Movie Reviews: Harriet, Parasite, and 1917

Each year, I try to watch all the nominated films before award season. I fell short this year but made up for it last week when I watched three of the Oscar-nominated movies: Harriet, Parasite, and 1917. Inspired and impressed by this diverse trio of movies, I decided to write and share my reviews:

Actress, singer and songwriter Cynthia Erivo delivers a stellar performance, one that is truly worthy of the nominations garnered during the recent award season. Erivo embraces the multi-faceted role of the legendary Harriet Tubman, a woman who is considered one of America’s greatest heroes

Born a slave on a Maryland plantation and known by the name Araminta “Minty” Ross, she decides to flee to the North. Miraculously, she survives the journey (over 100 miles) and makes her way to Philadelphia. There, she is assisted by abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Junior) and boarding-room owner Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe).

After taking the “freedom” name of Harriet Tubman, she becomes part of the Underground Railroad, repeatedly risking her life to return to the South and ferry over 70 slaves to freedom.

I was most impressed by the scenes showcasing Harriet’s ability to hear nothing other than her own inner voice. In stressful situations, Harriet loses consciousness as she slips into spells, which she describes as “consulting with God.” Afterward, she emerges with an ironclad sense of the action and direction to be taken during rescue missions. These amazing feats earned her nickname “Moses.”

An extraordinary tale of an American freedom fighter!

Described as a “pitch-black modern fairy tale,” Parasite has won numerous awards, among them four Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film.

Interested in examining relationships between different classes under capitalism, director and screenwriter Bong Joon Ho created an upstairs-downstairs tale involving the wealthy Parks and the street-smart Kims.

A twenty-something drifter Kim Ki-woo jumps at the chance to teach English to the teenage daughter of Mr. Park, a celebrated tech entrepreneur. Renamed Kevin by his status-conscious employers, Ki-woo hatches a plan to bring the rest of his unemployed family into the Park’s spacious, multi-level house. Father Ki-taek is the new driver, mother Chung-sook is the new housekeeper, and sister Ki-jung is the art tutor/therapist.

Determined to maintain their anonymity and successfully “con” the Parks, the Kims forge documents, invent aliases, and rehearse their lines. Bordering on preposterous, these schemes provide much of the dark humor in the film.

Gainfully employed, the Kims dare to dream about a different kind of future, one worlds away from their stinkbug and mildew-infested basement apartment. Unfortunately, those hopes and aspirations are quickly shattered. Without giving too much away, I will only say that several unexpected (surprising, shocking, and even horrific) twists to the storyline alter the trajectories of all the characters.

In a recent interview, Bong Joon Ho discussed the significance of the title. While most people would attribute the word “parasite” to the poor Kim family that has infiltrated the rich household, the director has a different viewpoint. He suggests that the members of the rich Park family could also be considered parasites. Unable to drive, cook, wash dishes, or study independently, they are forced to leech off the poor.

A must-see film that will linger in consciousness.

Director Sam Mendes has incorporated anecdotes from his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who fought in World War 1.

Two young British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are given a seemingly impossible mission: Cross enemy territory and deliver a message that will stop the following day’s deadly attack on 1600 soldiers. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) has selected Blake because his brother is part of that battalion.

What follows is a journey into a wasteland of twisted barbed wire, corpses, and shell craters as Schofield and Blake make their way deep into the German trenches. While the former front line has been abandoned, there are still many dangers the two men must face.

It seems like only one camera has been used, closely following Blake and Schofield as they embark on this perilous journey. I could feel the tension and suspense as they sidestepped booby traps, encountered German soldiers, and ran through burning buildings.

While the story of two young men attempting to stop a doomed attack is a compelling one, it would have helped to include more historical context. Also, I would have liked more scenes with the senior officers and the Frenchwoman in the deserted building. Those cameos moved a bit too quickly.

A dramatic and powerful film!

Movie Trailers

Harriet | Parasite | 1917

Note: Harriet and Parasite are available on DVD.


Movie Review: Little Women

Director/Writer Greta Gerwig brings fresh relevance to the storyline of an American classic that has stood the test of time for over 150 years.

Having read Little Women several times and watched two previous film versions, I had a good grasp of the plot and characters. Four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy—face the challenges of growing up in a financially-strapped home in the aftermath of the Civil War.

While author Louisa May Alcott reveals the exploits of the sisters in a linear fashion, Gerwig plays with the timeline, moving back and forth over a seven-year period.

Instead of starting with Alcott’s famous first sentence, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” Gerwig opens with a grown-up Jo (Saoirse Ronan) discussing her writing with a New York publisher.

This simple rearrangement of the plot establishes a major theme of the film: A woman’s search for artistic freedom. It also introduces Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) as a more vibrant, attractive suitor than the disheveled older gentleman who suddenly appears midway through the novel.

Once established, the momentum of the film never lets up.

As the adult March sisters forge their individual career/relationship paths, well-placed flashbacks to their high-spirited early days provide insights into their dreams and struggles with issues of gender and freedom.

This film features the best young actresses of our time (interestingly enough all are international). In addition to Ronan’s brilliant portrayal of the fiery tomboy Jo, Florence Pugh delivers a feisty and magnetic Amy, and Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen infuse Meg and Beth with warmth and wit.

Laura Dern adds a unique dimension to Marmee (matriarch of the clan). Usually depicted as a quiet, self-sacrificing character, Marmee confesses, “I’m angry nearly every day of my life.”

A fan of great cinematic pairings, Gerwig couldn’t resist pairing Ronan with Timothée Chalamet as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Both actors delivered excellent performances in Lady Bird.

A sprinkle of Hollywood royalty, aka Meryl Streep as the imperious Aunt March, adds acerbic humor to this delightful period piece.

Highly recommended!

Movie Review: Knives Out

Described as a whodunit for the Trump era, Knives Out brims with A-list actors, plot twists, and red herrings.

The film opens with a dead body. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a bestselling mystery author, is found with his throat cut in an upstairs den of a large, sprawling Victorian mansion.

The scene quickly shifts to Harlan’s dysfunctional family. Everyone from his realtor daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson) to his moody and jealous youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) to his lifestyle guru daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) to his playboy grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) is a suspect.

From start to finish, I enjoyed watching these schemers and dreamers alternate between grief, guilt, and entitlement with their self-serving lies, black humor, and squabbling.

As for the help…Harlan’s trusted caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas) assumes a central role when flamboyant Louisiana investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) makes Marta his sidekick. An intriguing character, Marta, possesses an unusual propensity for vomiting whenever she utters a falsehood.

In a series of well-placed flashbacks, writer and director Rian Johnson reveals the events that led to Harlan’s untimely death. But there are holes (doughnut holes according to Benoit) in this investigation. Determined to solve the murder, Benoit often says one thing and then does another. When first introduced, he informs the family: “You will find me a quiet, passive observer of the truth.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

This dazzling murder mystery has already garnered three Golden Globe nominations in the Comedy genre: Best Actor (Daniel Craig), Best Actress (Ana de Armas), and Best Motion Picture.

A must-see film!

Movie Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Tom Hanks delivers a stellar performance as Mister Rogers, the popular children’s television host and America’s most beloved neighbor. Hanks nails the details from the bushy eyebrows and flat silver hair to the red cardigan to the folksy singsong voice. Even the ties that Hanks wears once belonged to Fred Rogers (they were donated by his widow).

The movie was filmed in the same Pittsburgh studio where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was shot, using some of the same crew and cameras.

For almost two hours, I was transported to a kinder, gentler time: pre-9/1l and one year before the Columbine Massacre. Inspired by a magazine article published in 1998, the film explores the friendship between Fred Rogers and cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (well played by Matthew Rhys). Note: Lloyd Vogel is a fictionalized version of real-life journalist Tom Junod.

Assigned to write a brief (400-word) profile of an American hero by his hard-nosed editor (Christine Lahti), Vogel chafes at the task but grudgingly agrees to interview Mister Rogers. What should have been a quick, 20-minute interview evolves into an intense relationship between the two men. As Vogel spends more time with Mister Rogers, he starts opening up about his personal and family challenges.

While this film isn’t a Fred Rogers biopic, it does reveal the essence of the entertainer. We learn that he had a temper and dealt with anger by reading scripture, swimming, and pounding on the bass register of the piano. His adult sons gave him plenty of grief during their adolescent years.

When Vogel asks Joanne Rogers (Maryann Plunkett) how it feels to live with a saint, she immediately dispels that notion. But there is an authenticity and genuine interest in the lives of other people, especially those who are broken.

In a recent interview, Director Marielle Heller commented, “There’s a reason that everyone feels so connected to him…Some collective consciousness thing where we all want Mister Rogers in our lives right now, myself included.”

A must-see film!

Movie Review: Last Christmas

Set in London during the first Christmas season after the Brexit referendum, Last Christmas is a musical holiday movie loosely plotted around the George Michael hit of the same name.

Kate/Katarina (Emilia Clarke) is a 20-something aspiring actress whose life is a hot mess. Struggling to recover from a serious health scare, Kate’s flakiness and klutzy behavior test the patience of friends and family members. Kate’s attempts to land an acting role fall short, forcing her to maintain her “elf” position at a year-round Christmas shop run by a bossy, sharp-tongued Santa (Michelle Yeoh).

Amid this angst, handsome and mysterious Tom (Henry Golding) walks into Kate’s life.

At first reticent, Kate opens up to Tom. She enjoys their “dates,” a series of unique excursions, among them a secret garden walk and an ice-skating lesson. Tom encourages Kate to always “look up” and catch the little bits of magic. He also introduces Kate to a nearby soup kitchen, populated by an eccentric group of street folk.

When Kate starts volunteering at the local shelter, she experiences a shift of perspective and returns to her family home. Not much has changed on the home front. Her mother (Emma Thompson) bemoans her circumstances while her father (Boris Isakovic) maintains as much distance as possible from his wife.

Kate’s parents have struggled financially and culturally since fleeing the war in Yugoslavia. Watching the Brexit news further alarms Kate’s mother, who is convinced they will be forced to leave England.

Imagining herself in love with Tom, Kate becomes frustrated when he starts to take distance. Spoiler alert: Prepare for a twist in the narrative.

A delightful holiday movie that skillfully combines romantic comedy, fantasy, excellent performances, and the music of George Michael.


Movie Review: Hustlers

The brain-child of writer-director Lorene Scafaria, Hustler is based on the real-life tale about a group of high-end strippers who found creative ways to drain the bank accounts of their Wall Street clientele.

Told from the perspective of newbie stripper Destiny (Constance Wu), the early scenes focus on the budding friendship between Destiny and veteran stripper Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Both Wu and Lopez delivery Oscar-worthy performances.

Lopez dominates those scenes as she performs a showstopping pole dance routine, demonstrates a repertoire of moves, among them the “Fireman” and “Peter Pan,” and later envelopes an adoring Destiny in the folds of her fur coat.

The 2008 recession brought this campy fun to a halt.

Down but not down for long, Ramona concocts a drug-and-fraud scheme and then persuades Destiny and several other strippers to join her new venture. Ramona’s justification: If stripping simplifies relations between men and women, why not do whatever it takes to get payment at the end of the evening?

From start to finish, the focus is on the diverse group of women who populate “real” strip clubs. Scafaria cast women of all shapes and sizes, steering away from the usual Hollywood versions. As for the scam victims, their looks and personalities could be described as forgettable. White, wealthy, and vain, these men evoke little sympathy.

When caught, Destiny repents, but amoral Ramona stays true to her principles.

While the story dates back over a decade, many of its themes still resonate. In a recent interview, Lorene Scafaria commented, “I’m hoping that the conversation outside of the movie is about gender and the economy—what it is that we provide, and what we get back. It’s not quite the fair trade.”

A thought-provoking film!

Movie Review: Judy

Renee Zellweger dug deep and transformed herself into Judy Garland.

From dieting into emaciation—the bones in her chest and back are visible—to assuming the marionette-like posture to capturing the vulnerability and insecurity of the showbiz legend, Zellweger is unrecognizable as she delivers an Oscar-worthy performance.

The film follows Garland as she arrives in London to perform a series of sold-out concerts at The Talk of the Town. Throughout the five weeks, she struggles with stage fright, alcohol, and drug abuse; tests the patience of her assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley); and battles with her needling ex-husband played by Rufus Sewell.

In spite of these challenges, Garland still manages to charm her fellow musicians and fans. One of the more poignant scenes involves a brief interlude with an older gay couple who are long-time fans. Amid all this drama, she embarks on a whirlwind romance with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), her soon-to-be fifth husband.

Barely able to function and unable to sleep, Garland is haunted by ghosts from the past. Flashbacks to the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” reveal the shocking and abusive behavior of Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) and the MGM studio staff. Determined to keep a tight rein on the teenage Garland (Darci Shaw), the powers-at-be manipulate her into taking amphetamines so she could stay slim and work 16-hour days.

At age 47, Garland is far from her prime but still able to delight her audiences with several show-stopping performances. Unfortunately, bad behavior surfaces at several points in the film. One of the most heart-wrenching scenes occurs near the end of the five-week run. Garland pleads with the audience, “You won’t forget me, will you? Promise me you won’t.”

A must-see film that will linger in consciousness.

Movie Review: Downton Abbey

Simply delightful!

As soon as Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey, appeared on the screen, I could hear sighs of contentment and anticipation throughout the theater. Fans of the television series, many of us have watched all six seasons and looked forward to this motion picture event.

While each major storyline had been neatly wrapped up in the 2016 finale, I knew that series creator Julian Fellowes would find an intriguing way to reunite the upstairs-downstairs cast.

His solution: King George V and Queen Mary (Queen Elizabeth’s grandparents) have planned a royal visit to Downton Abbey.

The announcement sends everyone into a tizzy.

Fearing that butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is not up to the task of supervising the preparations, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) calls upon Carson (Jim Carter) to come out of retirement and take charge

Carson’s formidable skills are put to the test when the royal advance team (butler, cook, footmen, housekeeper) arrives and informs the Downton staffers that their services will not be needed during the visit.

As the rivalry between the two staffs intensifies, lady’s maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) takes charge and organizes a “downstairs” rebellion. A series of humorous escapades follow. My favorite involves Molesley (Kevin Doyle), the socially clumsy footman, who shocks the royals and all in attendance with his shenanigans.

Upstairs, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) deals with an assassination attempt and a possible love connection, and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) argues with a distant cousin (Imelda Staunton) over an inheritance.

The Dowager Countess and Isobel Grey (Penelope Wilton) are in rare form as they deliver verbal salvos throughout the film. Julian Fellowes should consider a spin-off with these two characters.

In a recent interview, Fellowes was asked if there would be another Downton Abbey movie. He responded, “Well, there’s always that chance.”

Let’s hope he takes that chance.

Movie Review: Road to the Lemon Grove

Italians and Italians-at-heart will enjoy this humorous–sometimes outrageous–film about a middle-aged Canadian professor, Calogero Contantini, and his recently deceased father Antonio. Performer, writer and lecturer Charly Chiarelli takes on both roles.

The film opens with Antonio awaiting entry to heaven. The voice of God (Loreena McKennitt) informs Antonio that he must make peace with his estranged son before entering the Pearly Gates. Frustrated but determined, Antonio’s ghost haunts (and stalks) Calogero for most of the film.

Antonio has one last mission for his son: Spread his ashes in the lemon groves of Sicily and reunite the two warring branches of the family.

To further complicate the situation, Calogero has only fourteen days to accomplish these tasks. If he is unsuccessful, the lemon grove and all of Antonio’s assets will go to the scheming relatives, led by Vincenzo (Burt Young) and his sidekick Guido (Nick Mancuso).

A series of comical (and sometimes contrived) scenes follow as Calogero argues with his father’s ghost, has a meltdown during a lecture, travels to Sicily, meets the relatives, connects with a beautiful Italian actress (Rosella Brescia), and participates in a final “pasta” showdown.

Flashbacks to Calogero’s youth provide glimpses into the challenges faced by new immigrants during the 1950s and 1960s. I would have liked more scenes depicting these frustrating (often comical) brushes with bureaucrats.

Light and entertaining fare set against a beautiful Sicilian backdrop.

Movie Review: Blinded by the Light

Set in the suburban town of Luton (England), this film is based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir about growing up Pakistani in the late 1980s.

Javed (brilliantly played by Viveik Kalra) longs to escape the restraints imposed by his domineering father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) and the bigotry of the town. A creative soul, Javed finds solace in his journals as he focuses on getting good grades. Manchester University—200 miles away—is his best (and only) hope.

Everything changes when a fellow classmate (Aaron Phagura) gives Javed cassettes of Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Transfixed by the music, Javed experiences an immediate connection with Bruce Springsteen. Typewritten lyrics start to swirl in what can only be described as a literal windstorm.

With the Boss as his guide, Javed starts to make changes in his own life. He drops Economics and signs up for Creative Writing, writes essays and poems about Bruce’s lyrics, stands up to local skinheads, and approaches his high school crush Eliza (Nell Williams).

On the homefront, Malik loses his factory job, and Javed’s mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) works twelve- to fourteen-hour days to keep the family afloat. Father-son relations intensify as Malik becomes more over-bearing, dismissing Javed’s writing dream and forbidding him to attend a Bruce Springsteen concert.

As the economy stalls and more people lose their jobs, white supremacy rears its ugly head. A violent skinhead march interrupts a Pakistani wedding, reminding us of the racial tensions that still exist in 2019. The indignities suffered by the Pakistani families are appalling. And what is even more heart-wrenching is the powerlessness of the community.

With the help of a dedicated English teacher (Hayley Atwell), Javed becomes more confident in his writing and goes on to achieve local and international acclaim.

A must-see film that will evoke many emotions. Bring tissues.