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This weekend we’re watching: 2019 movies still on circuit 

“Parasite” by Joon-ho Bong, image Barunson E&A Corp

In 2019, eight films grossed more than $1-billion, with ‘Avengers Endgame’ crossing the $2-billion mark. But 2019 wasn’t just about blockbusters. Here is a selection of not-to-be-missed movies that are still on circuit.  

Knives Out: Taking a poke at rich Americans

When succesful murder-novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), is found dead by suicide, it raises the suspicions of private detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). With the assistance of the police, he goes about trying to reconstruct the events of that fateful night by interrogating the family. Between the daughter’s business ambitions, a son-in-law’s affair and the grandchildren’s schmoozing, it seems that everyone had a motive. Benoit turns to the housekeeper (Ana de Armas), to help him solve the mystery.

As a genre film, Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson, ticks all the boxes. It’s racy, has the appeal of an all-star cast and unfolds in the cliché perfect location for a crime thriller: A red-brick mansion.

Comedy is knockabout and characters are big. Craig’s Southern drawl is so awful as to be endearing, De Armas’ performance is excellent and it’s exciting to see Chris Evans getting out of his Avengers tights and into a sweater. For pure entertainment sake, it is a must-watch, a cinematic Cluedo with comedic twists.

Yet, the film’s three genres are often at odds with one another. Knives Out opens as a murder mystery, but the culprit is revealed to the audience much too soon. 

As the felon becomes known, the film transitions into a suspense thriller, only there’s too much tomfoolery for any tension to build. Comedy can be toxic for suspense and laughing at vomit jokes (yes, there are those), while gripping the edge of the seat doesn’t seem to go together. As a result, the thriller part of the film is entirely redundant and although Knives Out is entertaining, it might lack the one thing it’s supposed to be: A mystery.

Parasite: Taking a house from rich Koreans

The Kims are a poverty-stricken family living in South Korea, who get a chance to improve their situation when their son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), is employed by the wealthy Park family to tutor their daughter. Ki-woo realises that there’s money to be made off the Parks’ gullibility and persuades them to hire an art therapist he knows, not telling them that she’s his unqualified sister (Park So-dam). The siblings find inventive ways to get the rest of the house’s staff dismissed, replacing the housekeeper with their mother (Jang Hye-jin) and the family driver with their father (Song Kang-ho). 

Director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is worth every minute of watching; the camera feels voyeuristic; people are filmed in the bathroom; fondling each other on the couch; and spying on each other. It’s creepy, emotional, captivating and the staging is phenomenal. The film has enough glances, subterfuges and emotions to be a portrait of family life.

It’s also a beautiful film, with hazy colours, and everything green and smooth. Film critics love it, except for one comment from The New Yorker’s Richard Brody who notes that the film’s social commentary is a little simplistic and that in many senses, it is engineered to please an arthouse audience.

And he has a point: Although the plot is clearly anti-capitalist, its examination of the issue remains on the surface. While much attention is given to the difference between classes, there’s no real thought given to capitalism’s emotional or interpersonal impact. The film appeals to the kind of person that has already decided capitalism is unconscionable — cue Brody’s point.

Be ready for a switch of genres as well: Parasite starts out as a family comedy, following Ki-woo as he makes his way into becoming the rich daughter’s tutor, but then switches to drama, effecting a kind of narrative turnaround that can be surprising. 

Ford vs Ferrari: Taking up the mantel

Based on historical events, Ford vs Ferrari tells the story of Ford Motor Company which sets out to win Le Mans, a 24-hour race hitherto dominated by Ferrari, back in the 1960s. Ford approaches Carroll Shelby (played brilliantly by Matt Damon), the only American to have won Le Mans in 1959, asking him to build the best competitive car. Working on a tight deadline, Shelby approaches his friend, the mechanic-come-racer, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), to be their driver.  

When Ron Howard’s Rush screened at cinemas in 2013, it redefined a genre that had seemed to be stagnating around the Fast and Furious franchise. With only a portion of the latter’s budget, Rush captured the realities of racing without losing any of the emotions and the drama. Now, Ford vs Ferrari is taking up the mantle.

It is a movie made for the theatre: loud, boisterous and the bigger the screen, the greater the chaos. Cars rip themselves apart with the camera just inches away and similarly to Rush, the thrill of the film comes from its constant flirting with death. But the plot differs and uses the tension between the corporate world and competitive car racing to drive its conflict. Each conflict plays itself out on the track with victory becoming a very personal statement.

Drama flows naturally from the acting: Damon is perfectly cast for his role, every bit the American icon with his swaggering gait, cowboy hat and Cobra. Bale in the role of Miles brings something quiet and a little eccentric to his character and the complicity between Shelby and Miles seems evident.

There’s also the set: If it looks like a $97-million set, that’s because it is. The GT40s are as sleek as the Ferraris are elegant and the cinematographer has used colour selectively, never breaking beyond yellow, red and blue. These racing colours pop around the screen, tinging even the quieter moments with a motoring feel.

Blue Note Records: Beyond the notes 

In 2014, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash stylised jazz. It cut to the music’s tempo, creating fast, tight and vicious sequences. In this drama film about a young jazz drumming student and his abusive professor, perfection is at the core, highlighted by two iconic nods: Becoming a Lincoln Centre “core member” or being signed by The Blue Note Records label.

Now, the documentary, Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, reveals the philosophy behind the company that produced the 20th and 21st centuries’ best in jazz. Blue Note Records is traced from its 1939 origins, when two German Jewish refugees, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, began recording artists no one else would, working with Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Norah Jones, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Herbie Hancock, Lou Donaldson, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins and others.

While the film’s archival footage is impressive, its standout point is its photography. As it happens, Wolff took photos of everything. Musicians are seen sweating at the piano, shouting, sleeping and always smoking. As with Whiplash, the editing follows the music, humming through hundreds of images — artist and album cover — all interspersed with interviews. The camera slides between photos, at times having half or just a corner in frame and at others having six or eight. With the likes of Hancock, Shorter and Donaldson narrating, this film is the deeply personal history of a group of very talented individuals.

Joker: A very (very) sad clown 

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his mother in the cutthroat Gotham City. After he is beaten up by a mob of teenagers, Fleck takes to carrying a gun, which he later uses to defend himself against some corporate suits who attack him on the train. When the city’s mayoral candidate, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), condemns the shootings as being perpetrated by some rich-envious clown, it sparks angry protests against the city’s elite. Meanwhile, Fleck’s life has only gotten worse, as funds run out for his medication and his mother (Frances Conroy), dies. In the protests, he finds ideological inspiration feeding his journey into becoming the Joker. 

Phoenix puts in the kind of muscular yet uncomfortable performance that is reminiscent of his performance in the American psychological drama film, The Master, written, directed, and co-produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, and there’s no avoiding the ideological and cinematographic influence of Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy, starring Robert de Niro and Jerry Lewis, and Taxi Driver. The film also uses unsettling flashbacks to blur the line between imagination and reality, and Fleck’s world has the same colour scheme as the Joker’s outfit, showing that only the Joker can actually fit in.  

Still, it’s difficult to resist the idea of what Joker could have also been: In a series where Marvel’s superheroes are barely relatable – with their unattainable powers for us mere human beings – Joker was DC Comics’s chance to create a hero (here, society is the villain), that struggles with the heaviness of being, and whose power – his psychology – could have been accessible on a human level. But Fleck’s control over his psychology isn’t really his and he cannot be split from his evil counterpart, Joker, and therefore has no say in what happens to him. He suffers from the same Marvel-fatality that has heroes existing because the world requires them to. Fleck’s just headed for evil.

Pavarotti

A documentary focussed on the life and legacy of the tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. Featuring never-seen-before footage, Pavarotti reveals not only what the singer meant to the world and the people close to him, but also how he lived for and through his art.

This is a rare film. Director Ron Howard uses a collection of original and often never-seen-before videos, intercut with interviews from people who knew him, and concert images to narrate the tenor’s life, his torments, secrets and passions. 

The documentary traces his career from its origin, changing costumes, walking stages, in a way that emphasises the person over the superstar, a soft light moving through his affairs and insecurities, revealing the complex portrait of a sensitive man. There is no sense of over-dramatising, nor of trying to impress – the production is simple and effective. Pavarotti’s voice is the central character of the documentary as it was in the tenor’s life. 

Pavarotti is a must-watch in smaller, more intimate spaces – if you know an independent theatre close to you that screens it, don’t hesitate: The film rewards such intimacy in kind.

Official Secrets: Spies and journalists 

Based on real-life events, the story follows whistleblower Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), who leaked a memo sent out by the US National Security Agency to British Intelligence, requesting that they collect information to blackmail non-cooperative members of the UN Security Council, hoping to avert a war. Martin Bright played by Matt Smith is the journalist who eventually broke the story.

Official Secrets is directed and co-written by South Africa’s very own Gavin Hood, the director behind the Oscar-winning film, Tsotsi

The political thriller’s tension, whose storyline remains incredibly relevant today, is accentuated by the lighting: It exaggerates the characters’ weariness, Knightley’s especially, and wraps the Government Communications Headquarters’ (GCHQ) offices into obscurity. Such darkness also creeps into Gun’s home, instilling the space with a sense of dread. 

Knightley is often filmed from behind an office divider or just over a computer, an effect that adds to the  sense that Gun is being watched. The contrast between the string-orchestra score, a constant presence, that goes mute whenever Gun faces emotional trauma, and silence, allows for viewers to fill up the quiet. 

In Official Secrets, Hood wants us to see the importance of the issues investigated in the film, but seems to force drama into every scene, leaving the audience feeling like something is always about to erupt. ML

Joshua Stockhall studies Philosophy, Economics, Classics and Spanish at the University of Cape Town. In his spare time, “he drinks like a sailor, swears like a fish and likes to read”. He also loves to watch movies and wrote these reviews for Maverick Life. 

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