Tuesday, December 31, 2019


I began the 2010s uncertain of my place in the slipstream of film criticism, and closed it out firmly lodged somewhere between enthusiastic and mystified. Whatever emotion I experienced sitting in a theater, be it involved in something celebratory or a feeling of total despair, the movies never abandoned me; they persisted like stubborn reminders of what is important about the art form, whether it was in a literal sense or in some twisted ironic way, even as some might have represented everything wrong about this strange little industry.

The decade supplied ammunition for both arguments. It was the time of new and exciting voices like Yorgos Lanthimos and Christian Petzold, and of lazy underachievers like Uwe Boll. It was the age of billion-dollar blockbusters, and tiresome trends yielding colossal flops. Established filmmakers plodded along in a career trajectory that allowed for new and exciting ventures. Some promising newcomers like David Robert Mitchell, meanwhile, diversified their portfolio between solid entertainments (“It Follows”) and disastrous aberrations (“Under the Silver Lake”). But all the same we showed up, watched, and responded with our constant passion as moviegoers. A great film was never far from grasp at local art-house movie houses; so, too, was a bad one inevitably playing in the mainstream chains, where it stood a better chance of rising to notoriety, unintentional or otherwise. The common bond among all of them, you could say, was their ability to remind us that there is a bigger world outside of the Walt Disney brand, whose choke-hold on the financial market of moviegoing has cast an impenetrable shadow going into the next decade.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Hell House, LLC 3: Lake of Fire / **1/2 (2019)

Two-thirds of the newest “Hell House” picture is the work of a man who is intrigued by the undiscovered. After finding comfort in the throes of low-tech visual manipulation and nuanced camerawork to achieve great thrills in the middle of a haunted hotel, he comes to “Lake of Fire” energized by what felt missing: the very need to expand on the possibilities of his great source. A brief confessional on camera emphasizes this urge: a cable show host, Vanessa Shepherd, contemplates the strange nature of Abaddon, New York, and how unsolved supernatural events have apparently extended beyond the hotel itself. Why are they are never covered in the local press? Because, of course, they aren’t as glamorous or sensational. Unfortunately, her reveal is interrupted by a bystander while on location and she is never able to finish the thought. But the seed is firmly planted in the audience, who watches on patiently while a business tycoon invests money and resources into turning the former hotel into a seasonal theater. The goal: to create an interactive Halloween performance of “Faust” inside a building rich in supernatural history. Perhaps “Faust,” about a struggle of a man’s temptations between God and Satan, ought to have been the key warning. Wouldn’t the many deaths and disappearances have been enough to sway away most sensible people from participating here?

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Parasite / **** (2019)

The vicious cycle coalescing beneath class systems is a detail that draws much ire out of Bong Joon-ho, whose films all suggest a world where life and routine is usually mandated by where you fall in the system privilege. Not content to simply show sides of the structure clashing, he abandons them into a philosophical clarity that sees rot and cynicism as shared values; just as the wealthy are set in the method of clinging to their narrow vision, so do the impoverished embrace the seedy underbelly to propel their obligatory agendas. Both, perhaps, are what contribute to the ambiguous implication supplied by the title of “Parasite,” where a filmmaker never quite indicts a single target. Yet the argument inspires all the expected questions without direct answers. Are the characters in a wealthy family the victims of what will eventually transpire, or are they inconsolable leeches of an imbalanced society? Are we expected to see the poverty-stricken Kim family as sponges for all the trouble they are dealt, or as survivors adapting rapidly to the unpredictable whims of the hierarchy? The challenge offered in this audacious and engrossing little film barely reflects its deeper nature, which plays less like a standard narrative and more like a living organism adapting scene after scene to a volatile habitat of strange and mystifying nightmares.