaten.

He gets reprimanded by the company (HaHa) he works for because the sign was broken, and the shoe company wants it back.

Beaten by the young thugs, a fellow clown employee, Randall (Glenn Fleshler), gives Fleck a gun for protection.

We learn that Fleck has an inappropriate behavior of laughing at the wrong times when he’s feeling tense. He carries a card that he hands people stating his illness.

The film digs a little into his mental state with scheduled visits to a city-run social worker who can and does, prescribe a litany of drugs. The social worker, at one of their meetings, tells him the city is stopping this program, and he won’t be able to get his drugs through them any longer. He plows into a dialogue about how the social worker never listens to him, askes him the same questions each and every meeting. Here again, the audience knows he’s right, but we also are seeing ways that he’s slipping through the cracks.

This is one of the points of the film. Society in this story is one of the struggles between the haves and have-nots. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), father of the young Bruce Wayne, and a wealthy man believes that people that don’t have anything need to pull themselves up from their bootstraps. He’s also running for mayor. It is here and in other places this film touches on today and our current societal state of affairs where the top 1% of the people own 90% of the wealth.

This point runs through this film. The story is filled with moments that reflect how society has become lawless, and there is an uncaring towards our fellow man.

A turning point in the film is when Fleck, after being fired for bringing a gun to a clown gig in a children’s ward of a hospital, he starts laughing while watching a tense encounter between three young drunk well-to-do businessmen who are harassing a young woman on a subway train.

His inappropriate laughing causes the men to start picking on him, and during the resulting fight, he shoots and kills all three. Poignantly this attack becomes a rallying cry for the poor and disenfranchised in Gotham. All they see are the headlines that a man with a clown face (mask or makeup) stood up to three of the “haves” and now there is a slow movement of people having protest marches and rioting with many of the participants wearing clown masks.

This story is complicated, just like Fleck is complex. Being hunted by the police for the killings, learning about his past through his mother, then through records at a mental hospital, and being off his medication creates a man who is acting out of anger, loss, and desperation.

When Murray shows and then posts on social media, a hilarious video of him attempting to do a standup routine, he becomes a laughingstock across the country. However, the viralness of the post, Murray decides to have Fleck on his program.

The depth and complexity of the film, the character, and the way it puts a realness to the “Joker” (DC Comics’ character) was profound. It’s almost a perfect layup to Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” with Christian Bale being Bruce Wayne. The scenes and sets in this film are wonderfully shot. The mental hospital, the social worker’s office, Flecks apartment, and the street scenes all carried the sense of a troubled world.

Phoenix absolutely became this character. The overt and subtle shifts in his eyes and mouth said so much throughout the film. As someone who was disregarded by society, he ended up being the man of the moment. He kept me on the edge of wondering what he will in each scene. De Niro was oddly a curious character and excellent as an aging talk show host. He, partially, reminded me of his role as Rupert Pupkin, a wanna be talk show host, in “The King of Comedy.” Zazie Beetz, as Sophie Dumond, Fleck’s neighbor, and short-term lover was outstanding. The way she saw Fleck as someone who could relate to her was powerfully displayed when they went out, and she saw his comedy routine. Conroy, as Arthur’s mother, was good in this subtle, yet pivotal role. Cullen as Wayne was a perfect reflection of a have’s arrogance. Fleshler, as a manipulative friend and co-worker of Fleck, was excellent in this protective backstabbing role. Todd Phillips and Scott Silver wrote a power-packed script and screenplay. Phillips directed this story with absolute clarity of delivering the story he wanted to make.

Overall: I fell into this story from the very beginning, and it worked.

Anna

First Hit: I was surprised that I liked and enjoyed this film as much as I did.

The film starts with a bunch of assassinations by the KGB of what appears to be CIA agents, all at the same time, in Russia. We’re given little context to these opening scenes, and have to trust that the story will make sense in the end.

Then, we are introduced to Anna (Sasha Luss), a mistreated Russian young woman, who is abused at the hands of her live-in boyfriend Vlad (Nikita Pavlenko). Vlad is a scamming bum who spends his time drinking, thieving and blaming Anna for their miserable life. Walking home one evening Vlad, driving a Mercedes, picks Anna up and drives to an ATM. Vlad opens the trunk, yanks out an old man, and uses his AMEX card and pin to try and extract money from the prisoner’s bank account. Just as they are doing this the police drive by and soon there is a shootout and a car chase.

Lucky to escape the chase, Anna and Vlad arrive home to be greeted by an agent of the KGB. The agent, Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans), is not interested in discussing anything with Vlad, shoots him as a matter of fact, and begins speaking with Anna. He knows a lot about her; that her parents died when she was young and that she’s smart and appears to have a real will to survive. Alex offers her an opportunity to be free of all this, become a KGB agent, and in five years be free of everything, even the agency.

This is the setup.

However, when Anna' meets his boss, Olga (Helen Mirren), it’s clear that Anna must impress Olga because Olga is not impressed with her background. Quick thinking and acting under pressure are critical in the agency, and in this brief interview, Anna does this by reciting quotes by famous Russian authors.

Before you know it, Anna, Olga, and Alex are in front of the head of the KGB Vassiliev (Eric Gordon) who makes it quite clear that being part of the KGB is for life. And this hits a negative tone for Anna’s primary goal in life — freedom.

She’s been controlled and managed her whole life by her parents, the state, her boyfriend, and now the KGB. As an audience member, I hoped that her freedom was where the film would lead.

How the story is told to the moviegoer, is through numerous flashbacks and flashforwards. The audience has to soon learn that each scene may not be as it appears at first, that a flashback may subsequently give more information. An example was the scene when Anna is recruited as a model.

This form of filmmaking sometimes works, and other times becomes a distraction. Here director Luc Besson almost misses the mark as it is a slight distraction early on, but then becomes the primary vehicle for understanding the choices Anna is making along the way.

These choices include being a model, KGB agent, being a lesbian, and being recruited as a CIA agent by Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy). Miller explains, at one point, that the loss of the agents at the beginning of the film was his responsibility and he wants to right this wrong, and she can help him. Does she become a CIA agent, a double agent, where is Anna’s allegiance, or does she just disappear?

The jobs Anna is sent on by Olga are numerous and horrifying. The first assassination job teaches her to check her equipment and be ready for anything – it’s quite a battle, one single woman agent against 15 – 20 thugs. The choreography of this scene was excellent as it was easy to follow and worked.

Anyway, the film was filled with action, risks, and questions about who is Anna, and what does she want?

Luss is excellent as Anna. Her look and physical movement work for this role as a model and also being entirely in control of her body. Murphy was strong as the CIA agent wanting to make amends for losing a bunch of agents. Mirren was exquisite as Anna’s boss at the KGB. Her disapproving looks and vocal tone exemplified what we might picture as a high-level woman KGB agent. Evans was equally strong as Anna’s recruiting agent. Gordon was perfect as the head of the KGB, cold and calculating. Lera Abova, as Anna’s roommate Maud, was very good as a model, friend and Anna’s lesbian lover. Besson wrote an engaging script which, at times, bordered on losing control and engagingly entertaining. As a director, it was obvious what he wanted in the end, and I think he got it.

Overall: I was glad I saw this film because each flashback gave new context to the story.

Ma

First Hit: Moderately thrilling at times.

This is a story about someone who was bullied as a high school student and finally having the opportunity to go overboard and get back at what was done to her.

Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) picks up the nickname “Ma” from a bunch of high school kids for whom she buys liquor because they are too young to buy it themselves. “Ma” also offers these kids a place to party and drink the alcohol she obtains for them.

Maggie (Diana Silvers) and her mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) have just moved from San Diego to her mom’s hometown in Ohio. Erica has taken a job as a cocktail waitress while training to be a card dealer at a casino.

Attending high school on her first day, Maggie meets up with Haley (McKaley Miller) who convinces her to join her and a few friends for a drinking party just outside of town. One of Haley’s friends and someone who smiled and said “hi” to Maggie is Andy (Cory Fogelmanis). Maggie joins them on this adventure, especially because Andy will be there.

Standing outside the liquor store, Maggie gets Sue Ann to buy some liquor. Sue Ann convinces the kids to follow her to her house where they can party, and she can keep tabs on them.

The word spreads around school that “Ma” will not only get them booze but let the kids drink and have fun in her basement. But there is something suspicious about “Ma” and Maggie suspects there is an underlying current of weirdness.

We learn that “Ma” went to school with Maggie’s mom and Andy’s dad Ben (Luke Evans) because the story cuts back and forth through time showing these adults as kids in high school and the mean trick they played on Sue Ann.

It is in this context that Sue Ann decides she’s going to get revenge on the people that embarrassed and humiliated her. She does this through their kids, the ones coming to her house to party.

Secrets are revealed, and the and the sick pain “Ma” feels about what was done to her expresses itself in several horrific scenes.

Spencer is rather good as the kind veterinarian assistant and the off the charts psychotic revenge focused woman in her hometown. She did a great job of changing her look as needed. Lewis is always interesting to watch on screen. She always makes me think she’s just hanging out on edge. Silvers is excellent as the somewhat shy, yet intelligent young girl. Miller is keen as the friend who creates excitement around herself. Fogelmanis is very good as the young man who cares about Maggie. Evans is terrific as the man who is the primary subject of Ma’s vengeance. Scotty Landes wrote this script that attempts to tell the darkest side of what happens to people who are bullied. Tate Taylor got strong performances from the young cast and Spencer.

Overall: It was fun to watch Spencer change her expressions from light-hearted and helpful to dark and revengeful.

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

First Hit: Entertaining, full of unbelievable action, and an excellent setup for Chapter 4.

One can only enter the theater knowing you're going to see lots of shooting, hand to hand combat and knife fighting. This film doesn’t fail at delivering this.

When we last saw Mr. Wick (Keanu Reeves) in Chapter 2, John had broken the rules of the Continental Hotel and Winston (Ian McShane), proprietor, was ready to put out a contract on Wick’s life.

This is where Chapter 3 opens. John is running through New York City, looking for a place to hide from the assassins that are ready to kill him for the $14M that is being offered for his extermination.

There is a countdown, and when the 6:00 PM execution time happens, the world seems to be after Wick. In this world, assassins are everywhere. Yes, I only gave glancing thought to this real-world possibility because this is an unreal world story, and even your neighbor is an assassin.

The ludicrousness of many of the fights Wick gets into and wins was out loud laughable (which I and others did) but no less engaging. Yes, some of the choreography was a little stiff with people hesitating for the next lunge, thrust or throw but it was delightful.

That, for me, is the point of this series of films. It is full of entertainment, has little basis in reality and is not presented to make a point. These films make Wick a voice of a man who was drawn back into the violent life, he left for a woman and subsequently a dog (“it’s not just a puppy.”) and now is fighting for his survival.

All the scenes are shot in dark tones, there are few daylight scenes. This aside, I liked many of the sets, from Bowery King’s (Laurence Fishburne) building basement and pigeon coops to the elegance of the Continental Hotel, and all are sets in darkened tones.

Reeves was fun to watch, but as I watched him run, especially at the beginning of the film, I found his running labored and slightly awkward. However, his quips along the way were great, and he only continues to develop and mine this character for pure entertainment. Halle Berry, as Sofia, was fun as the person who owed Wick a favor. Her dogs were a fun part of her scenes. McShane was perfect as the Continental’s proprietor. His role was expanded for this film and will be an integral part of the next. Fishbourne as the elegant Bowery King was memorable. His presence is critical here and will be in the next chapter. Mark Dacascos as Zero, the assassin the High Table uses as the principle assassin to take down Wick, was excellent. Asia Kate Dillon as the High Table’s Adjudicator was good. There wasn’t enough background of her to give me the impression she held all the cards she projected she held. This meant she had to build credibility in this role with her actions, dialogue, and screen presence, and she pulled it off. There’s an authority in her look that makes this role work. Lance Reddick (as Charon, the hotel’s desk man) expanded his previous role to become an excellent protector of the hotel, Winston, and Wick. Derek Kolstad and Shay Hatten wrote an action-oriented script that brought out more of the principal characters. Chad Stahelski directed this film in a way that kept the story and feel of the past films while propelling it into the future.

Overall: This film is a world of its own, and it works as entertainment.