Join us as we guide you through the wilderness of January’s offerings, signposting directions to Birthday Wonderland, Little Women, Parasite, and Rise of Skywalker. Are any of them worth the journey? Tune in and find out!
Based on the children’s story Strange Journey from the Basement by Sachiko Kashiwaba, Keiichi Hara’s Birthday Wonderland, known in some markets simply as The Wonderland (though its Japanese name is Bāsudē Wandārando, which immediately makes me sound like I’m making fun of a Japanese saying that English name, but is in fact true), is a coming of age tale of a young girl bored with the world and unable to appreciate the natural beauty around her.
This girl is Akane (Mayu Matsuoka), who is despatched by her mother to her friend Chii (Anne Watanabe) and her shop o’ many stuff. Here she is supposed to pick up her birthday present, though Chii has no idea what she’s talking about. Wandering around the cluttered little building (potentially entirely stocked by Chii having persuaded a poor or ignorant person to trade an artwork for some frippery or modern convenience, like a pack of moist wipes), she notices a lump of dried clay with a handprint in it. Obviously, she puts her hand in it (and you would, wouldn’t you?), and she finds her hand stuck. Rather than turning on a half a million-year-old planet sized space-kettle, as similar-looking devices have taught us ought to happen, it summons from the shop’s basement Hippocrates (Masachika Ichimura), a famous alchemist from another world.
“You mean that famous other world? A nearby world, but it’s completely different? The one we see in movies and novels? This thing we call the parallel world? Connected to this basement? I’ve lived here my whole life! This is the first I’ve heard about it!”
Hippocrates commands Akane to come with him as her help is needed, and the flighty but bold and adventure-seeking Chii comes along for the ride. They pass to the parallel world through the basement, and come first to a village populated by makers of woolly jumpers and huge, cute-yet-terrifying spherical sheep. Hippocrates explains to Akane that she is the reincarnation of the Goddess of the Green Wind, and she must help the drought-ridden land. This will involve a long journey, a woolly jumper competition, the Prince of the Perpetual Puddle and an evil skeleton warrior.
The plot and events move along largely by jumps of dream logic, which, while fitting the tried and true “did it all happen or was it just a dream?” story, are as unsatisfying in a film as they are when you’re sleeping, only thanks to being awake you’re aware immediately that they’re problematic. We’re leaving the town of the nightmare mutton spheres; now we’re in a sandstorm; now in the mountains while an old man waxes lyrical about snowflakes; now we’re driving off a bridge that stops in the middle of a lake, and landing on a giant lily pad; now Akane’s cat has appeared as a customs official with an unusual way to demonstrate love. Why? ???????? is why.
As the reborn Goddess, Akane has a destiny to fulfil, but as she is given no instruction at all as to what to do, or why, or what is expected of her, and as she has no agency anyway, it’s pretty unsatisfying as a story, and the end result is largely “oh, I guess flowers are kinda neat”.
In the end, though Birthday Wonderland is still entertaining, and quite funny in places, it is sorely lacking in the wonder that its title promises, or in any narrative tension, very much being all surface, no feeling. However, the animation (if perhaps a little over-saturated) is at least generally pleasing to the eye, so it’s by no means a bust, just nothing special.
Much like 10 Cloverfield Lane did for its prequel a couple of years back, so this sequel to 1998’s Small Soldiers seemed to come from out of nowhere, its plot details forming a largely tangential and often downright cryptic connection to that movie.
Barry Lyndon did a lot of things for me, but chiefly it taught me that I ought not to dismiss period dramas out of hand. Having said that I’ve still been skirting them, finding it hard to shake the memories of Gosford Park doing little other than numbing my arse on a cinema seat for 2 hours 11 minutes and 5 hours precisely. I’m never going to watch Downton Abbey, because if the depth of a movie’s stakes bottoms out at “will there be enough scones for the royal tea party” I’m never going to generate enough fucks-given momentum to get over that fucks-needed hill, and as for Jane Austen, well, she still hasn’t risen from the grave and given me back the time she stole in high school English classes.
I was aware of Little Women‘s cultural relevance to American literature as being very much the US analog of Austen, but I have incredibly limited experience of the American classics, which in tandem with my stated bias means Louisa May Alcott’s efforts have never crossed my mind let alone my wheelhouse. I do, however, have some interest in Greta Gerwig as a director following her work on Ladybird. I do also recognise Saoirse Ronan as perhaps the most naturally gifted actor of her generation, and, as I think Drew and I have agreed in an earlier episode, Florence Pugh is rapidly proving herself in a similar vein having given performances that are uniformly excellent even when they are concealed within movies that are not. I couldn’t speak for Timothee Chalamet until this point; I’ve had no desire to watch his work because a) everyone swoons over how wonderfully perfect everything he does is and how wonderfully perfect he is and how wonderfully perfect his farts probably are etc etc, none of which can possibly be true and b) I strongly believe anyone who looks like Fido Dido cannot possibly be a reasonable example of humanity. More of him in a bit.
So anyway, I watched Little Women and don’t you know I had a wonderful time. There is a transcendent air surrounding the film that feels bizarrely timeful, timeless and timely all at the same…time…and which made the movie far more accessible than I had anticipated, even though I had already heard numerous testimonies to that effect. Again, to be clear, I am not acquainted with the source material, but I understand that Gerwig has stuck somewhat faithfully to Alcott’s work for the most part, with the exception of the ending which, fittingly, has been deftly re-tooled to address a widely acknowledged issue arising from Alcott’s commitment to her publisher at the time. Crucially, rather than the words themselves, it is the delivery of some key dialogue which has been tweaked along the way, albeit subtly, and which lends this interpretation a resonance very much of the here and now. Where a teenage Craig found the endless marriage talk of Austen’s repetitive society dances and tea parties the stuff of nightmares, Alcott is here given a fresh voice that reaches out across a century and a half to say something meaningful about one of the biggest issues being addressed in contemporary Western society.
Quite how Gerwig has achieved this I do not know, but that it gives the appearance of being with such a light touch probably belies a truth that is much more likely a labour of love. Of course in large part the film succeeds because it has an almost uniformly magnificent cast. Ronan, as the central figure of Jo, is beyond reproach. I don’t have a lot more to say about that, likewise Florence Pugh as Amy and Eliza Scanlen as Beth. If there is a weak link among the sisters it’s Emma Watson’s Meg, because Emma Watson is frankly massively outgunned by everyone else in this movie. I actually felt a little sorry for her in that respect, as everyone else here is an actual actor and frankly operating on a different plane of existence. Then I remembered something called “Harry Potter,” and the fact that even though she can’t act, and even though Meg March is the dullest entity in this movie, Emma Watson could withdraw and set fire to the equivalent of my annual salary each day for the rest of her natural life and still not have to worry about her financial security, and I felt a lot better about calling her out after that.
And so to Timothee Chalamet, against whom I have harboured such animosity. What could it possibly be about the young, preposterously handsome, extremely talented and wealthy Mr Chalamet that I find so objectionable? And here’s the thing about him in this film; he’s great. As the immature Laurie I found myself confounded at how sympathetic the performance was, and how much I didn’t, not even once, think of Fido Dido. And here’s the thing about pretty much every other character; they’re great too! A really weird thing happened in cinema last year, right when we kind of needed it: people started making films that were totally bereft of cynicism. Much like My Name Is Dolemite unapologetically refused to belittle its characters and similarly their motivations, here in Little Women where there is learning and growth and the acknowledgement of failures of character it is wholly without judgement. It’s almost as if the film is daring to suggest that as adults we ought to be allowed our mistakes if we are willing to learn from them, and that compromise can be achieved without the loss of face. I didn’t dislike any of the people I spent time with in Little Women, not even Meg really, and where I expected to be presented with character tropes I was baffled to find none: Laurie’s grandfather, Mr Laurence, played here beautifully by Chris Cooper, ought to have been the angry old man across the street embittered by the loss of his daughter, but guess what…he’s just a nice man who makes lovely gestures occasionally and is sometimes understandably sad about some of the things he wishes hadn’t happened. What is this fresh lunacy!?
So yes, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Little Women half as much as I did, and it feels like very much the right film at the right time. I realise that to the casual observer (of which I was one) the perception of this movie will be that of the source: that it is fundamentally a work for and about women, but there are lessons and observations here for everyone. Actually, I think it’s kind of the point that men ought to watch it, because by this point I’m pretty sure every woman I know has grown up with an acute understanding of what “society” (in inverted commas because we all know what that means) expects them to be, say and do. There’s a little woman living in my house and, assuming we haven’t ironed out all of society’s shortcomings by then, I hope that ten years from now she’ll still want to cuddle up to old dee-do dad-o on the sofa in front of this movie at an age where it might have some resonance with her.
2018’s Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters was the best film I saw last year (its release date is why it didn’t make it into my films of the year list, though Scott did mention it in that podcast), and I’ve thought highly of a lot of films that have won the prize, so I was hoping for another hit with Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (Gisaengchung). However, I’ve not had much luck with some of his other films, with Snowpiercer irritating me and Okja pulling off the unusual feat of making me feel no emotion of any kind, so I had some trepidation.
The Kim family, father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and Ki-jung (So-dam Park) live in a “semi basement”, a dirty, damp and mildewed kind of dwelling common to the less salubrious parts of Seoul, with one low height window opening onto the world. Here the family scrape by as best they can, making a small amount of money by folding pizza boxes for a local takeaway and other hardscrabble activities, while leeching off the neighbouring wi-fi to stay connected to the internet. Such are their circumstances that they even leave the ground height window open when a municipal fumigator comes along the street, so they can have their stink bug infestation dealt with for free (well, plus whatever span of life several lungfuls of the stuff costs them).
But their fortunes look up when Ki-woo’s friend Min turns up, asking him to take over English-tutoring duties for the rich high school girl he teaches when he goes abroad to study for a year. His sister knocks up a fake diploma for him, but his personality and teaching style is more important, and he soon walks away with the job and more money than the family have seen in years. Park Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), the girl’s mother, is actually a bit dippit and Ki-woo is soon able to persuade her to hire Ki-jung as an art tutor for her young son (though he’s careful to say she’s the cousin of a friend).
A mixture of quick, and devious, thinking and some longer term, but still devious, scheming sees the father’s chauffeur and the housekeeper booted out, and wouldn’t you just know it, each new employee in turn can recommend the perfect person to fill the role. Soon the whole Kim family are working for the Parks, earning what is a fortune for them but probably barely registers for tech millionaire Mr. Park Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee).
In contrast to the Kims’ tiny window in their sub-basement, with its panoramic views of takeaways, bags of rubbish and floor to ceiling micturating drunks, the Parks’ beautiful, architect-designed modernist house has floor to ceiling glass, looking out on a manicured lawn surrounded by well-cared for trees, a verdant paradise within sight of Seoul’s concrete sprawl. It brings to mind the quote by, or at least attributed to, the great modernist architect Le Corbusier: “Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep”. These comparisons are seen again and again through the composition, and say everything about the families’ relative standings and fortunes, though one of these families is considerably happier and more well-adjusted than the other.
Disadvantaged, certainly, but the Kim family are, clearly, not saints, though enough hints are dropped of the difficulty of finding a job in Seoul that we cut them some slack, even if engineering the firing of others in order for them to take over is reprehensible. Ki-taek even begins to feel guilty and express genuine remorse, wondering whether or not those they replaced have new jobs. It doesn’t absolve him, of course, but it certainly humanises him, and we’re reminded that they’re doing what they must to survive in a world with rampant inequality. Indeed, in this way Parasite shows itself to be a darker mirror to Shoplifters.
But the warm and natural family dynamic, and lack of outright villainy, means that you’ll likely find yourself rooting for them and, for instance, anxious for them not to get caught as they feast while the Parks are away for a few days.
And just at that moment things go… how do you say… tits-up, and the film takes an unexpected turn, changing from a comedic drama displaying the fun of the grift to a much darker thriller.
Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography is fantastic, and Bong’s whole film is beautiful, efficient and taut, and it plays at an intimate and relatable scale. It’s also unpredictable, blackly comic, superbly acted throughout, and the sociopolitical subtext of the script (from the director himself, and co-writer Han Jin-won) is woven expertly throughout in both visuals and dialogue.
The lingering mystery of Parasite is the title, as it’s not at all clear who or what the parasite is. There are plenty of candidates, but the most obvious – the Kim family – is almost certainly the least likely. It could be the Parks, living the life of luxury afforded to them by the rewards of late-capitalism, at the expense of people like the Kims. Though for me it’s hope, something I think the final shot seals. But you can make up your own mind, and you should. By watching it. Because it’s excellent.
Star Wars: Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker
I’d said in our Last Jedi review “I hope that we’ll look back in a few years and say that this was the permission slip given to every director and production team that follows to do something completely different to the established Lucas-based Star Wars films. I’m not holding my breath, though.” Called it. Rise of Skywalker sees J.J. Abrams and co back for writing and directing duties, although how many of the ideas, and therefore blame, for this film comes from him and how much from the reins-tightening Disney overlords is open for discussion.
I suppose a plot recap is in order for the seven or eight people who haven’t seen it. I’ll get to it, I promise, but when the very first thing this film does, in the title crawl, is reference a tie-in promotional event that happened in the Fortnight video game, which I guess is now canonically in the Star Wars universe, it’s very difficult not to get into a tangent about what, precisely, the hell is going on with this franchise, even if that event is ultimately of no consequence. Although perhaps that’s even worse. Anyway…
Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine is back, because, well, why not, and he’s been hiding a fleet of infinite Star Destroyers each with Death Star lasers on-board, because, well, why not, having survived his death in Episode VI for some reason that’s apparently not that important to delve into. He’s holed up on the lost Sith planet of Excema or something and is trying to join up with Kylo Ren and his borderline incompetent First Order goons.
Actually, y’know what, if you want a full recap, go to Wikipedia. One of the critical problems with this film is that it stuffs at least a film and a half’s worth of plot into its running time, but even so, it’s a lot of running about with little meaning. In broad strokes, Rey and the remnants of the rebel force are trying to find a Sith navigational McGuffin to get to that there lost planet and take out the Emperor and his fleet, and Ren and his goons are trying to stop and/or bring them before Palpatine for judgement. Cue the usual Star Wars dog and pony show.
I’m not a fan of, well, Star Wars as a whole anymore, but the one interesting, if not successful, thing that The Last Jedi did was to look inside Abrams’ patented mystery box, dig out a few of them and say that, ultimately, there can be no truly satisfying answer to them, because if they were, they’d be so integral to a character’s personality or arc that they could not be in that box to start with. If, for example, Rey’s parentage really meant something, we’d need to know it from the outset for it to be anything more than a superficial revelation.
To which Rise of Skywalker says oh Phil Lord no, and starts stuffing things back in the box only to immediately pull them back out again with different answers, which is all a bit amateur hour, really. While this, and a dozen other plot strands that are picked up and either instantly resolved or discarded (ref: Oscar Issac’s love interest, or the Knights of Ren) are rushed past quickly enough that Rise of Skywalker does a decent impersonation of a reasonably enjoyable Star Wars outing, assuming you like this sort of thing, it can stand up to no scrutiny whatsoever.
Given that this is a film series based on Laser Space Wizards, I’m not the sort to get all that upset about plot holes. There’s few that couldn’t ultimately be waved away by saying a wizard did it. What does annoy me is that Disney were so hungry to start recouping that franchise purchase price that they didn’t sketch out any sort of coherent story or character arcs for these poor bastards saddled with acting in it, or writing and directing it. That leaves us with this cobbled together closer for a trilogy in name only that appears primarily concerned with an excuse to make new Palpatine action figures, and to continue strip mining the franchise’s past. Which is ironic given that the closest thing to a linking theme of the new trilogy I can come up with is about letting go of the past and not letting it define you, when the films themselves continue to be wholly defined by the original trilogy.
It’s not served anyone well, and it’s hard to see anything in this modern trilogy as anything other than a quest for dollars. Such, perhaps is always the case in the studio tentpole game, but even when Lucas was disastering his way through the prequels there was at least an obvious point to them, told through a clear character arc. I can’t find anything like that in the new films. They’re really well made, with likeable performances and enough gloss to obfuscate that, but there’s no point to them. While the likes of Daisy Ridley, Oscar Issacs and John Boyega bring enough charisma with their performances to be likeable and engaging, in the, what seven-odd hours following them around, what have we actually learned about any of their characters, or motivations, or pasts, or their anything, to properly care about them?
There’s a lot to talk about with this, if not specifically about Rise of Skywalker but about Disney’s handling of Star Wars and what’s happening going forward (see also our recent Trends of the Decade episode), so I won’t monopolise discussion further. But if you want my verdict on this, it’s a bad ending to a middling trilogy, and if I had any great love left for Star Wars I’d find it greatly upsetting. As I don’t, it’s just mildly irritating and entirely forgettable.
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