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'Parasite' (2019)

So, at the recent Academy Awards, against all the odds, ‘Parasite’, a black comedy/satire from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, won 4 ‘Oscars’ including that of Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. That was extraordinary as no foreign language film had ever won the Best Picture ‘Oscar’ and it may be a landmark moment in film history. That said, I can recall that critics said a similar thing about ‘The Artist’ (2011) and that it would herald a renaissance of silent movies (we are still waiting almost a decade later).

Bong Joon-ho was probably previously best known for ‘The Host’ (2006) a ‘monster’ film that I missed but was viewed as ‘anti-American’ as it was about a monster created by the US Military dumping ‘Agent Yellow’ into a river which led to a disformed amphibian being seen who captures a daughter.

 ‘Parasite’, if you pardon the pun, is a completely different kind of fish. It tells the story of the Kim family who are struggling to survive in South Korea, living in a very rundown basement apartment, and off low paying jobs. An opportunity arises when the son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) decides to pose as an English tutor to the son of a very wealthy Park family. Through a couple of acts of deceit, he gets accepted, and before long he has also installed his sister (Park So-dam) to be an Art Therapist, his father (Song Kang-ho) as a Chauffeur, and his mother (Jang Hye-jin) as Housekeeper/Cook- all through various acts of fraud.

As time develops this ‘family within a family’ get used to the luxuries of the lifestyle they have conned themselves into infiltrating, but a nasty surprise awaits them in the basement below….

Parasite’ is a good title for the film as it reflects both the poor family burrowing their way into the affluent household but it also describes the Park family as they rely on servants to administer to all their needs – washing up, cooking, tutoring, art appreciation et al. It is a kind of South Korean ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ as when anyone goes below, they encounter a life of struggle and relative degradation. Go upstairs and it is world of affluence.

It is a very funny film and is extremely well made although it erupts into gruesome violence later on which is at odds with the first 90 minutes or so of the movie. I am not convinced it is as great a piece of film as its Oscar win might suggest. Like ‘1917’, it is what you might call a ‘worthy’ film, as it is clearly loved by a number of critics, but I did not enjoy it as much as I expected.

It has a number of flaws in that it asks us to believe that such an affluent family as the Parks would readily take on as its workforce the Kim family purely based on fairly unsophisticated forged documents and the recommendation of people they hardly know. You do wonder how the Park family could be so successful with such naivety -but that may be Bong Joon-ho’s view of South Korean business and society?

The performances from a cast that to the majority of UK filmgoers would be unknowns, are splendid and they do involve you in a movie that is probably about 30 minutes too long. I particularly liked Song Kang-ho as the Kim family head and Cho Yeo -Jeong as Mrs Park also impresses.

My Top 60- No 12: ’Rio Bravo’ (1958)


So, to the 2nd western in my favourite movie list, and the first (but not the last) John Wayne film. ‘Rio Bravo’ is a film I saw very recently at the National Film Theatre in London and I think it holds up remarkably well.

It has an interesting history too. It was made by veteran filmmaker Howard Hawks, who was a kind of everyman director having  a career that spanned from 1916 to 1970, and during that time he covered pretty much every genre from gangster films (‘Scarface’ (1932) ), sci-fi (‘The Thing from Another World (1952), musicals (the simply wonderful ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1953) and westerns (‘The Outlaw’ (1943). In fact, his last directed film was 1970’s ‘Rio Lobo’, which was in fact a remake of ‘Rio Bravo’ itself.

Anyway, cut a long story short, it was Howard Hawks who disliked the Gary Cooper western ‘High Noon’ (1952) which he regarded as ‘Unamerican', and he had an ally in that in Duke Wayne. This was at the time of the McCarthy UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings in the USA, and ‘High Noon’ (written by ex-Communist Member Carl Foreman) was and is generally regarded as an allegory of those times. Hawks and Wayne wanted to make a western that was totally unlike ‘High Noon’, and in that they really succeeded.

‘Rio Bravo’ has a pretty classic set up. Badman Joe Burdette (Claude Atkins) kills an innocent bystander and Sheriff John T Chance (great name by the way!) played by Duke locks him up, guarded by old timer Stumpy (a brilliantly grizzled Walter Brennan) whilst they wait for marshals to turn up to take him away. Of course, Burdette’s nasty brother (John Russell) is desperate to break him out so a rear-guard action is needed. Duke is also supported by a drunk Dude (that’s his name) played convincingly by Dean Martin in probably his best film role, and young buck Colorado played by Rockabilly star turned actor Ricky Nelson. A western would not be a western without a gal of course, so Angie Dickinson turns up in one of her early roles as Feathers (she wears them a lot as well as her black tights) who takes a shining to a rather shy Duke.

The movie is over 140 minutes long, but you don’t notice as you do warm to these unlikely band of brothers (and sister). Duke Wayne’s character only wants people to help him who are strong and could do a job. Dude deals with his alcoholism whilst Feathers slowly seduces Duke over a series of meetings. Walter Brennan’s turn as Stumpy is probably the highlight as he constantly moans that “no one tells me anything here” as he threatens to blow away anyone who comes near the jailhouse.

The only drag in proceedings is when Howard Hawks indulges both Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in them crooning to make up time, but it was unnecessary as the film goes out a good old lick.

Some have tried to claim that ‘Rio Bravo’ is the best western ever made. That is nonsense but it is still one of my favourite westerns and well worth catching whenever it shows.

'Special Branch-Warrant for a Phoenix' (1970)

The latest episode of the original (1970) ‘Special Branch’ series on Talking Pictures TV was a fairly routine ‘Warrant for a Phoenix’  but it was still good entertainment.

For those new to ‘Special Branch’, we are now in the final Series 2 of the original series and at Episode 5 of 13, so getting close to the halfway point of the run. Fulton McKay is fully into his spring playing the sparky DCS Inman the boss of DCI Jordan (the uber trendy Darren Nesbitt) but Inman is seriously frustrated by spooky and shady boss from the Home Office Charles Moxon (Morris Perry). Jordan always needs female company of course and here he is aided by female DC Jane Simpson (the lovely Anne Rutter).

The episode -written by ex-Communist and Daily Worker writer (and High Priest of a Wicca Coven –true fact!) -Stewart Farrar, revolves around a Greek history professor and opponent of the Greek military junta regime (Kazakos –played by Paul Stassino), who is accused with his wife (Monica Vasileiou) of bringing into the UK one of his country’s national treasures – a Phoenix.

Moxon is keen to agree with the request of the Greek junta for  both the treasure and Kazakos to be returned to them. DCS Inman is not so sure because a) he does not trust Moxon and b) Jordan’s discussions with the Greek in Brixton nick (where else) suggest he is no thief. Whilst Inman and Jordan sort out whether he should be sent back to Greece or not, DC Simpson takes his wife shopping in the local 1970s boutique –what else would a Special Branch copper be doing!

It emerges later on that the phoenix that Kazakos has in his possession is in fact a fake so that Special Branch have no grounds to honour the Greek extradition request and that the junta had set him up to be arrested in the UK to embarrass someone they want to view as an outspoken exile. So Inman, Jordan and Simpson accompany Kazakos and his wife to the airport when it emerges that his wife has the original and real phoenix in her luggage and that she is planning to fly to New York to sell it for 150 grand and shack up with a boyfriend she has.

The plot is pretty shaky it has to be said but it was a good vehicle for Anne Rutter to show what a fine actress she is. She is still acting at 81 and was fairly recently in an episode of Still Open All Hours. The best line in the episode however, is as ever, spoken by Fulton McKay at Moxton’s expense when he shouts out “I know who I would like to exorcise!”.

But don’t worry Special Branch fans – the delectable Sandra Bryant is back in the next episode ‘The Pleasure of your Company ‘…..

My Top 60 - No 11: 'Field of Dreams' (1989)

‘Field of Dreams’ (1989) is like the Robert Redford vehicle ‘The Natural ‘(1984) before it, a mystical and magical film but one that as its backdrop is the sport of baseball.  However ‘Field of Dreams’ has something extra special about it which demands regular viewing in that it has a true spiritual core, that is both affecting and moving.

Its history is interesting in that it is based on the novel ‘Shoeless Joe’ written by Canadian writer W P Kinsella which tells the story of a father and husband Ray Kinsella (played here by Kevin Costner in his prime) who runs a farm with his wife (and 1960’s rebel) Annie (Amy Madigan) and daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffman). Whilst out farming one day, Ray hears a voice telling him “If you build it, he will come” and he sees a vision of a baseball ground. He then feels called to cut down his farm and build said baseball ground with floodlights etc effectively bankrupting him and his young family.

Eventually, from nowhere a baseball player (‘shoeless’ Joe Jackson- a player banned from playing in real life due to an infamous 1919 betting scandal and someone adored by Ray’s late father) appears and asks if he can bring the rest of his team to play. When they also turn up (they think the field is Heaven) it emerges that they were all members of the same betting scandal, but now they just want to play ball.

Whilst wife Annie tries to keep the farm from being re-possessed by the bank and keeping their family together, Ray hears another message telling him to “ease his pain”. He believes that it has something to do with reclusive author Terence Mann (the brilliant James Earl Jones) (based on real life novelist and recluse J D Salinger) who wanted to play big time baseball himself and one of his characters in his book has the surname Kinsella….

So, starts an epic mystical journey that Ray Kinsella makes to meet Terence Mann and to work out what these messages to him means for him and his family, and what he should do next…

‘Field of Dreams’ (1989) is a simply wonderful movie. You might think it is just about someone who loses their marbles, starts hearing messages and ends up putting his whole family and himself in peril, but it is much more than that. It is fundamentally about a man who is still grieving over his father, who said some awful things to him, wants to take them back and say that he loves him but can’t because it is simply too late. But Life gives him another chance. It is also about how sometimes you need to dream ‘big’ and say ‘Yes’ to what is asked of you, no matter how absurd it might be.

The mystical elements of the movie are where it excels. James Earl Jones as Terence Mann realises that rather than be a recluse because of the unwelcome fame that his classic novel brought him, that he should simple do what he is –a writer. A cameo by Burt Lancaster as a no hit wonder baseball player but who finds his true vocation in saving peoples’ lives is also a real highlight and one of the finest performances of his long career.

Writer Director Phil Alden Robinson has weaved a wondrous film with a first class cast and makes you feel better having just watched it, and you will want to watch it again. It has real good humour and love at his core and it shows just how good an actor Kevin Costner can be.