Knives Out: superficial examination of class and privilege in crime comedy whodunnit

Rian Johnson, “Knives Out” (2019)

At times playing like a spoof of the classic whodunnit murder mystery that takes place in a palatial mansion and the entire family, their domestic staff and guests from the highest echelons of politics, industry and society are under forced lockdown while the determined private detective pursues the murderer, “Knives Out” manages to insert a rather shallow stab into the heart of the class system in the US and various political and social issues, like illegal immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, in its complicated plot. A famous mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), living in reclusive wealth in a ramshackle mansion, has been found stabbed to death by his housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson). Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired by an anonymous figure to investigate the circumstances of the death. In his investigations which include questioning the Thrombey relatives, Blanc learns that several of them could have had motives for killing Thrombey: son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) is cheating on Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Harlan has threatened to expose him; Harlan has cut off daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette)’s allowances for stealing her daughter’s tuition fees; the old fella has just sacked his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) from his publishing company; and disinherited grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). Indeed, later in the film, the whole family discover during the reading of the will that Harlan has left nothing to them at all, and all the wealth, control of the publishing company and the Thrombey properties have been left to the caregiver nurse Marta (Ana de Armas).

It transpires that the night before Harlan’s death, Marta had accidentally given Harlan a fatal overdose of morphine but Harlan tells her how to avoid suspicion by giving her some rather elaborate and risky instructions. Having followed the instructions, Marta later confesses all to Ransom and Ransom offers to help her if she will offer him his original part of the inheritance. The entire family pressure her to renounce her inheritance and intend to apply the slayer rule (a murderer cannot inherit from his/her victim) but Blanc insists on further investigation. Marta receives a blackmail note together with Harlan’s toxicology report. She and Ransom drive to the medical examiner’s office which they discover has been destroyed in a fire. The police and Blanc chase the couple and arrest Ransom. Blanc and Marta travel to a location where the blackmailer has told Marta to go and Marta discovers Fran drugged and dying from a morphine overdose.

Marta later prepares to confess all to the Thrombey family and give up her inheritance but is stopped by Blanc who takes her, Ransom and police detectives to a separate room in the Thrombey mansion where Blanc reveals the identity of the true villain behind various recent events of which Harlan’s death is but one incident linked to the others.

The acting varies from average to very good with Craig giving an intense performance and de Armas portraying Marta as an innocent and saintly immigrant girl caught in the machinations of various disgusting modern-day American stereotypes: the virago businesswoman who believes everything she has achieved is all her own work; her hen-pecked husband who helped her climb to success while having an affair on the sly; the pretentious Facebook social influencer and her “progressive” and “liberal” activist daughter; and the teenager who holds “alt-right” views and spends too much time on his smartphone. Therein lies a problem: the talented cast is wasted in roles that are little more than currently fashionable stereotypes of figures in 21st-century American society as viewed from a limited Hollywood viewpoint. Even Marta appears as a stereotype of the downtrodden underdog whose family arrived in the US as undocumented immigrants. Harlan’s revised will then represents an apology on his part for the devastation that the US has historically wrought on Latin American people over the past 150 years and on First Nations people in North America for twice as long. The problem though is that de Armas’ portrayal of Marta, on whom much of the film’s plot depends, is rather flat and one-dimensional compared to the scenery-chewing performances of such actors as Curtis and Collette. Perhaps the only actor who achieves a good balance between the extremes of de Armas on the one hand and Curtis and Collette on the other is Don Johnson, who does not get much to do but is outstanding when he does it.

Perhaps the film’s plot is too long and a bit too convoluted, and its framework as a parody of the whodunnit crime genre is not quite suited to the investigation of white privilege in a hierarchical class society where race and ethnicity are used to order sort out individuals as superior or inferior. All too often various issues about illegal immigration, the question of Marta’s original country and the Thrombey family’s assumptions that despite their parasitical natures they should still inherit their patriarch’s wealth are played more for laughs when they should be treated more seriously and in depth.

Royal Madness: a fun cartoon on finding a new purpose in life

Mriganka Bhuyan, Romain Couderette, Eunbyeol Ko, Sean Lewis, Milan Salmona, Wenkai Wang, “Royal Madness” (2019)

Not one of the better offerings from the 2019 Gobelins graduation class but very stylish in its early moments, “Royal Madness” is a fun family-oriented short about losing one’s motivation and zest for life after fulfilling all one’s personal goals and finding new meaning and purpose in relationships with others. Long ago, in a distant kingdom, the king fights and slays all the dragons and monsters menacing his people in splendid stylistic displays of fighting in which the hero monarch and his frightful enemies resemble characters in an Indonesian shadow-puppet play. The king does his job a little too efficiently and before long all the monsters have been chased out of the kingdom. The peace that everyone has hoped for turns out to be the king’s worst enemy: with no enemies left to fight, he lapses into depression. His tiny princess daughter, remembering the former days of glory, cooks up a plan with his retainers to get the king out of his torpor … but the plan could backfire and put all their lives into danger.

The plan is daring if not very original – the retainers put a mechanical monster together – and sure enough, the king is roused out of his fug and goes straight into axe-swinging action. Eventually of course, he has to discover what is actually powering the machine monster before he accidentally kills everyone! The realisation dawns on him that perhaps he has been wasting his time yearning for a past that will never become the present again, and he must find a new purpose, one that will include his daughter.

The animation is very fun and exaggerated, with Disney influences, and the short proceeds very briskly with lots of fast and sudden action. A very creditable job, given that a number of students were involved in its creation, but originality is in short supply here.

Dejeuner sur l’herbe: a character study that skewers intellectual and religious arrogance

Jules Bourges, Jocelyn Charles, Nathan Harbonn Viaud, Pierre Rougemont,”Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (2019)

A droll character study of a scientist called Etienne initially dedicated to pursuing truth and logic, experiencing a crisis of faith after being stood up by a female friend at a beach and seeing an apparent UFO, and refusing to speak to anyone and to carry on as usual with his career for seven years, this film punctures both intellectual arrogance and the arrogance of religious fanaticism alike. By presenting its narrative through Etienne’s viewpoint, the short immediately captures and maintains viewer attention, steadily increasing the tension of the scientist’s descent into a raving religious lunatic until the clanger drops with regard to what the UFO silhouette actually was all those seven years ago.

The animation can be a bit bizarre: characters are drawn rather crudely with oversized heads and tiny mouths, while backgrounds and especially the movements of the sea and waves are done with much care for detail so the lapping waters and the shadows that appear and break up constantly over them look real. The characters themselves though are not very well developed and the animation and narrative rely heavily on the voice actors to make the characters seem more than angst-ridden millennial-born stereotypes.

While the narrative does have holes in parts, and the notion that a scientist or academic could be so easily fooled by a very mundane everyday object in the natural world – which in itself says something about how estranged humanity has become from nature and, by implication, reality – the film deals with its themes and the way in which the narrative develops and unfurls very deftly. One finds oneself sympathising and commiserating with Etienne while also laughing at him.

O Lucky Man! – a blackly comic odyssey criticising capitalist ideology and values

Lindsay Anderson, “O Lucky Man!” (1973)

A satirical allegory that exposes life in Western capitalist society and the values and beliefs needed to survive successfully in it, “O Lucky Man!” presents as an odyssey of one Michael Travis (Malcolm MacDowell) who starts the film as a novice sales representative thrown by his employer Imperial Coffee into the deep end to market and sell coffee to various retail clients in northeast England after the regular sales rep Oswald disappears. During his time as salesman, MacDowell is seduced by Mrs Ball (Mary MacLeod), a housekeeper at the hotel where he stays during his business trips around the designated sales zone; he later discovers that a number of his company clients have closed shop and retrenched their workers (so they won’t be needing any more coffee to keep the staff happy) due to the prevailing economic climate of the period (early 1970s); and he ends up imprisoned and tortured at a secret government nuclear facility that happens to be a company client. (The bureaucrats there believe he is a Communist spy.) The facility has a fire emergency that blows up the buildings and sets Travis’ car on fire but Travis manages to find his way out of the secret facility.

He winds up at a private medical facility owned by Dr Millar (Graham Crowden) who is conducting secret genetic research that generates quite alarming results. Travis manages to escape and winds up with the Alan Price Band, travelling to a gig in London with groupie Patricia Burgess (Helen Mirren) in tow. Through Patricia, with whom he falls in love, Travis gets a job with her father Sir James Burgess (Ralph Richardson), a millionaire industrialist who sells a hideous napalm-like chemical euphemistically called “honey” to Dr Munda, the dictator president of Zingara, a brutal Third World police state that keeps its people in poverty and enslaved on plantations and factories producing products for the First World while managing at the same time to pose as a playground for wealthy First World tourists. Burgess, Dr Munda and their staff scheme to frame Travis as culpable for fraud and Travis ends up being convicted in a rigged trial and sentenced to jail for five years.

After serving his time, during which he studies philosophy and behaves as a model prisoner, Travis is released back into the community where he undergoes more trials involving contacts with the poor and the marginalised in society, culminating in a vicious attack on him by homeless people in a dump.

Interspersed throughout the film are shots of Alan Price and his musicians singing and performing songs that comment on Travis’ adventures and the pitfalls that await those who, like Travis, strive for material success, wealth and the admiration of their peers above all else. A subplot that starts with an “old” grainy film of Latin-American labourers harvesting coffee beans and one defiant worker (MacDowell) having his hands cut off by a foreman for a colonialist plantation owner and then demonstrates Britain’s downfall as an imperial empire to the extent that the country tries to maintain its status as a world power by engaging in indirect colonial rule through proxy dictators oppressing their own people, so that the British can continue to grab profits from exploiting former colonies’ natural resources, is threaded through Travis’ adventures: the relationship between the colonialists and the colonised may change and become more indirect and complicated, but the violence and exploitation remain much the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The exploitation and violence that Britain visits upon Third World populations with “honey” are soon turned on Travis himself; his innocence, helpfulness and ambition exploited by Burgess, he is soon sent to prison. After his five-year stint there, Travis is let loose in the streets with nowhere to go, despite his new knowledge of philosophy and the reading he has done; this is analogous to a layer of middle class people in Third World countries who absorb all they can of Western civilisation but can find no way of using it to benefit their poorer compatriots. Unfortunately the poor and the homeless are no better than the rich or the middle class in beating up on Travis and leaving him for dead; this may be director Anderson’s way of showing how capitalist ideology and values degrade all of society, not just its upper and more privileged levels.

Several actors play at least two or three different roles in the film which may highlight the apparent randomness (or not) in capitalist society in its selection of some people for fame and fortune and others for disaster. This fact is exploited for comic effect in parts where some of Travis’ fellow prisoners are played by the same actors who played the salesman’s fellow trainee sales reps near the beginning of the film. Even with actors juggling different roles, the size of the cast is still astonishing. Probably the most outstanding performances, aside from MacDowell who carries the film admirably on his shoulders, are those of Rachel Roberts in playing a corporate psychologist with a secret crush on Travis, Dr Munda’s secretary / mistress and Mrs Richards the suicidal working-class housewife; and of Ralph Richardson as James Burgess and Monty, a caretaker at a working-class hotel.

The film may be rather long in piling punishment upon punishment on Travis, particularly in his post-prison life where he is literally lost in a wilderness, unable to find a niche where he can survive without being kicked around. It does lose focus at times in a plot of black comedy skits barely hanging together but every so often Alan Price and his band appear in the nick of time to critique 1970s British society. The three-hour marathon running time passes very quickly as there is so much to absorb in each little episode – and the episodes featuring Dr Munda are not only at once droll and gruesome in their detail, they are also painfully contemporary and confronting in an age in which Western countries, in their long economic twilight of deindustrialisation, decreasing influence over other nations, and dealings with corrupt governments to safeguard their own interests, are going backwards.

Clean Cut: short whimsical sci-fi black comedy of an unlikely serial killer in the making

Andrew Hunt, “Clean Cut” (2015)

From DUST, an online channel specialising in screening science fiction films made by up-and-coming film-makers comes this very amusing and cheeky horror comedy short starring an autonomous robot vacuum cleaner. Roomba keeps the floors of its owner’s house spotlessly clean and the film also hints that the robot does double duty as a security guard. One night a burglar (Scott Jorgenson) breaks into the house but suffers a heart attack and spills his life-saving tablets all over the floor. Lying helplessly supine on the floor, he implores Roomba to save him by passing the tablets over but Roomba hoovers them up and the burglar dies. In a remarkable and breathtaking bird’s-eye point-of-view shot with the wooden floor as backdrop, Roomba zooms up and down: each time it zooms up the floor, it is carrying plastic bags, tape and an already bloodied electric saw. We hear noises of cutting from off-screen, then Roomba zooms down dragging the bag full of wrapped body parts!

From this moment on, though there is not much left of the film, we get subtle hints of Roomba’s growing self-awareness (the machine pauses to gaze at its bloodied reflection in a mirror) and the beginnings of an emotional life (it angrily flashes red when its owner verbally abuses it after all the work it has done for him). Viewers are left in no doubt that a new if rather gruesome vocation beckons for Roomba and the owner had better watch his own back.

While the plot is laughable and wouldn’t bear more than a five-minute short before it thins out, the film maintains audience interest by filming at the Roomba’s level and emphasising a minimalist approach to its story and characters with lots of close-up shots. The whimsical music adds to the general improbable theme of an ordinary, even banal household gadget, cute to look at and for toddlers to ride, having a secret life as a serial killer capable of emotions and having the motivation to choose its victims and plot its next murders. Even the smallest, most harmless-looking object, provided it has sufficient intelligence, can become a killing machine monster.

The Farewell: thin plot, poor characterisation should have farewelled this film

Lulu Wang, “The Farewell” (2019)

As a character study of an individual torn between her parents’ Chinese culture and the Western culture she has grown up in, yet not fitting into either culture all that well, “The Farewell” just passes muster though not as well as it could have done given its running time of 100 minutes. Apart from this, which gives actor / musician Awkwafina an opportunity to prove her acting ability as that individual Billi, the film is very thin and uninteresting in its plot and most of its characterisation, with lots of irrelevant filler scenes, poor cinematography and humour that relies on so many cultural stereotypes that, had it been made by a non-Asian director, would have damned “The Farewell” as racist.

“The Farewell” is set during a crisis period in main character Billi’s life as an aspiring 30-year-old writer: unable to pay her rent, needing money and receiving news that her application for a Guggenheim Fellowship grant has been rejected, Billi has to move back in with her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). The parents receive news from family in Changchun that Haiyan’s mother (Zhao Shuzhen), called Nai Nai / Grandma, has been diagnosed by hospital doctors as having terminal lung cancer and with only a few months left to live. Through an elaborate series of deceptions which involve manipulating the hospital test results, Nai Nai’s relatives have avoided telling her the bad news and instead have assured her that the “benign shadows” on her scans are nothing to worry about. The relatives have also arranged for Haiyan’s brother and his family, living in Japan, to come to Changchun and bring their son Haohao and his fiancee Aiko to marry in China: this subterfuge enables the entire extended family to see Nai Nai one last time before she dies. Fearing that Billi – who has always been close to Nai Nai – won’t be able to keep the grandmother’s illness secret, Haiyan and Jian fly to Changchun and leave Billi back home in New York. Furious, Billi flies out to Changchun herself not long after the parents leave.

The rest of the film follows Billi in her clashes with the relatives and even the hospital staff over their constant lying to Nai Nai about the real nature of her condition. During one fight, Billi’s uncle tells her that the lie is necessary to enable a dying person’s family to bear the emotional burden of the disease diagnosis, and that this is an example of the collectivist values of Chinese society that differentiates it from Western society with its emphasis on the individual: a rather pat and superficial explanation that at least tones down some of the conflict. In amongst the fighting, the melodrama and close-ups of family members in tears or biting back their anger, the film lingers over scenes of the family visiting a cemetery and paying its respects to dead relatives, and over Haohao and Aiko’s wedding celebrations. These scenes are mined rather excessively for slapstick kitsch humour that add very little to the film’s plot. The only time the film has any spirit at all is during scenes featuring Nai Nai: Zhao plays the spritely and mischievous nanna with such depth, feeling and humour that anyone with a heart would feel compelled also to lie to her about her illness, whether Chinese or not.

At the end of the film, viewers are left clueless about the family’s history and what Billi has learned from this final trip to see Nai Nai before returning to the US. (The end credits suggest that the woman on whom Nai Nai is based was still alive six years after her cancer diagnosis.) Whatever legacy Nai Nai leaves with Billi is also unclear. Even the city in which Billi’s relatives live remains unidentified until about halfway through the film; though Billi and her relatives from Japan stay in Changchun for about a week, they don’t appear to go sightseeing much and an opportunity for viewers to vicariously experience the sights of Changchun is lost.

Yours truly believes that a potentially good film about connection between generations separated by time, culture, language and distance, and the existential plight of individuals who are of two cultures yet can fit into neither comfortably, is buried beneath a very superficial film milking cultural differences and traditions for cheap laughs. Were it not for Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen and the rapport these two actors have, “The Farewell” deserves to be farewelled rather than welcomed by movie critics.

Hail Satan? – fun film about a Satanic movement with a serious message about social justice and religious hypocrisy and oppression

Penny Lane, “Hail Satan?” (2019)

Funny and serious at the same time, tight and well made with plenty of information on the history of religious freedom and how it has been abused by evangelical Christians and government working together (and also plenty of popular culture references), this documentary explores the agenda and development of an organisation claiming to be “religious” and to worship Satan but is actually trying to enforce religious freedom and plurality, promote social justice and highlight in a public way through staging amusing stunts the hypocrisy of government, Protestant Christianity and their allies in paying lip service to political freedoms and the separation of religion and the state. Viewers should not worry that the film shows any strange or perverted rituals as there is very little in it that can be called Satanic; what perversion or cult-like behaviour that exists in the film actually arises in the reactions of conservative evangelical Christians to the satirical stunts of self-proclaimed Satanists, and in the film’s rundown of past public scares focused on supposed Satanic ritual abuse of children which actually led to innocent people being tried, found guilty of non-existent crimes and imprisoned.

Inspired by the example of Anton Szandor LaVey who founded the Church of Satan in the late 1960s as an expression of individualism and free will, The Satanic Temple (hereafter referred to as TST) was founded by Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry, though only Lucine Greaves actually appears in the film. TST first came to public attention in 2013 with its support for a bill signed into law in Florida by Governor Rick Scott allowing students to lead prayer in school; because the law does not specify which religion the students must belong to, it logically allows Satan-worshipping students the freedom to lead prayer in school. Other activities TST chapters across the United States have engaged in include rubbish collection on beaches and highways; performing a Pink Mass over the grave of the mother of the founder of Westboro Baptist Church who planned to picket the funerals of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing; setting up an after-school program called After School Satan to ensure religious freedom and diversiy are respected, and all religions get the same rights and privileges in establishing after-school clubs; and, most memorably, setting up statues of Baphomet alongside public installations of statues of the Ten Commandments outside state capitol buildings in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

In amongst all this activity, Greaves struggles with running an organisation and movement that has grown very quickly, perhaps too fast for one or two persons to handle, and inevitably there are disagreements and conflicts over how TST followers should challenge hypocrisy, discrimination and injustice wherever they find it, with some people believing working within systems can change them, and others believing systems should be challenged and confronted, with the result that one early member, Jex Blackmore, ends up being excommunicated for supposedly threatening violence against President Trump. While TST imposes no more than seven tenets of belief on its followers (all of which are presented in the film), the interpretation of these proves to vary quite wildly among TST members.

Director Lane keeps the pace going briskly with smooth segues from one scenario to another, and adding snippets of an eclectic selection of horror movies, old newsreels, cartoons and rock music videos where appropriate into her narrative to illustrate a point or mock a particular point of view. One particular theme that stands out is how so much of Americans take for granted about their culture or the place of Christianity in US culture turns out to have been influenced by or even originated by Hollywood; another is that the US was founded as a secular nation and society by the so-called Founding Fathers (signatories of the US Declaration of Independence), a fact denied by evangelical Christianity.

There is not much in-depth examination of TST’s structure – indeed, the organisation comes across as spontaneous and organic, not at all hierarchical, in its network – and most of the in-fighting and conflicts of TST were left out of the film. Neither is there any information on the history of Satanism in Western society, how it originally arose and what the motivations behind it were. The organisation is presented as a fun bunch of witty and creative social activist trolls parodying and satirising the pomposity, stupidity – and often the plain viciousness and criminality – of mainstream Christian denominations. Criticisms of TST’s activities from other Satanic organisations or even from TST members themselves are non-existent. (Significantly the film’s director herself joined TST after editing the film.)

Beneath the entertainment, the stunts and TST members’ sometimes outrageous appearances – Lane makes a point of interviewing several TST members who come from all walks of life – there is a very serious message about how some mainstream forms of Christianity have suppressed freedom of religion and equality in worship, and have extended their malign beliefs and influences into everyday life to deny people control over their lives and bodies, and how people who put themselves on the front-line to fight oppression do so with very little money and support from others against insurmountable odds – yet achieve victories with courage, creativity and chutzpah.

Parasite: tale of two families is a stinging attack on capitalism and social hierarchy

Bong Joonho, “Parasite / Gisaengchung” (2019)

A stinging attack on capitalism in South Korean society and its effects on people’s thinking and actions, “Parasite” pits two families, both of which have common Korean surnames, from two polar opposite sides of the socioeconomic spectrum in a bleak black comedy full of twists and extreme surprises. The film’s tone is not always even, and slapstick comedy easily and quickly slips into a dark and depressive meditation on the effects of poverty and preying on others’ naivety and gullibility. Kim Kitaek (Song Kangho, a regular in Bong’s films), an ex-driver, heads a family of grifters living like rats in a basement unit at the tail-end of Skid Row in a slum neighbourhood somewhere in Seoul or Busan and trying to make ends meet by folding and recycling pizza boxes for a delivery business. One day, Kitaek’s son Kiwoo (Choi Wooshik) meets up with an old college friend who is currently employed as an English-language tutor by a rich family for their teenage daughter; the friend is about to go overseas and wants to recommend Kiwoo to replace him. Armed with documents forged by his sister Kijeong (Park Sodam), Kiwoo goes to the family’s mansion where he is interviewed by Mrs Park (Yo Yeojeong) and meets the daughter Dahye; he gets the job after giving Dahye a lesson while Mrs Park watches. Noticing that Mrs Park’s son has artwork pinned up on the lounge-room wall, Kiwoo recommends that a “friend” of his, Jessica, might be available to teach the son, Dasong, art. Mrs Park is amenable to the suggestion and soon Jessica – in reality, Kijeong herself – is giving art therapy to Dasong.

Kijeong soon contrives to get dad Kitaek a job as the Parks’ chauffeur. No sooner does Kitaek get the job driving Mr Park (Lee Sunkyun) than he and his adult children manage to throw out the Parks’ housekeeper Moongwang (Lee Jeungeun) to be replaced by Kitaek’s wife Choongsook (Jang Hyejin). Thus the entire Kim family is comfortably ensconced in the Parks’ luxurious Modernist mansion and the four celebrate with a loud drunken party at the Parks’ expense while the Parks go on a weekend camping trip – at least until Moongwang turns up unexpectedly to attend to a secret she has kept hidden in the mansion’s basement for a number of years and discovers the truth about the Kims and their ruse to get rid of her and the chauffeur.

After that surprise twist in the film’s plot, the narrative lurches from comedy to horror, back and forth, as the Kims fight Moongwang and the unexpected house-guest husband Moongwang has kept in the basement who is on the run from loan-shark creditors. The threat that Moongwang and her husband pose to the Kims’ secret culminates spectacularly and bloodily during an extravagant birthday party the Parks throw for Dasong. The body count is high, the lives of three families are torn asunder and the film closes on a sad, wistful and very bleak note.

An otherwise silly story is made grave as well as comic by ambiguous characterisation: the Kim family, though very much needy and in desperate economic straits, is also portrayed as greedy and cruel in its own way (though Kitaek does also have some compassion for Moongwang and her husband, whose lives are not all that different from the Kim family’s own difficulties); and the Park family, while privileged and spoilt, is generous in its own way. The children appear more intelligent than their ditzy mother. Mr Park comes across as an overgrown selfish adolescent, concerned more about Kitaek being able to take corners at speed in a way that doesn’t spill his (Park’s, that is) coffee.

The true villain of the piece is the capitalist society in which the Kims and Moongwang and her husband are forced to scrabble for existence like rats literally living underground while families like the Parks, whose fortunes are made off the backs of people like the Kims, splash their money on expensive (but cold and empty) luxury homes and frivolous pursuits. Who are the real parasites here? As in many of Bong’s films – “Mother” comes to mind here – characters are frequently driven by their situations and the social environment they are born into and grow up in to commit acts that are irreversible and have dramatic life-changing consequences and which they come to regret.

Once again Song Kangho is in a class of his own playing a comic character who is not always too bright but is capable of deep insight into his and his family’s condition; the rest of the cast do capable work but are always in his shadow. The Parks’ mansion is a significant character in its own right and mirrors the two-faced condition of capitalist society: it shows off plenty of beautiful (and superficial) surface gleam and glamour but hides a sinister subterranean secret as any self-respecting house of horror should.

For all its bonkers plotting and characterisation, all working out perfectly and logically plot-wise, the film becomes despairing when Kiwoo capitulates to the demands of South Korean society and Korean tradition in order to save what remains of his family after they have struggled through their storm and stress. Viewers are likely to feel short-changed by this treatment of the Kims. What happens to the Parks after they flee the mansion remains unknown.

Rocketman: the rise and fall and rise again of a beloved British rock / pop icon, with no reference to social and music trends

Dexter Fletcher, “Rocketman” (2019)

Rather than playing as a straight biopic – a template that felled “Bohemian Rhapsody” – this comedy drama portraying the life and career of British rock / pop-star Elton John from his childhood in the 1950s as a piano prodigy to the 1980s when he crashes into rehabilitation to seek treatment for various addictions opts for a surreal musical fantasy approach in which various of Elton John’s best-known songs illustrate the artist’s trajectory from shy young boy Reginald Dwight whose parents hate each other, quarrel and neglect Reggie’s emotional needs, to aspiring rocker teaming with lyricist Bernie Taupin to write songs, to glam rock performer whose personal life eventually spirals out of control with abusive relationships (including one with his manager John Reid), cocaine and other drug addictions, and bulimia. The result is an energetic, flamboyant and highly entertaining, if not exactly informative, account of Elton John’s rise and fall and rise again as a star and human being who gains some sort of redemption and finds some peace in accepting himself as he is, warts and all.

For all its zing and colour and outrageousness, the narrative turns out to be conventional and its message is nothing out of the ordinary: it’s the story of an ordinary boy with a musical gift who wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted, and who tries to find that special love and to be accepted, at the same time taking career risks that open doors and propel him onto a path of fame and fortune. His journey steers him into episodes of doubt, self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour: at one point in the film, he attempts suicide in spectacular manner by throwing himself into a swimming pool in the middle of a party. True to form, at the bottom of the pool he finds his childhood self tinkling on a toy piano singing one of his famous songs. Welsh singer / actor Taron Egerton does a sterling job playing Elton John in a fairly demanding role that requires him to be as much comic as dramatic actor wearing a full range of outlandish stage clothes and glasses along with a terrible haircut, and enduring psychological abuse from both his parents (played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) and his lover / manager (Richard Madden).

It is to Fletcher’s credit as a director that the movie moves swiftly and easily through familiar musical numbers that take leaps and jumps through the decades, focusing on just a few significant events in John’s life. Strangely the film does not detail John’s obsession with his receding hairline and battle against baldness; neither does it note any friendships or rivalries he might have had with other British rock and pop stars. Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is not much more than walking and talking wallpaper. The film’s sets – the settings include John’s mansion in Los Angeles as well as the middle class Fifties home where he grows up along with the many venues he performs in – merit special attention as do the many costumes the performer donned over the years.

Apart from detailing how a beloved British music icon managed to navigate the perils of fame, wealth and celebrity to accept and learn to forgive himself, and to let go of the abusive people in his life, the film actually tells viewers very little about how Elton John came to be such a megastar and how he managed to stay on top for so long. Too much of his life is crammed into a couple of hours and the film tends to dwell a lot on his costumes and theatricality without suggesting why such flamboyance was a necessary part of his act. Significantly the film has very little to say about the social and musical trends of the decades in which Elton John’s career developed and catapulted him to worldwide fame and great material fortune.

The Chaperone: preferring a character stereotype over portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon

Michael Engler, “The Chaperone” (2018)

A film of self-discovery and self-transformation leading to personal freedom, “The Chaperone” is a fictional account of real-life silent movie icon Louise Brooks’ journey as a young teenager from Wichita, Kansas, to New York City to audition for and join the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in the early 1920s. The young Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) is accompanied by Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) who offered herself to Louise’s mother as the girl’s chaperone after overhearing the mother in conversation with friends. It turns out that Norma has her own reasons for fleeing Wichita and travelling with Louise: Norma’s marriage to Alan (Campbell Scott) is on the rocks after she catches him in bed with a man; and she wants to know the identity of her biological mother who placed her in a Roman Catholic orphanage in NYC when she was a baby.

After Louise and Norma arrive in NYC, the film follows Norma’s travails in getting past the unyielding nuns and finding her details, in the process winning the admiration and then the heart of caretaker Joseph (Geza Rohrig), and then contacting someone who might know her birth mother. Norma’s further adventures in finding her biological family end in heartbreak however. In the meantime, Louise trains for and finally wins a place in the prestigious dance school run by Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis (Robert Fairchild and Miranda Otto) though the film insinuates that she really only makes the grade more by sheer talent than by hard work and dedication: the girl spends her free time chatting up young men in cafes and nightclubs, mingling with Afro-Americans (at a time when black and white people were expected to lead separate lives) and generally being unconventional in ways that shock Norma. Through Louise’s example and the unexpected ways in which her own life unravels and develops, Norma learns to become a more tolerant person, and her inner evolution opens up new ways of thinking and feeling that enable her to take control of her own life.

The film excels mainly as a character study of a typical middle-class woman of its period who changes in ways that would have been rare or even impossible for most women of her social layer in Midwest America in the early 1920s. Elizabeth McGovern does excellent work in this respect though the eye-rolling seems excessive. Richardson as Brooks is a great foil who constantly prods and challenges Norma. The supporting cast also does good work and the film’s period details are meticulously done.

Where the film really could have excelled is in contrasting more strongly the trajectories of Norma and Louise’s personal journeys after the two separate: Norma eventually carves out an unconventional family life in which she amicably resolves her marriage issues with Alan and lives with a new lover at the same time; and Louise finds stardom as a dancer and then as a silent movie icon before her career hits the skids while she is still in her 20s. Viewers learn nothing about how and why Louise is all washed up by the age of 35 years when she and Norma meet again, perhaps for the last time, after an interval of 20 years. The battle that Louise Brooks waged to be her own woman and her refusal to be bullied by movie studios is completely erased from the film. The most the film allows viewers to see of Louise Brooks’ defiance of the social conventions of her day is when she tells Norma that she had been molested as a child but since then had refused to act a victim role and instead decided to flaunt her sexuality once she became a teenager. After Norma advises Louise to leave Wichita again, she saunters back to her own family, content to live how she wants while maintaining a facade of a happy marriage on her own terms. (This does not sound exactly revolutionary and for all we know, many families of all social levels could have lived in similar unconventional ways.)

While it’s a pleasant and visually attractive film to watch, “The Chaperone” in fact steers clear of portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon and instead goes for a stereotyped treatment of a fictional upper middle class woman’s transformation. The real Louise Brooks and her battle against social and cultural expectations and attitudes would have been far more interesting to know.