The Lighthouse (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)
Robert Egger's sophomore effort was my most anticipated film of the year; his debut, The Witch, was an exercise in human lunacy and an impressive first feature. The Lighthouse stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two lighthouse keepers who are stranded in the most horrid weather surrounded by rocks and loud seagulls. Eggers turns up the lunacy in this film as this is a claustrophobic roommate/ buddy psychological horror comedy that, in all honesty, defies any genre that I can possibly assign it.
The Lighthouse is a showcase for its two stars who are delivering archaic, Shakespearean and rapid-fire dialogue; these two were truly some of the finest performances I have ever had the pleasure of watching on screen. The subtitles definitely help encrypt their sailor swears; the dialogue would have you reaching for your dictionary if you were to watch it at home. Willem Dafoe is completely comfortable playing this power-crazed sailor (Tom Wake) who is taunting Robert Pattinson's character Ephraim whose more physically demanding duties are limited to tending to sanitation and maintaining the lighthouse's rotation machinery. Ephraim is an uptight scout boy at the beginning who only follows the manual, but he is disappointed to find that Tom hoards the all-important lighthouse duties upstairs to himself.
Ephraim becomes gradually obsessed with this mythical vision he has of the lighthouse, and the longer they stay at the rocks the more miserable he is. Dafoe has a commanding presence throughout but around halfway through the film, Pattinson comes alive and delivers an explosive performance that has been compared to Jack Nicholson's The Shining. The movie itself has a lot of classic visual cues and its pressure cooker, free flow narrative style harkens back to cinema giants like Tarkovsky, Hitchcock, and Kubrick. It's shot completely in black and white and in a shrunk aspect ratio [4:3] that resembles a doorway, so you would be forgiven for thinking that this movie is a restoration from the silent era.
The movie also has its mythical and fantastical elements that more or less are treated in complete realism. If all of this sounds grim, I can't overstate how ridiculously hilarious this movie is. At times the characters act like a quarreling married couple, and the scenes of them drinking hopelessly and deliriously are some of the wildest scenes of recent years. The third act is visually arresting and the acting becomes wholly physical from both of the characters. The last shot of the movie could be a twisted painting hung in a French museum. Eggers has created a mad vision and an improvement on his much-acclaimed debut. The Lighthouse is a stunning piece of work.
Parasite is the latest film from one of my favorite filmmakers, Bong Joon-ho, who won the biggest prize at Cannes this past weekend. The social satire revolves around a lower class family living in a sub-basement and collectively scheming their way on how to ease their economic burdens. The opening shot establishes their tiny home, then we are introduced to the entire family (a father, a mother, a son and a daughter) scattering to find a free Wi-fi because their upstairs neighbor recently made theirs private. Their enabling father Ki-taek, played by Bong's regular collaborator Song Kang-ho, tells his son and daughter to aim high for the roof in order to get free wifi which they eventually do. At the beginning they get paid for their fast service, folding flat boxes for pizza companies; they take life on day by day and are always grateful. The tragicomedy also kicks in at the beginning when they spot a fumigator near their basement, and they all proceed to shut the window but the patriarch of the family tells them to stop since it's an opportunity to get free fumigation. The scene is funny and yet when we see their home fumigated with them quietly in it, it's heartbreaking.
Bong Joon-ho specializes in this type of pseudo-comedy, in his biggest movie to date 'The Host' about a massive creature underneath the sea, he manages to fit in comedy, commentary on Korean bureaucracy and United States intervention in all things global. But he is operating on a completely different level here as he introduces this concept of leeching off the rich in so many different ways; the bare minimum level which we've all partaken in and can relate to being leeching for free Wi-fi. We're completely on board with each devious and desperate plan the family is concocting because they are sharp and funny.
One day the son (Ki-jung) gets a visit from a middle-class friend who is teaching English to a rich family's teenager daughter. He asks him to take over his lessons as he is preparing to travel outside of Korea. Ki-jung is ready for the task despite not having any credentials, at which point his sister comes in handy as a professional forger. He gets the job on the spot and the brilliant thing with the script is that this lower class family know how to maneuver the rich family's world and know exactly what they want to hear. So the biggest scheme is for Ki-jung to find a way to refer his otherwise unemployable family and get them to work at the massive estate. Never has there been a funnier job reference scam in the history of movies, each joke pays off and the poor belittle the rich for their evident gullibility.
The wildcard plot device that is introduced an hour into the movie is best left unsaid, but it has to do with a cyclic leeching of sorts that is reminiscent of Jordan Peele's Us. Bong Joon-ho takes a Michael Haneke approach into introducing the unexpected violent section of the movie. In the most ridiculous and exhilarating turn, it pulls the comfortable rug from under your feet; audiences will be left disoriented by the contrast of tones in the third act. I thought it accomplished what it set out to do marvelously. There are some stand out acting moments, one involving a violent outburst from Ki-taek, and another bizarre scene from the caretaker of the rich family busting into North Korea propaganda news parody. It's rare to see films so comprehensively thrilling and entertaining; it was welcomed with many applauds in several scenes of hilarity. But the turn this movie takes will have audiences sitting quietly trying to absorb what has just transpired on screen. Parasite will be talked about for the rest of the year, and I hope the Palme d'Or award will help get the film nominated at next year's Oscars (no Korean film has ever been nominated which is absolutely baffling given their yearly quality output).
Pain and Glory (⭐⭐⭐⭐)
Pedro Almodovar's self-referential 'auto-fiction' was one of the highlights at the Cannes Film Festival with Antonio Banderas winning best actor for his portrayal of the physically worn out director Salvador Mallo. There is a bizarre 5-minute scene at the beginning that breaks down each of Banderas' physical limitations which are comprehensive and makes him the real version of Samuel L Jackson's broken character Glass. This is Almodovar working at the height of his visual and emotional storytelling prowess. This is Almodovar's quiet and reserved version of Fellini's 8 1/2 especially the story cutting back to Salvador's childhood and the women that shaped him. Banderas is fantastic in the role of a man who has accomplished everything and is now living a solitary life in a gorgeous house; he thinks of his expensive paintings as companions. His personal assistant is the only consistent presence after the death of his beloved mother.
There are appearances from Penelope Cruz playing a younger version of his mother, and a special cameo from Rosaliá who enchants us with her sumptuous and whimsical vocals. The story is meandering at first until it is purposeful and full of coincidences that arise as a result of neat and beautiful narrative. Salvador is screening an older masterpiece of his for restoration, and he is asked if he could present with his leading man (Alberto) from 30 years ago who he had a big fight with. But the confrontation we expect is quickly dissipated the minute they try heroine together; I expect it would be of some relief for sickly Salvador. We learn that Salvador's illnesses include choking on any solid food or even air, broken back, constant headaches and depression as presented in a comical PowerPoint style. This has contributed to his inability to be physically present and direct a film once more.
Alberto is desperate for an acting gig, and in an altered state he discovers one of Salvador's personal screenplays 'Addiction' and he begs him to perform it as a one-man show. This event in the movie becomes a portal into Salvador's creative youth and his love life. The movie doesn't really have a beginning or an end, it is a slice of life of someone with a creative pursuit. The cinematography and colors in this film are exquisite. Antonio Banderas has nothing to prove here, but it is a reminder that he can also be a subtle character actor. This is one of Pedro Almodovar's best films since another Banderas collaboration 'The Skin I Live In'.
Zombi Child (⭐⭐⭐⭐)
Zombi Child is the latest from Bertnard Bonello dealing with familiar themes in his filmograhy such as colonialism; especially his last film Nocturama which was an explosive and hypnotic vision about Parisian, extremist teenagers. Zombi Child is centered around a sisterhood in a French boarding school for children of parents with a medal/ legion of honor from France. Their new recruit is a Haitian immigrant, Mellisa, whose family passed away during the huge earthquake in 2011 and is currently living with her Aunt in Paris.
This particular storyline is set in modern-day Paris while the other storyline refers to the title and is set in late 60s Haiti. It demystifies what we know to be a zombie and takes us through the last day of the main character's grandfather who was buried alive and risen to become a slave in a plantation in Haiti. This version of a zombie is strictly a Haitian mythical and tragic figure based on true occurrences. The 'zombifying' of the Grandfather, Clairvius Narcisse, once made headlines in Haiti early 60s. The zombie in this film is living a second life with limitations and rarely can they roam around freely unconscious. This is paralleled with Melissa's storyline in Paris. The way these storylines merge is astounding and the whole film plays like a dream and it's light and funny until it's emphatically wild in its third act. The third act revolves around Melissa's recruiter Fanny who gets entangled in the web of Haiti's voodoo culture by reaching out to Melissa's aunt about boy trouble.
Bonello arrives at an overwhelmingly strong ending point back in Haiti that may not match the energy of the rest of the movie, but it is great regardless. Zombi Child also had the finest needle drop at Cannes with its end credit song that will give you goosebumps if you're a fan of football. Bonello's use of music in Nocturama was also unconventional and his use of sound and space is arresting. He is quickly becoming one of the most unique directors working today.
A Hidden Life (⭐⭐⭐1/2)
A Hidden Life is a grueling story of defiance and a return to form from legendary director Terrence Malick. It starts out as scenic as some of his best work, namely Tree of Life in the way that it portrays family. The film is set in Austria during World War II and the opening note reads that Austrians had to show loyalty to Hitler. It's a heavy subject matter but one that also has a powerful message as evident in its ending line which emphasizes the power of just one person who may not end up in any history books.
The head of the household (Franz) has reservations about the current state of politics in Western Europe, and he is even more displeased to be called up for duty during world war II. He is hesitant to even aid the army located near his village with livestock let alone go to the forest and fight for a war he doesn't believe in. The earlier scenes are gorgeous as we see him and his wife starting a new, simple and sweet life. The contrast between the pure ecstatic, dreamlike life they led and where they end up is devastating. Subject matters such as these are so much more powerful when we are focusing on one character or family and it informs the inhumanity of it all.
If you have seen Malick's mesmeric work in the past, then you'll know what to expect. But he really hones in on the emotions purely through the performances he gets out of his characters and the beautiful score underlying the injustice. There is a special appearance from the late Bruno Ganz who plays the ashamed judge who is in charge of sentencing Franz for being a conscientious objector. It will be a trying watch for those unfamiliar with Malick, but there is something to latch on to in this film on a human level, especially with the family at the center of this.
Mati Diop is best known for her role in Claire Denis' unforgettable 35 shots of Rum. This week she became the first African woman to premiere her debut film Atlantiques at Cannes. It is a strange melding of the timely topic of immigration and a ghost tale, set in Senegal. It is also a story of love and heartbreak at its core. Diop won the second coveted prize Grand Prix at Cannes for her film.
The film starts off with young love and the central character Ana is seeing a boy she likes as opposed to her soon husband to be in an arranged marriage. It shows the current socio-economic situation in Africa; the opening shot shows a gigantic sci-fi inspired building on barren land where thousands are being employed to finish construction. These workers haven't been paid in three months and a few of them quietly head for Spain. One of these boys is Ada's lover and their last night is heartbreaking because he can't tell her that he is migrating. The perils of sea travel worry Ada and she is devastated to lose the love of her life forever. The story eventually mirrors Olivier Assay's personal shopper when Ada receives strange messages on her phone of either a ghost lover or a threat to her life. It also highlights the tradition of choosing a young girl's life for her, and the only agency Ada had that she could call her own was her lover who is lost at sea.
It is certainly a unique vision and while it tends to lag a bit, there is a clear intent on which Diop is operating. Claire Denis' influence on her is clear to see here minus the fantastical elements. The key choice to see the lost souls at sea as reincarnations who want their dues is truly haunting. There is one particular shot of a police officer going through wedding footage and discovering something that isn't meant to be there. Through these scenes, Diop creates a believable parable of the immigration crisis in examining cause and effect in the ever-growing globalism that values development projects than humans themselves. In some ways, Atlantique is similar to Bong Joon-ho's Parasite in its depiction of poverty and the wealth gap. Diop's vision is clear and the manner she chose to execute that vision is commendable.