A working-class family insinuates themselves into the household of a rich family.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Starring Song Kang-ho, Cho Yeo-jeong, and Choi Woo-shik
Review by Jon Kissel
Bong Joon-ho is a kind of South Korean jack-of-all-trades, in that his movies defy easy classification. His contemporaries are more easily put into boxes, between the psycho-sexual extremity of Park Chan-wook or the mysterious morality plays of Lee Chang-dong or the low-key romance of Hong Sang-soo. Bong is all over the place, often within the same film. His breakout film, Memories of Murder, is a police farce, a ground-level satire, and a deadly serious serial killer chase. He followed that with a comedic monster film, a murder mystery, a post-apocalyptic class metaphor, and an ET-homage, if the government had been trying to eat ET. By being unpredictable for so long, the unpredictability has become his trademark. Wherever a Bong Joon-ho film starts, it’s never clear where it’s going to end. This remains true for his latest and most impactful film, Parasite. The first foreign-language Best Picture winner, Parasite has also ridden a wave of ecstatic critical acclaim, and perhaps recency bias, to feature heavily on end-of-decade lists, all while making a tremendous amount of money over its modest budget. Like all of Bong’s other films, Parasite doesn’t quite fit with what’s come before, but that dissonance doesn’t stop it from being an enthralling exploration of class in a package that is wound like clockwork.
Grief as a motivating theme in horror movies has been a dominant trend, especially amongst the arthouse horror genre of which Midsommar is a part. Directed by Ari Aster, Midsommar is the follow-up to Hereditary, his debut film that opens with a funeral and features a few more before the end credits. Before Aster broke out, he was preceded by The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, and The Witch, all of which background some unspeakable loss in their characters’ lives and then either compound that trauma or personify it in some terrifying visage. It’s not like this is a new development, as you can’t tell a ghost story without a dead body, but the last several years have accentuated emotional rawness and heightened feelings of dread over horror’s usual jump scares, both tactics that make what’s viewed as a B-genre more meaningful. There’s plenty of meaning to be found on the walls and in the background of Midsommar, a film that combines its thinking on grief with a cult, something that always sparks my interest. Aster doesn’t quite top himself after the intensity of Hereditary, but he’s two-for-two thus far, and just as able to create tension in broad daylight as he was in Hereditary’s pitch black.
Someone’s going to make a great legal thriller one day about the Satanic Panic, wherein delirious fears of devil worship combined with quack psychology and a gullible justice system to send people to jail on made-up charges. No one’s done it yet on the feature level, though there’s been strong Satanic Panic-adjacent documentaries like the ones about the West Memphis Three. Pre-Hail Satan, director Penny Lane’s first impulse was to make just such a documentary, but the devoted and earnest outcasts of the Satanic Temple caught her attention instead. The resulting effort is perhaps the first evangelizing documentary, or at least the first one that’s ever worked on me. Hail Satan presents such an inspiring vision of countering credulousness and theocracy that I wonder if this is the same feeling morons experience when they babble in pieced-together baby talk, or, as they would say, speak in tongues. Based on the transgressive thrill the film gives me every time someone says Hail Satan, I think the church might’ve just gained a convert.
Martin Scorsese’s 2019 has found the hall-of-fame director in the center of two of the biggest concerns in the cinematic world. His thoughtful and high-minded discourse about where superhero movies fall in the film landscape endeared him to every cinephile concerned about monopoly power and the worrying trend of anonymous fans sticking up for multi-billion corporations. His choice to make his latest film with Netflix put him on the opposite side of the purists, though it’s hard to imagine a studio financing a $160 million, 209 minute epic that’s far away from the perversely enticing boisterousness of Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Wolf of Wall Street. A still-vital director wading into so many corners of the cultural landscape makes Scorsese a worthy spokesman for American film, especially when he has the goods to back up his talk. The Irishman places Scorsese as the driving force behind one of 2019’s best films, though anytime he makes something new, it’s likely to be in that conversation. What’s surprising is how viciously fanboys have attacked Scorsese’s eminently fair arguments. What’s unsurprising is that one of the medium’s best creators has once again made a masterpiece.
Marriage Story isn’t the first time director Noah Baumbach has taken instances from his life and slapped them onscreen. In The Squid and the Whale, a literary NYC couple divorces just as Baumbach’s parents did and the teenaged kids have to deal with it. Subsequent films of his like While We’re Young and The Meyerowitz Stories are surely infused with Baumbach’s relationship to the younger generation that he’s surrounded by in Brooklyn or with the rest of his family. I’ve seen most of Baumbach’s filmography, and while there’s always some sense of the man himself, especially in the non-Greta Gerwig collaborations, Marriage Story is the one that feels the most raw and real. Baumbach divorced actor Jennifer Jason Leigh in the early 2010’s, and there was likely a point in that three-year process that he pulled out a notepad and started making observations. By engaging in such intense self-examination and writing characters that do the same, Baumbach does that old thing of making the specific into the universal, of finding one couple’s peculiar problems and distilling them into broadly relatable fears and insecurities that most people, married or no, likely have.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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