Monday, November 18, 2019

Check Out The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, November 19, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear it live, catch it later on demand!

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Parasite," "Jojo Rabbit" and "Harriet" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here

Sunday, November 17, 2019

‘Harriet’ chronicles a historic fight for freedom

“Harriet” (2019). Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Omar J. Dorsey, Henry Hunter Hall, Tim Guinee, Zackary Momoh, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Jennifer Nettles, Deborah Ayorinde, Michael Marunde, Rakeem Laws, Tory Kittles. Director: Kasi Lemmons. Screenplay: Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons. Story: Gregory Allen Howard. Web site. Trailer.

The American dream of living a life of freedom is as old as the days of the Founding Fathers. Yet, for many years after the Revolution and the establishment of the new republic, one segment of society was always left out when it came to enjoying such self-evident blessings. The nation’s slave population languished in an unending cycle of forced servitude, unable to break free – except, of course, for a few courageous souls who defied the odds and escaped their circumstances. The inspiring story of one enslaved woman who did just that – and then went on to help many others suffering similar circumstances – provides the basis for the new historic biopic, “Harriet.”

In Dorchester County, Maryland in 1849, 27-year-old Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo) lives the life of a slave on the plantation of Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde). Having been born into slavery as the daughter of her mother, Rit (Vanessa Bell Calloway), it’s the only life she’s ever known. However, she now seeks to change that by pleading her case for freedom, based on a pledge made by Mr. Brodess’s grandfather, who promised Rit that she (and her offspring) would be freed from their forced servitude upon reaching a certain age, a milestone that has long since passed. What’s more, Minty has recently married a free black man, John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), with whom she’d like to share the legal liberation he enjoys, something they could also pass on to any children that they might have.

[caption id="attachment_11101" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Araminta “Minty” Ross (a.k.a. Harriet Tubman) (Cynthia Erivo) seeks freedom from forced servitude by running away from her slave master in the inspiring new biopic, “Harriet.” Photo by Glenn Wilson, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

After making their case to Edward with the assistance of Minty’s father, Ben (Clarke Peters), also a free black man, Minty and John are summarily turned down. Brodess flatly says he has no intention of honoring his grandfather’s agreement and that Minty, like her mother, will forever remain a slave, despite his ancestor’s pledge and despite her marriage to a free man.

Needless to say, Minty is dejected. But she is also resolute to seek her freedom, contending that it’s immoral for a person to own another human being. The path to such a result is sure to be difficult, but she’s committed to find it one way or another, no matter what it takes.

Shortly thereafter, however, Minty’s plan runs into a major hurdle: Edward dies unexpectedly, leaving his wife, Eliza (Jennifer Nettles), and son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), with a pile of unpaid debts. Also, given that the farm is not faring as well as expected, the surviving Brodesses are faced with having to raise cash to stay afloat, an objective they hope to achieve by selling off some of their “assets,” namely, slaves like Minty for whom they believe they’ll be able to fetch a good price. Minty is terrified at the prospect, believing that she’ll be sold off and sent down South, keeping her from seeing John and her family members ever again. With such a possibility looming, she decides to run.

[caption id="attachment_11102" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Slave owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) seeks to recover his runaway “property” in director Kasi Lemmons’s enlightening new biopic, “Harriet.” Photo by Glenn Wilson, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

Minty meets with her pastor, Rev. Samuel Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall), for guidance. Rev. Green proves to be surprisingly helpful, given that he usually preaches sermons encouraging his parishioners to work hard, remain contrite and obey their slave masters. He instructs Minty to head north to Pennsylvania, a free state in which she can lead a comparatively less restricted life as a free black. In particular, he advises her to head to Philadelphia, an oasis for free blacks and escaped slaves, and to contact the head of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), who can help her make a new life for herself. But, first, she has to get there, an arduous 100-mile journey filled with peril, pursuers and many hardships, all to be accomplished on foot, mostly at night, through the wilderness.

Despite the odds, Minty succeeds in her journey, reaching Philadelphia and meeting Mr. Still. He subsequently introduces her to Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), a free black woman who owns a boarding house for escaped slaves. Marie gives her residents a place to stay and food to eat, as well as assistance in finding paid employment, something Minty has never experienced. She quietly settles into her new life as a free person.

In addition to providing help with everyday considerations, Mr. Still also keeps detailed records about the lives and experiences of the escapees. He chronicles their lives and their paths to freedom, compiling a sort of data base about his constituents. In taking down Minty’s information, he learns that she suffered a severe head injury in her youth, one that subsequently prompted her to have “visions” and vivid dreams, episodes that she believes are communications with God. Mr. Still is somewhat skeptical, chalking up her descriptions of these events to possible brain damage. But Minty is convinced it’s divine inspiration, something that she claims has helped guide her more than a few times, especially during her flight to freedom. She considers this ability a valuable gift for living, one she will come to draw upon many times as she moves forward in life.

[caption id="attachment_11103" align="aligncenter" width="350"]William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), head of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, helps escaped slaves adjust to a life of freedom in Philadelphia in “Harriet.” Photo by Glenn Wilson, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

Of course, no new beginning would be complete without some kind of gesture to signify its inception. To that end, Mr. Still asks Minty if she would like to take a new name for herself, one of her choosing that suits her desires and celebrates her freedom (and that can help to conceal her true identity from hunters tracking down runaway slaves). She thus chooses one that’s a combination of her mother’s birth name and her own married name. And it’s with that Harriet Tubman is born.

After about a year, though, Harriet finds herself lonely, longing to be with her husband John. She contemplates going back to Maryland to retrieve him so that they can live together in freedom, a plan Mr. Still strongly discourages, due to the dangers involved. He warns her that aggrieved slave owners, like her own former master Gideon Brodess, are growing more aggressive in their efforts to recover their “property,” hiring opportunistic free black bounty hunters like Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey) and informants like a shady character named Walter (Henry Hunter Hall) to assist them. However, being resolved to be with John, Harriet forges ahead with her plan, successfully making her way back to Dorchester County.

Unfortunately, upon arrival, Harriet receives some distressing news: Having heard stories that she was killed during her flight to freedom, John believed that she was dead. He subsequently remarried. And, with his new wife now expecting, he can’t bring himself to leave.

[caption id="attachment_11104" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Araminta “Minty” Ross (a.k.a. Harriet Tubman) (Cynthia Erivo, right) hopes to create a life of freedom for herself and her husband, John (Zackary Momoh, left), in the new historic biopic, “Harriet.” Photo by Glenn Wilson, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

Though devastated by this revelation, Harriet comes to a startling realization: Events have unfolded as they have because God must have summoned her to a higher calling, that of helping others escape and shepherding them to freedom. She thus decides to help a group of family members make their flight north, a venture in which she succeeds without losing a single soul.

Harriet’s efforts impress Mr. Still so much that he recommends her to become a member of the Underground Railroad, a covert network of “conductors” who help slaves escape captivity by stealthily leading them from one clandestine “station” (i.e., safe house) to another from the American South to the northern U.S. or southern Canada. It was an effort that earned Harriet her legacy as one of the greatest heroes in American history.

Harriet never would have achieved what she did, however, were it not for her indefatigable fearlessness. Even as far back as her days as a slave under the elder Mr. Brodess, she possessed an unshakable courage to attain what she considered just and right, a conviction that helped make her dream possible. But, then, that comes with the territory when someone holds steadfastly to such potent beliefs, the building blocks of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these powerful tools in manifesting the reality we experience.

[caption id="attachment_11105" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Bounty hunter Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey) seeks his fortune by assisting slave masters in capturing runaways in “Harriet.” Photo by Glenn Wilson, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

In witnessing Harriet’s odyssey, it’s no surprise that she was able to realize her aspirations. Her journey may not have always been an easy one, but, given her steely resolve, it always resulted in the outcome she sought. Whether it was freedom for herself or her family or for the more than 70 slaves whose lives she helped change, she held tight to her vision and let her beliefs be her guide.

But, as important as living courageously was to this effort, it was not the only belief that Harriet drew upon. She also had an unswerving adherence to the principles of individual freedom and the abolition of forced servitude. This idealism, fortified by a hefty infusion of personal integrity, drove her forward in her efforts, making their realization possible. She firmly believed in her views – and herself – a virtually unbeatable combination when it came to the manifestation of her initiatives.

Of course, Harriet was not “alone” when it came to formulating her plans and strategies. She had (or believed she had) divine inspiration on her side to guide her. Whether Harriet was actually speaking to God is open to speculation, but the concept of receiving enlightened guidance is certainly not in doubt. As conscious creators are well aware, we all have access to our intuition in the belief formation process, that indefinable, feeling-based knowing in whose validity we have absolute faith, no matter how unusual it may seem, and that plays a crucial role in the shaping of the thoughts, beliefs and intents we hold. Such intuitional access is what Harriet may well have had at her disposal, even if she didn’t recognize it as such or call it by that name. What’s most important, though, is that she trusted it implicitly, convinced that it would never steer her wrong. And the result is that such reliance served to bolster her confidence in her manifesting beliefs, making it eminently more possible to deliver to her the results she sought.

[caption id="attachment_11106" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Widow Eliza Brodess (Jennifer Nettles) worries about the future of her plantation after her deceased husband leaves her with a pile on unpaid debts in the new historic biopic, “Harriet.” Photo by Glenn Wilson, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

More than anything else, though, Harriet’s convictions made it possible for her to live out her value fulfillment, the conscious creation concept associated with us being our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. Given Harriet’s track record, it’s easy to see that she was doing what she was destined to do. Her actions certainly benefitted herself and her family, but they also led to better lives for the many people she helped. The world is certainly a better place – even today – for having had someone like Harriet as part of its history, culture and legacy, someone who epitomized value fulfillment in one of its most inspired embodiments.

While the storytelling approach employed in “Harriet” is rather safe and formulaic, director Kasi Lemmons’s heroic biopic nevertheless delivers an inspiring tale of a courageous soul who successfully helped liberate an oppressed people. Erivo delivers a knock-out, award-worthy performance as the celebrated title character, backed by a fine ensemble cast of supporting players, all placed within a fine period piece production design. Admittedly the dialogue is a tad preachy at times, and the film’s overdramatic soundtrack frequently overpowers the mood of many scenes. However, for those seeking uplifting viewing options, especially those that would appeal to impressionable young women, this tribute to Harriet Tubman is well worth the time.

Despite its many fine attributes, “Harriet” has come under attack for some of its historical accuracy. However, viewers must remember that this is a biopic, a film based on historical events, not a literal documentation of the character’s life and times. What’s more, given that some aspects of Harriet’s life are difficult to pinpoint, some gaps had to be filled in with speculation about what may have been true. And it’s on those points that the picture makes some educated guesses, some plausible, some less likely. Those interested in this subject should check out an excellent Slate magazine article by Rachelle Hampton, available by clicking here.

The hunger for freedom is one that’s difficult to satisfy, especially when it’s being starved of sustenance. But it’s under circumstances like that when we’re most motivated to keep persevering to obtain what we seek. Harriet’s story provides us with a shining example of what to do and how to proceed when we have nothing left to lose – and everything to gain.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

‘Jojo Rabbit’ charts the challenges of growing up

“Jojo Rabbit” (2019). Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie, Taiki Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, Archie Yates. Director: Taiki Waititi. Screenplay: Taiki Waititi. Book: Christine Leunens, Caging Skies. Web site. Trailer.

Growing up can be difficult enough as we seek to understand the complexities of the world around us. But, if we add to that a quest to grasp an emerging sense of self and the place we occupy in our existence, the task can become overwhelming. Where do we turn for guidance? Who can we trust? And what advice should we seriously consider? Those questions might seem obvious and fundamental, but that doesn’t make them any less daunting, especially for those who lack direction on which way they should turn. So it is for an impressionable young man in the engaging and unusual new coming of age story, “Jojo Rabbit.”

Young Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is having trouble fitting in. Growing up in Germany in the waning days of World War II, the likable but geeky 10-year-old is looking to find himself, a formidable challenge given the deteriorating conditions in the homeland and in his own personal circumstances. With his soldier father supposedly missing in action and his older sister Inge having recently died from influenza, he lives with his doting mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), a caring soul who tries to help the lad in his quest. But it’s an effort he often resists; he sees her sensitivity as holding him back from becoming the man he believes he’s supposed to be (even though he is more innately compassionate than he’s willing to admit). She’s also somewhat secretive, a quality he finds quietly suspect, despite not knowing exactly what’s driving those feelings.

To compensate for all this, Johannes decides to join a Hitler youth group with his best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates), an operation run by the somewhat-befuddled Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). He hopes that being in the company of peers will help him to shape up and find himself. Also, as an ardent patriot concerned about the sinking welfare of the Fatherland, he genuinely aspires to serve his country in a heartfelt, meaningful way by learning about military tactics and upholding the principles of the Reich. He even has a personal avatar to help guide him, Adolph (Taiki Waititi), a comical imaginary embodiment of the Führer who speaks to his young follower in a way that the impressionable youth can understand.

[caption id="attachment_11092" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Impressionable youth Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis, left) converses with his imaginary friend and avatar, Adolph (Taika Waititi, right), in the comical and controversial coming of age story, “Jojo Rabbit.” Photo by Kimberly French, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.[/caption]

However, despite the youngster’s gumption and sincerity, he quickly discovers he’s not cut out for becoming a youth group member. Despite words of encouragement from Adolph, he lacks the capacity for the kind of cut-throat activities being taught, such as a lesson in callously snapping the neck of a cute, cuddly bunny. He’s branded a coward, one who would unhesitatingly flee in the face of danger, not unlike the now-deceased cottontail, a reputation that earns him the disparaging nickname Jojo Rabbit.

Embarrassed and disheartened, Jojo feels dejected that his latest efforts to find himself seem to have yet again failed. Rosie sees his disappointment and decides to intervene, helping Jojo to get an assignment working as an administrative aide to Capt. Klenzendorf and his minions (Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen), a post that apparently suits him. The youngster feels as though he’s finally making a meaningful contribution, one that serves the interests of the Fatherland, even if it’s not exactly the kind of heroic effort that he had hoped to make. Little does he know, though, that there’s an opportunity waiting in the wings for that, should he choose to pursue it.

While at home alone one day, Jojo hears mysterious sounds coming from his late sister’s bedroom. He investigates and discovers a teenage Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), hiding in an adjacent crawlspace. Jojo is shocked, especially when he learns that Rosie is responsible for shielding Elsa, who had been one of Inge’s best friends. He’s appalled that his own mother would do something so blatantly against the interests of the Reich, especially given her many connections to those in the local Nazi hierarchy. He’s also shocked that he’s in such close proximity to someone Jewish, particularly in light of all of the “hideous” qualities he’s heard about these alleged enemies of his people.

[caption id="attachment_11093" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Aspiring Hitler youth group member Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis, right) struggles to find himself, even with the guidance of his doting mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, left), in director Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit.” Photo by Larry Horricks, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.[/caption]

Jojo is compelled to do something about this unforgiveable breach, but the upstart is quickly put in his place by both Elsa and Rosie. Elsa calls out Jojo as a little man seeking to fill big shoes by joining a movement whose dastardly initiatives he barely understands, contending that he’s just following the crowd in hopes that it will help him feel like he’s finally found a place where he can fit in. Rosie, meanwhile, attempts to use the situation as a teaching moment, urging Jojo to look into his heart to find his compassion and to realize that others who are different from him are not the monsters they’ve been made out to be.

Before long, Jojo is torn about what to do: Should he do his “civic duty” and turn in the fugitive hiding in his house? Or should he allow himself to follow his heart and demonstrate his capacity for the human kindness of which he’s just now beginning to become aware? It’s a difficult decision, one that frequently gets tested, most notably when he’s paid a visit by the head of the local Gestapo (Stephen Merchant) after rumors begin to spread about what may be happening in his home. And, through it all, Jojo continues engaging in his virtual conversations with Adolph, who grows steadily more insistent about what he believes his loyal disciple must do, not only to be a good citizen, but also to be a “real” man.

With Russian and American forces quickly encroaching from opposite directions, and with dramatic events that hit close to home increasingly impinging on Jojo’s personal circumstances, the young man will soon face difficult choices that affect both him and those close to him. And, as events reach a crescendo, it remains to be seen what decisions he’ll make. But, given his desire to be a true hero, one can only hope that he follows a path in line with that desire.

[caption id="attachment_11094" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Patriotic Nazi youth Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis, left) is perplexed about what to do when he finds a Jewish teenager, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, right), hiding in a crawlspace in his family home in the controversial new comedy, “Jojo Rabbit.” Photo by Kimberly French, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.[/caption]

Finding oneself is often a challenging process, and Jojo’s experience makes that abundantly clear. Since it’s a quest that doesn’t come with an instruction manual, there’s usually nothing tangible to grasp onto in charting a course and being able to move forward. However, a good starting point – even if not fully enlightening at the outset – is to look within, to examine our inner being, as that may provide some valuable clues. This is particularly true when it comes to our thoughts, beliefs and intents, the cornerstone of who we are, what we want and what we hope to achieve through the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in manifesting the reality we experience. Deciphering this interior landscape can be complicated and puzzling, but it at least has the potential to steer us in the right direction.

Examining our beliefs can be filled with surprises. For example, Jojo seems to think that all young men are supposed to grow into some kind of uber-macho mindset, one in which they assert themselves as tough, courageous individuals. What’s more, they’re supposed to swear to following the chain of command, unswervingly and unquestioningly demonstrating loyalty and following orders, no matter what they are or who gives them. He’s clearly bought into a well-established way of thinking, the embodiment of the classic male stereotype.

But, as Jojo slowly comes to discover, courage takes many forms, not all of which conform to the classic conventional model. Courage, for instance, can also come from being willing to freely exercise one’s individuality, even if its qualities differ from those of more widely accepted prototypes. In a regimented society like Nazi Germany, taking steps to openly affirm one’s worldview in the face of the rigid control tactics of an authoritarian regime is a supreme act of defiance, one that requires vast infusions of personal courage. It’s a prospect that Jojo eyes as he gets to know himself better, learning what his true beliefs are, despite the peer pressure he faces from so many others, including his outspoken imaginary friend.

Jojo faces a particularly difficult task when it comes to tuning out Adolph’s influence. As someone who lacks a meaningful male role model to help guide him in his development, it’s understandable how he’d gravitate to a strong-willed, charismatic figure like his personal avatar. But can Jojo trust the “advice” he’s being fed? Considering what the Nazi autocrat stands for and given Jojo’s emerging awareness of his sense of self, there’s quite a disconnect between these viewpoints. He’s faced with quite a difficult decision in choosing which path to embrace.

[caption id="attachment_11095" align="aligncenter" width="350"]With the assistance of his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, second from left), geeky Hitler youth group member Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis, second from right) finds a suitable post working as an administrative aide to the befuddled Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, left) and his minion, Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson, right), in director Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit.” Photo by Larry Horricks, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.[/caption]

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Jojo created a presence like Adolph to help shepherd him in the right direction by purposely giving himself a negative example, one so ultimately repulsive that it’s patently obvious he embodies a mindset that is not meant to be followed. As counterintuitive as that might seem, sometimes we give ourselves our best advice through exposure to influences we’re truly supposed to avoid. Doing so pushes us to think for ourselves, to disregard the conventional “wisdom” in favor of our own outlooks, a practice that can pay big personal dividends in the long run.

One of the most important benefits that comes from this is an appreciation of our sense of personal integrity. Being truthful with ourselves, especially when it comes to assessing, appreciating and embracing our beliefs, is essential to getting the best results with our manifestation efforts. When we’re in sync with what we really think, feel and believe, we’re much more likely to experience an existence that faithfully reflects these qualities. It’s somewhat ironic, for example, that Jojo begins to discover things about himself as the war winds down and the Reich’s rule evaporates. The dissolution and disappearance of those negative elements of his reality reflect the emergence of his positive inner qualities. With the unwanted aspects of his existence being swept away, space is opened up to make room for more desirable ones – peace, compassion and the ability to be oneself, no matter what. One might not think this amounts to much when it occurs on an individual scale, but, when it happens for multiple individuals simultaneously, it can create a groundswell of change that has the potential to reform society overall. And that, for what it’s worth, represents a fundamental shift, one from which all of us can benefit.

Writer-actor-director Taika Waititi has taken quite a chance with this comical and controversial coming of age story. The film walks a fine line between evoking hearty laughs while addressing the atrocities of the Nazi regime, a satirical mix that squarely hits some notes while sadly missing others. The picture starts out strong and finishes well, though its drawn-out, meandering middle stymies the film’s overall momentum, detracting from the film’s bookend segments. To its credit, “Jojo Rabbit” features fine performances by Davis as the often-baffled youth (proving again, as in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (2016), that the filmmaker is quite adept at working with young actors) and by Waititi as Adolph, as well as an excellent Wes Anderson-esque production design and a fittingly hip rock ʼn roll soundtrack. However, in seeking to take his filmmaking ability to the next level, Waititi comes up short, not quite attaining the auteur status that he obviously sought with this production. It’s a valiant and noble effort overall but one where the director’s reach definitely exceeds his grasp.

Our personal explorations of discovery can be filled with joy, terror and uncertainty, sometimes all at once. Sorting out matters can prove quite challenging, too, especially if we lack the tools to handle the task. However, by earnestly looking within, the answers will become unlocked, providing us with the guidance on how to proceed. The process may not be without obstacles, and we might not get things “right” on our first attempt, but it at least gets us started. One would hope it takes us in the right direction, infusing us with the courage to stand up and be ourselves – even when circumstances try to make us feel like frightened rabbits, a threat that can be successfully thwarted before it ever takes hold.

Copyright ©2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 8, 2019

‘Parasite’ exposes the fallout of false intentions

“Parasite” (“Gisaengchung”) (2019). Cast: Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, So-dam Park, Woo-sik Choi, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Jung Ziso, Hyun-jun Jong, Jeong-eun Lee, Myeong-hoon Park, Seo-joon Park, Keun-rok Park. Director: Bong Joon-ho. Screenplay: Jin Won Hon and Bong Joon-ho. Web site. Trailer.

When the have-nots stare down the ample resources of the haves, there’s almost always sure to be a degree of envy involved. “How is it that they’ve come to acquire what we haven’t?” they might legitimately ask. “Why can’t we have some of that?” Those questions have merit, too. But how far are the have-nots willing to go to get what they seek? That’s a crucial issue posed in the new social satire, “Parasite” (“Gisaengchung”).

Times are tough for the Kim family. With money and work hard to come by, the foursome struggles to survive in their cramped, rundown apartment. Family matriarch Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) seeks to earn money folding pizza boxes, a job at which she’s not especially suited, while her husband, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), a jack of all trades, will take anything he can get. Their son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), a former military man, can’t seem to find a position that matches his skills, while his sister, Ki-jung (So-dam Park), an adept graphic artist and computer operator, languishes without a job. Things look bleak.

[caption id="attachment_11084" align="aligncenter" width="350"]The Kim family (from left), son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) and daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park), struggle to eke out a living in an economically disparate society in director Bong Joon-ho’s masterful new release, “Parasite” (“Gisaengchung”). Photo courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment.[/caption]

However, when Ki-woo’s friend Min (Seo-joon Park) pays him a visit, a new door opens. Min, a college student who’s planning to embark on a year of overseas study, works as a private English tutor for a wealthy family, a job that pays quite generously. He tells Ki-woo that he’s recommending him to take over in his absence, an offer that his unemployed friend finds tempting but puzzling. Ki-woo doesn’t believe he’s qualified for the job, but Min reminds him of how well he scored on college admissions tests and that he could readily take over for him. Min explains that his teenage pupil, Park Da-hye (Jung Ziso), is the daughter of an affluent businessman, Park Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), and a stay-at-home mother, Park Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo). Min adds that Da-hye’s mom is rather dim and gullible, someone who could be easily bluffed into hiring Ki-woo as his would-be successor.

Though skeptical, Ki-woo agrees to an interview, during which he discovers that Min’s description of his prospective employer is right on target. He tactfully schmoozes Yeon-kyo, who’s quite impressed with Ki-woo’s alleged pedigree. His hopes and enthusiasm are further raised when he meets his student, to whom he takes quite a shine, an attraction that’s apparently mutual. It looks like the job is his.

During his visit to the Park family residence, a lavish home built by and once inhabited by a famous architect, Ki-woo also meets the family’s young son, Da-song (Hyun-jun Jong), an intelligent but hyperactive youngster with a penchant for creating colorful but bizarre works of art. Yeon-kyo boasts her pride in her son’s accomplishments but says she wishes she could find someone who could help guide him in his efforts, a statement that gives Ki-woo an idea: He says he knows a skilled art instructor who could provide Da-song with helpful coaching, someone with whom he could put in a good word. Yeon-kyo jumps at the chance, unaware that Ki-woo is talking about his sister, a relationship he doesn’t reveal.

[caption id="attachment_11085" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Wealthy businessman Park Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee, left) and his gullible stay-at-home wife, Park Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo, right), get duped into unwittingly hiring an entire family of employees with dubious plans in mind in the hilarious new social satire, “Parasite” (“Gisaengchung”). Photo courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment.[/caption]

In no time, Ki-jung is working as an “art therapist” for Da-song, a position on which she sells Yeon-kyo after convincingly pointing out the recurring “troubled” imagery in her son’s artwork. And, thanks to a referral from Ki-jung, Ki-taek soon becomes the Parks’ new family chauffeur after the crafty art therapist sets up the disgraced now-former driver (Keun-rok Park) into being fired based on trumped-up allegations. Something similar occurs when Ki-taek manipulates the dismissal of the family’s long-time housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee), creating an opportunity for a glowingly recommended Chung-sook to fill the now-vacant caretaker position.

Given this good fortune, one would think the Kims would be grateful for their newfound prosperity. However, having gotten a taste of the good life, they look for new ways to feather their nest even further – and by even more nefarious means. And, when the Parks go away for a camping weekend to celebrate Da-song’s birthday, the Kims move in to their employer’s home to party down, unapologetically availing themselves of the comforts of affluence. They enjoy ample food and drink and celebrate their unforeseen luck.

But the festivities take an unexpected turn when a late night visitor – Moon-gwang – appears on the doorstep, claiming she’s come by to collect something that she left behind in her hurried departure after her unforeseen termination. By giving the former housekeeper access to the house, the Kims set off a series of events that will change everything. It’s a situation further complicated by the Parks’ unexpected early return from their weekend getaway. Suddenly, all of the Kims’ gains are on the line, an ominous development that doesn’t bode well for the future as things go from great to disastrous in short order. Now what?

[caption id="attachment_11086" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Economically oppressed siblings Ki-jung (So-dam Park, left) and Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi, right) hatch a scheme to become employed by a wealthy family, a plan fraught with unforeseen consequences, in “Parasite” (“Gisaengchung”). Photo courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment.[/caption]

When seeking to improve one’s lot in life, is it acceptable to do whatever it takes – even if it means resorting to underhanded tactics? In all likelihood, the answer would depend on who one asks – and what their circumstances are. Those responses – and the outcomes they’re intended to engender – depend on one’s beliefs. And those beliefs, in turn, play an important role in what manifests, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of those metaphysical building blocks in realizing the reality we experience. However, given that our beliefs faithfully materialize what we’re thinking and feeling, we had better be careful what we ask for, as the characters in “Parasite” find out for themselves.

The Kims, for example, believe that life has shafted them and that they’re perfectly entitled to, and justified in, pursuing whatever it takes to make up for lost ground. What starts out as a mostly genuine employment opportunity quickly transforms into a scam, one that pays off handsomely but that also is rife with pitfalls waiting in the wings. But, given the family’s history of desperation, they’re willing to take the chance to get the result that they believe they’re owed.

Similarly, the Parks are also anxious to get what they want, and they’re willing to do what it takes to obtain the desired result, even if they aren’t as diligent as they could be in investigating their prospective employees. In fact, as members of the affluent class, they probably feel good about themselves in offering employment to those in need, that their “generosity” makes up for whatever economic disparities set them apart from the working class that is otherwise unable to share in society’s good fortunes. Because of this perceived magnanimity, they’re able to sleep comfortably at night, even if they’re unaware that their actions have unwittingly contributed to the problems that caused such fiscal inequality in the first place.

[caption id="attachment_11087" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Affluent but clueless housewife Park Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo) sets up her family for unexpected fallout when she hires a scheming band of domestic employees in director Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” (“Gisaengchung”). Photo courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment.[/caption]

In both of these instances, the families engage in the practice of un-conscious creation or creation by default. The Kims and the Parks each do whatever it takes to get their desired outcomes, regardless of the consequences or the impact on others. This approach to the manifestation process can indeed be a perilous one, because focusing on the result at all costs can lead to all manner of unanticipated – and undesired – side effects. This is particularly true where individuals prey on one another – like parasites – to attain what they want. It’s truly a path fraught with potential trouble – and disastrous endings.

A chief reason why this course is so problematic is that it lacks a fundamental component of effective belief formation and subsequent manifestation – integrity. By failing to be truthful with ourselves, our beliefs become “tainted” by considerations that can derail or thwart what we claim we seek to create. The Kims, for instance, say they’re looking for gainful employment, but all the while they’re secretly plotting to find ways to rip off their employers and acquire other perks. Given the deception involved, is it any surprise, then, that things can go awry? A little integrity could go a long way toward staving off problems, but such a result would depend on integrating it into the belief formation process from the outset, something a parasite is unlikely to do, as seen here.

This powerful cautionary tale serves up an important warning to anyone seeking to use the conscious creation process to improve his or her lot in life. It may be tempting to take short cuts, fudge matters or compromise our principles when convenient, especially if doing so gets us the results we want quicker, more easily or in greater measure. But we could also be playing with fire if we do so, even when we feel justified, potentially leaving us even worse off than when we started, and what would that get us?

Dissecting the struggle between the classes through the lens of human nature and personal motivations – regardless of class status – provides the foundation for this rip-roaring dark comedy, one of those rare films that grabs your attention and holds it from start to finish without letting go. Building on themes explored in such previous works as “Snowpiercer” (2013), writer-director Bong Joon-ho presents a riveting, ruthless offering that undeniably makes its point but without being heavy-handed or cartoonishly over the top. In doing so, the filmmaker dishes out a wealth of utterly hilarious humor about subjects that ultimately prove to be no laughing matter. Easily one of the year’s best, especially in its razor-sharp writing, the fine performances of its excellent ensemble cast and a thought-provoking message that should give us all a lot to think about, this superb release never disappoints and consistently satisfies.

“Parasite” is already generating considerable awards season buzz, a tremendous accomplishment for a foreign language film. Having deservedly captured Palme d’Or honors at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the event’s top prize, the picture is amassing ample clout as an Oscar contender in multiple categories, including best film, again, a remarkable coup for a foreign language offering. The picture is playing surprisingly widely on domestic movie screens, and it’s pulling down bigger-than-normal box office numbers for a non-US release. But, then, given the well-deserved accolades “Parasite” is garnering, those accomplishments are genuinely merited.

It’s unfortunate that we live in a world where so many unfairly go without. One would think that the fortunate would be more willing to share their abundance with those in need. What’s more, it’s understandable that the destitute would take drastic measures to preserve and protect themselves. However, when the downtrodden begin resorting to means like those used against them to obtain what they want, are they any better off in the end? One could say that they are themselves no different from the parasites who have oppressed them. And we all know what ultimately happens to parasites in the end.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Check Out a Special Edition of The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, November 5, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear it live, catch it later on demand!

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Wrapping up the Chicago Film Festival

One of the great joys of reviewing movies is the opportunity to attend film festivals. They offer moviegoers a chance to see multiple offerings in myriad genres from countries all over the globe, featuring everything from little-known independent productions to Hollywood blockbusters. And so it is with my hometown event, the Chicago International Film Festival, which just recently completed its 55th edition.

The Chicago festival just keeps getting better and better every year. I’ve attended many of the festivals over the past 40 years (I started attending when I was 2…), and I’ve seen vast improvements in programming and staging in that time, efforts that have truly made this a world class event. Over 12 days, I screened 15 films, many of which were good to excellent.

With that in mind, I offer my thoughts and impressions on the pictures I saw. My scores, which are based on the 1-5 rating scale used by festival attendees, appear at the end of each of my evaluations. Lengthier reviews of some of these releases will be featured in future blog entries.

So sit back, relax and enjoy my journey through an inspired field of movies. And, if you should ever attend this event in the future, be sure to look for me on the red carpet. I’ll be there!

[caption id="attachment_11048" align="alignnone" width="222"]Photo by Trevor Laster.[/caption]


“Babyteeth” (Australia)

The seemingly unlikely romance between a seriously ill teenager (Eliza Scanlen) and a junkie/small-time drug dealer (Toby Wallace) outrages her parents (Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis), despite the fact that mom and dad each engage in their own bad behavior and have more than their own share of issues. Yet, as this story plays out, it becomes apparent that those who are supposed to provide guidance can learn much from those they’re guiding.

With a tautly written script, a superb ensemble cast (especially Mendelsohn in one of his best performances), creative cinematography and a more than ample supply of quirky humor, this excellent debut feature from director Shannon Murphy ushers the audience through a minefield of emotions (especially in the film’s concluding sequence), leaving viewers moved – and drained – by picture’s end. Think of this as a slightly off-the-wall, bittersweet and decidedly more dysfunctional version of “Terms of Endearment” (1983), and you have the idea. A superb offering from a promising new talent. Don’t miss it. (5/5)

[caption id="attachment_11050" align="alignnone" width="350"]A seriously ill teenager (Eliza Scanlen) ponders an uncertain future in director Shannon Murphy’s debut feature, “Babyteeth.”[/caption]


“Ordinary Love” (UK)

This sensitive, highly personal look at what a breast cancer diagnosis does to longtime happily married couple (Lesley Manville, Liam Neeson) evokes heartfelt emotions as the story wends its way through the ups and downs of coping with illness and an uncertain future. And, coming in the wake of the tragic and unexpected death of their only child, this latest burden is made all the more difficult for a wife and mother facing her own mortality and a husband and father staring down the prospect of being alone.

Directors Lisa Barros D’sa and Glenn Leyburn draw excellent award-worthy performances out of their two protagonists (especially Manville), presenting the audience with a couple who exude a comfortable familiarity at both their best and worst. The picture’s simple but effective cinematography and suitably fitting soundtrack greatly enhance the mood of the story, taking a subject that’s been addressed on film before and elevating it to an entirely new level of candor and viewer intimacy. A moving, exceedingly touching experience to be sure. (5/5)

[caption id="attachment_11052" align="alignnone" width="350"]A breast cancer patient (Lesley Manville, right) and her concerned husband (Liam Neeson, left) struggle to cope with the changes to their long-tenured relationship in “Ordinary Love.”[/caption]


“Spider” (“Araña”) (Chile)

When a believed-dead right-wing Chilean nationalist (Marcelo Alonso) reappears decades after working with the radical Fatherland and Liberty movement to overthrow the Communist government of President Salvadore Allende, old ghosts from the past re-emerge from the woodwork, circumstances that create havoc for the story’s principals both personally and publicly. Told through a series of flashbacks seamlessly woven into the present-day narrative, the film reveals a complex political struggle that spills over from the day’s public events and into the personal lives of the movement’s participants (and vice versa), both in the past and the present.

Director Andrés Wood delivers an engaging, edge-of-your-seat thriller with both personal and public implications, as well as a message that’s just as important for today as it was in the past, and not just in Chile. “Spider,” a nominee for the festival’s Gold Hugo Award, the event’s highest honor, is yet another excellent example of the work coming out of one of the world’s foremost emerging film industries. (5/5)

[caption id="attachment_11054" align="alignnone" width="350"]Right-wing radicals (Maria Valverde, left, and Gabriel Urzúa, right) work on planning strategies to overthrow Chile’s leftist leadership in the early 1970s in director Andrés Wood’s Gold Hugo-nominated offering, “Spider” (“Araña”).[/caption]


“Balloon” (“Qi Qui”) (China)

This paradoxical fable explores what happens when long-cherished spiritual beliefs collide with sociopolitical public policy in Tibet during the days of China’s one-child birth policy. To say more would reveal too much, but suffice it to say that the picture weaves a lush tapestry of thoughts and feelings that grows ever-more captivating the further one gets into its narrative.

Poetically told by director Pema Tseden, with inventive and often-breathtaking cinematography, an elegant soundtrack, gentle humor and an ethereal storytelling approach, this simple but stirring tale moves viewers in heartfelt ways at both ends of the emotional scale. While the pacing of this Gold Hugo nominee and best screenplay winner is a tad sluggish in the middle, that’s easily overlooked in light of everything else this excellent release has to offer. (5/5)

[caption id="attachment_11056" align="alignnone" width="350"]The clash of traditional spirituality and modern government policy affect three generations of a Tibetan family in director Pema Tseden’s “Balloon” (“Qi Qui”).[/caption]


“The Father” (“Bashtata”) (Bulgaria/Greece)

This touching charmer examines how a father (Ivan Savov) and son (Ivan Barnev) deal with the loss of their wife and mother (Maria Bakalova) while simultaneously sorting out long-simmering differences between them. But such serious matters get tabled when dad is convinced that his beloved is trying to communicate with him from the other side and seeks the aid of a shady mystic to learn what messages mom has for him, much to the consternation of his pragmatic son, who’s further burdened by challenges at work and the many moods of a sensitive pregnant wife (Margita Gosheva).

The result is a zany saga that combines both hilarious and meaningful moments filled with heartfelt emotion and more than a few startling synchronicities, all in an unlikely road trip/buddy film format. The picture’s deft fusion of comedy and drama weaves a captivating tale, one with both raw emotion and ample laugh-out-loud humor. A truly unexpected gem from the husband and wife directorial team of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. (5/5)

[caption id="attachment_11058" align="alignnone" width="350"]A put-upon son (Ivan Barnev, left) attempting to help his out-of-control father on a zany road trip ends up in an array of wacky situations, such as being forced to hitchhike in a hearse, in the hilarious buddy film, “The Father” (“Bashtata”).[/caption]


“The Truth” (“Le verità”) (France/Japan)

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first foray into filmmaking outside Japan tells the story of an aging actress (Catherine Deneuve) who’s coming to grips with her life in the wake of writing her memoir, one that her daughter (Juliette Binoche) claims is full of oversights, exaggerations and lies. As they match wits in what has been a life-long struggle, the grand dame of French cinema takes on a new movie role in which she plays a character not unlike her daughter, giving her an opportunity to see things from a different perspective. Meanwhile, daughter dearest also discovers that her memory may be fallible and that her recollections of a rotten childhood may not be as accurate as she has long thought.

Deneuve gives a command performance, award-worthy for sure, and the script is full of ample, laugh-out-loud wit. The fine ensemble cast, featuring Binoche and Ethan Hawke, among others, provides excellent support for the film’s leading lady, serving as an excellent “audience” for her latest “performance.” Admittedly, the pacing in the final act could use some shoring up, but this otherwise-delightful offering is well worth the time. (4/5)

[caption id="attachment_11060" align="alignnone" width="350"]An aging actress (Catherine Deneuve, second from right) is forced to come to terms with her daughter (Juliette Binoche, second from left), along with her son-in-law (Ethan Hawke, left) and granddaughter (Clémentine Grenier, right), in director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “The Truth” (“Le verità”),[/caption]


“The Fever” (“A Febre”) (Brazil/France/Germany)

This richly metaphorical clash-of-cultures offering tells the story of an indigenous Brazilian security guard (Regis Myrupu) who leaves his village to work in the industrial port city of Manaus, where he becomes afflicted with a mysterious fever. In searching for the cause of his ailment, the protagonist scours myriad aspects of his life to figure out how to get well, a quest that symbolically reflects wider issues not only for himself, but also for the different peoples of an entire nation.

Filmmaker Maya Da-Rin, winner of the festival’s award for best director, presents an almost-poetic tale of the mystical and material. The film’s deliberately slow pacing (appropriate given the nature of the picture’s subject matter) can be a tad trying at times, but, if viewers can overlook this aspect, they’ll be treated to a moving and thought-provoking story brought to life by a fine ensemble cast of native, non-professional actors. A deceptively affecting offering and worthy Gold Hugo nominee. (4/5)

[caption id="attachment_11061" align="alignnone" width="350"]An indigenous Brazilian security guard (Regis Myrupu, right) seeks to discover the source of a mysterious illness in “The Fever” (“A Febre”), festival winner for best director Maya Da-Rin.[/caption]


“Deerskin” (“Le daim”) (France)

Arguably the funniest one-joke movie I’ve ever seen, this absurd dark comedy from director Quentin Dupieux follows the strange exploits of a budding serial murderer (Jean Dujardin) who becomes obsessed with a newly acquired second-hand deerskin jacket that gives him a “killer” appearance. When the jacket begins “speaking” to him, however, things go from weird to truly bizarre, especially when it tells him that it wants to be the only jacket in the world, prompting its owner to look for ways to eliminate all of its competition – and at any cost.

This macabre offering is definitely not for everyone. Some of the violence may be a bit much for sensitive viewers, and the story could be just too strange for those who like their cinema a bit more conventional. But for those with off-the-wall tastes who like their horror films with a humorous edge, this one will definitely suit you. (4/5)

[caption id="attachment_11063" align="alignnone" width="350"]A budding serial killer (Jean Dujardin) starts slipping over the edge when he begins having bizarre conversations with his jacket as seen in the edgy, off-the-wall dark comedy, “Deerskin” (“Le daim”).[/caption]


“The Whistlers” (“La Gomera”) (Romania/France/Germany)

This stylish, clever crime caper features an intriguing game of cat and mouse involving crooked Romanian detectives, ruthless Spanish gangsters, a pious Eastern Orthodox matriarch and a system of communications employing an ancient whistling language created in the Canary Islands. It’s a tale that combines its diverse elements to keep viewers guessing right up to the end.

Drawing upon dry humor, an operatic soundtrack and a series of stunning revelations, this Palme d’Or nominee from this year’s Cannes Film Festival takes viewers across three continents in a race aimed at trying to figure out who’s trying to outdo who (and why). While the narrative occasionally gets a little too convoluted for its own good, director Corneliu Porumboiu’s latest is otherwise a sinister but fun, visually dazzling romp. (4/5)

[caption id="attachment_11065" align="alignnone" width="350"]Crooked Romanian detectives, ruthless Spanish gangsters and a strange whistling language invented in the Canary Islands all combine for a clever, stylish crime drama in “The Whistlers” (“La Gomera”).[/caption]


“The Wild Goose Lake” (“Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui”) (China/France)

This sometimes-campy, sometimes-intense, often-quirky crime drama about a motorcycle thief (Ge Hu) on the run from authorities and rival thugs features an eclectic mix of elements and influences ranging from contemporary Chinese cinema to French crime dramas to martial arts movies and even a pinch of Quentin Tarantino Lite. The picture’s “I-can’t-believe-they-just-did-that” humor adds spice and diversion, keeping the story lively, fresh and entertaining.

However, while the first half sails along well, the back end tends to meander somewhat, dragging out the story toward an ending that’s more than a little predictable. With better editing and a tighter script, especially in the concluding sequences, director Yi’nan Diao’s Palme d’Or nominee could have been a knock-out, but, unfortunately, it limps across the finish line instead of racing past it. (3/5)

[caption id="attachment_11067" align="alignnone" width="300"]A motorcycle thief (Ge Hu) on the run from authorities and rival thugs provides the narrative for the sometimes-campy, sometimes-intense crime drama, “The Wild Goose Lake” (“Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui”).[/caption]


“Corpus Christi” (Poland/France)

When a paroled juvenile inmate (Bartosz Bielenia) who desires to become a priest gets an opportunity to assume the identity of one without seminary training, he jumps at the chance, an act that allows him to see how well he’s able to follow a calling that has been detoured by his past. It’s a challenging undertaking that finds him constantly under the microscope as he’s pursued by ghosts of his prison days and scrutinized by parishioners who question his unconventional style of ministering.

However, while director Jan Komasa’s Gold Hugo nominee has its moments – most notably Bielenia’s stellar turn in the festival’s best actor performance – the overall package tries to incorporate too many plot lines and cover far too much ground, leaving certain important aspects (especially the protagonist’s motivations and back story) underdeveloped. A pared-down treatment would have benefitted this noble attempt nicely, making for a more focused and meaningful offering. (3/5)

[caption id="attachment_11069" align="alignnone" width="350"]A paroled juvenile offender who longs to be a priest (Bartosz Bielenia) gets an opportunity to explore his calling in director Jan Komasa’s “Corpus Christi.”[/caption]


“Mr. Jones” (Poland/UK/Ukraine)

This fact-based biopic chronicles the efforts of British diplomat-turned-reporter Gareth Jones (James Norton) in attempting to expose Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s genocide of Ukrainians in the years prior to World War II, an initiative that met with severe and surprising (and self-serving) opposition in Western diplomatic and journalistic circles. However, his intrepid efforts eventually brought to light a tragedy driven by opportunism and greed, both by its architect and those who benefitted by complicitly looking the other way.

Jones’s saga is a little-known story that screams qualities like “urgency” and “outrage,” traits that, unfortunately, don’t come across nearly as strongly in the film as they should have. Director Agnieszka Holland tends to understate the nature of the narrative, never quite raising it to the level of shock and engagement that the subject matter deserves, frequently muddling the flow of the story with extraneous, if not irrelevant, subplots. Think of this one as a compelling story with regrettably less-than-compelling treatment. (3/5)

[caption id="attachment_11071" align="alignnone" width="350"]The fact-based story of diplomat-turned-journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) and his efforts to expose Josef Stalin’s genocide of Ukrainians in the years before World War II provides the story line for director Agnieszka Holland’s latest release, “Mr. Jones.”[/caption]


“Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway” (Spain/Estonia/Ethiopia/Latvia/Romania)

Devotees of the weird will appreciate this uniquely and utterly strange offering about a pair of CIA agents (Daniel Tadesse, Augustín Mateo) sent into cyberspace to destroy a computer virus, only to find that the truth is even more bizarre than thought. The result is one of the most inventive and outrageous films imaginable, easily leaving one’s mouth agape and head suitably scratched.

Through a mix of inventive animation, various photographic techniques and off-the-wall humor, director Miguel Llansó takes viewers on a wild, wild ride through a story that ultimately makes little sense but that generally entertains in its own special way. The picture has a tendency to get a little too wrapped up in its own quirkiness at times, coming across like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (2005) or an episode of “Dr. Who” on steroids. But, if you can overlook that, you’ll get a lot of hearty laughs out of this one. (3/5)

[caption id="attachment_11073" align="alignnone" width="350"]Two CIA agents sent into cyberspace to destroy a computer vice have an unexpected encounter with “Jesus” (Guillermo Llansó, center) in the wacky comedy, “Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway.”[/caption]


“Atlantics” (“Atlantique”) (France/Senegal/Belgium)

Despite an award-winning pedigree, this mystical Senegalese romance/ghost story never quite gels into a cohesive (and, at times, understandable) whole. While the emotions seem sincere enough and the lyrical cinematography is beautiful to look at, the muddled plot of director Mati Diop’s debut feature is often befuddling as it attempts to blend unrequited love, social commentary and otherworldly elements into a single narrative.

Many of those attending my screening stepped away from it noticeably scratching their heads. Perhaps something was lost in translation. Perhaps the subtlety is a little too understated for its own good. Or perhaps the story was reaching for something it couldn’t adequately capture. In any event, this missed cinematic opportunity is an easily overlooked offering. (2/5)

[caption id="attachment_11075" align="alignnone" width="350"]Ada (Marne Bineta Sane), a bride-to-be promised to a man she doesn’t love, longs to pursue the romance of her choice, a quest shrouded in mystical influences in director Mati Diop’s debut feature, “Atlantics” (“Atlantique”).[/caption]


“Fire Will Come” (“O que arde”) (Spain/France/Luxembourg)

Gorgeous cinematography aside, this leaden-paced tale of a convicted arsonist (Amador Arias) who’s paroled from prison and returns to his rural Spanish homeland where a mysterious new forest fire breaks out struggles to find a story amidst its meandering narrative. Stunning landscape shots and extensive spans of silence (a contributing element to the picture’s award-winning sound design) may be aesthetically appealing, but they dominate to the point of deterring the film’s telling of an engaging and coherent story.

While director Oliver Laxe tries to use this film to make an environmental statement (albeit not all that effectively), it’s not enough to save this otherwise-woefully underdeveloped Gold Hugo nominee, despite its accolades, including a win and a nomination in the Un Certain Regard competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Skip this one, and you won’t miss much. (1/5)

[caption id="attachment_11077" align="alignnone" width="350"]A mysterious forest fire believed set by a paroled arsonist sets the stage for the story in director Oliver Laxe’s award-winning “Fire Will Come” (“O que arde”).[/caption]

 Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.