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Posted by on Aug 2, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews | 1 comment

Movie Review: Joker

 

 

My whole life people didn’t know I existed; now they’re starting to notice.

                                                                                                                          — Joker

 

I finally got around to seeing Joker last night.

My confessed tardiness to this pop cinema campfire was, and very much remains, boredom if not utter disinterest in any movie about a comic book character, a superhero, or a spaceship.  Batman, Superman, Spider-Man Iron Man….if “Marvel” is listed in the credits, I am — the invisible man.

But now, we’re stuck in the age of COVID, addicted to Netflix, and even curmudgeons like me are changing our stubborn habits, and besides — there’s more television to watch right now than any one person can possibly digest in ten lifetimes.

So, Joker appeared on my streaming feed, and finally, my curiosity slew the dragon of prejudice.  Oh, I should also mention — someone ponied up $150 for me actually write a review of the movie and post it on my website (true story).  “Will work for food” and even compromise my principles — if the price is right.

 

Meet Arthur Fleck

Joker is a movie about the transformation of a simple human being who’s trying his best to exist in an inhumane, impersonal, imperfect, poisonously pornographic unfair world.  It doesn’t just pull back the curtains on mental illness so much as rip them off the wall.  Behind the wrinkled cloth, we find a lonely and vulnerable man staring helplessly and hopelessly into the lens, a victim whose life has passed him by and now distant.  Finally, he reaches his breaking point.

We meet Arthur Fleck who lives in Gotham, a fictionalized rendition of New York City during a garbage strike, in 1981.  Our anti-hero resides in a seedy graffiti-plastered tenement building struggling to make a living as a party clown.  He does low-paying gigs all over town, from spinning “going out of business” signs on sidewalks to cheering up kids inside a cancer ward.  Fleck, the lovable loser, even with his glaring flaws, battered and broken by life, is largely sympathetic.  Gazing outside of smudgy windows on buses we see the reflection of an empty man capable of so much more.  Indeed, for those of us who have struggled mightily, at times — in careers, in love, and in life — we all have a little Arthur Fleck, a.k.a. Joker, inside us.  We all have our breaking point.

Fleck’s life takes one bad turn after another, through no fault of his own.  He’s robbed.  Beaten.  Humiliated.  Fired from his job.  While watching the vestiges of humanity slowly evaporate around him with every setback, I was reminded of another film, Falling Down (1993), starring Michael Douglas, a similar character portrayal of a seemingly “crazed killer” who is slowly prodded off the moral and ethical cliff not out of decisions he made, but rather because he is desperate and had no other place else to go.

When Fleck kills his first victim (actually three victims) in a random act of violence on a subway, we see him taking control for the first time.  Up until these murders, Fleck had always followed others — his mother, his boss, any authority.  He’d played by society’s rules, even though he had no voice in creating them, believed in the system, and it got him nowhere.  He’d been a pawn, about to be rooked and captured in a chess game he didn’t much know how to play.  After blasting multiple slugs into the torsos of three rich Wall Streeters who are on a drunken binge, Fleck manages to win a small victory.  It’s a fleeting moment of satisfaction, a tiny measure of justice, temporary glory in an inglorious existence.  He’s in control and the rush is intoxicating.

 

Introspection

“My whole life people didn’t know I existed; now they’re starting to notice,” he tells a social worker.

There’s some debate about the condition of the psyche, still unresolved apparently in academics, about naturing versus nurturing.  Joker makes a compelling argument that many criminals, killers, mass-murderers, even psychopaths aren’t so much born as they’re created by stormy surroundings and a cruel society.  They’re molded by forces outside the mind and the body — parents, co-workers, associates, friends, romantic partners, even the guy on the street we don’t know by name.  One day, one act at a time, slowly, like stones wearing down by the powerful forces of the waterfall, over time, we’re sculpted by those things which shape us, and ultimately make us who and what we are.

Joaquin Phoenix in the title role is every bit as riveting as the rave reviews he received from film critics and the Oscar for Best Actor he collected at the last edition of the Academy Awards.  Phoenix, his onscreen persona boosted by his quirky offscreen reputation as a nonconformist with an affection for the unconventional, seems not only at ease in the Joker’s skin; he’s made the character all his own.

“They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur,” the social worker replies.  “And frankly, they don’t give a shit about me, either.”

He snaps.

 

The Point of No Return

Predictably, Joker is a dark and sometimes troubling film to watch, though it’s also an illumination of shadows we often chose to ignore.  It’s exfoliation in an art form of the phony veneer that separates not so much rich versus poor but, those who flourish within a chaotic psychological dystopia at the expense of all its victims and outcasts.

Out of work, impoverished, and desperate, Fleck (Joker) tries to perform stand-up comedy in a small nightclub.  Although he’s done his homework and the effort is sincere, he’s terrible.  Plagued by a rare mental affliction that triggers uncontrollable laughter during inappropriate moments, Fleck is a walking, breaking, ticking time bomb.  Reminiscent of yet another film, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) — which stars Robert De Niro, who in this film plays a Johnny Carson-like role — Joker slides deeper into the crevasse of no return and ultimately goes beyond reactionary to premeditation.  I’ll be vague on this point so as not to spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it.  However, for those who remember De Niro’s role as Rupert Pipkin, a lunatic loner obsessed with a talk show host, the parallels will be obvious.

Unfortunately, the script and the story take an annoying detour, which largely evaporates the audience’s goodwill.  Although he’s become a murderous clown, we’re so caught up in his condition, that we’re rooting for some consolation.  We don’t know exactly what we want — for the Joker to be caught or killed or perhaps continue on killing bad people who deserve to die.  So, we watch and wait, anticipating some conscientious resolution.

The unnecessary departure detracts from a fascinating meltdown when Fleck thinks he’s the illegitimate son of a rich power baron who refuses to acknowledge the long-lost relationship with his mother.  Again, without revealing more that might spoil the movie, the final scenes with acts of graphic violence seem gratuitous.  And pointless.

The first half of this movie sets up a fascinating premise, then the final half fails to deliver.

 

Grade:  5 on a 10 Scale

The shift to a more serious character-driven psychological thriller by Todd Phillips, best known for directing the comedy trilogy, Hangover, seemed like a natural progression.  The core of a great film was here.  But Phillips’ script (co-written with Scott Silver) gradually loses steam and becomes a one-man showcase for the thespian talents of Phoenix, and little more.

Joker has ephemeral moments of greatness, but not enough of them to overcome an aimless plot.  Phoenix’s best moments are not as the crazed Joker on various killing sprees, but rather the vulnerable void of a man with a blank stare, looking nowhere in particular, desperately seeking something to latch onto which will give meaning to his life.

I too, wanted this film to have some greater meaning, and although I was transfixed for moments, as the final credits rolled to the swansong of Frank Sinatra’s baritone version of the Stephen Sondheim classic, “Send in the Clowns,” I was disappointed there wasn’t more depth to this shallow portrait.

Joker is a film I cannot recommend.

 

Final Thoughts

My takeaways are:

  1.  Joaquin Phoenix can carry any movie, even with a weak script.
  2.  I remain correct in my negative assessment of movies made about comic book characters.
  3.  I just made $150.

 

__________

 

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Posted by on Apr 14, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews, Personal, Politics, Travel | 2 comments

Midnight Expression

 

nolan dalla

 

PART ONE

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Midnight Express is a mesmerizing 1978 film based on the true story of an American college student who gets arrested and then convicted of drug charges who is summarily forced to endure the unspeakable horrors of the Turkish prison system.

After I watched the movie — its screenplay penned by Oliver Stone based in the captivating book by Billy Hayes who wrote of his experiences — like so many viewers I came away with a deep hatred for Turkey and its people. It was impossible to watch that movie and see the way Turks were portrayed and not be jaded by the cruel hyperbolic depiction.

I wasn’t sympathetic to drug use nor smuggling, mind you. However, the injustices of the Turkish legal system and the way such a relatively minor crime was punished left a lasting impression. For many who saw it, Midnight Express was the only thing we knew about Turkey.

But life does twist us in ways we cannot predict and turn us onto paths we do not foresee. Fifteen years after Midnight Express infuriated tens of millions of moviegoers, I ended up working for the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey in Washington D.C. I was an employee of the Turkish Government for seven years, between 1993 and 2000.

During my employment with the Turks, I gradually came not only to admire the fascinating history and rich culture of Turkey, and before them, the Ottomans. Working with people with very different attitudes opened my eyes to another perspective of the world — one that was not always consistent with my own perspectives, opinions, and values that I thought to be unshakable. Visiting Turkey four times during my tenure with the Embassy broadened my experiences even further. The photo (posted above) was taken during one of those visits, while in Istanbul.

However, one thing I couldn’t shake was the terrible memory of Midnight Express and the constant reminders of how Billy Hayes was treated by the system I now supported with my own labor. His book and the movie came up frequently among the Turks while I worked there. It was often the first thing Americans thought of when they were asked what they associate with Turkey. I even came to share the Turks’ resentment of the distorted portrayal. I began to posture defensively about it in conversations with Americans.

Fuck Billy Hayes. He was a drug smuggler. He did the crime, so he should have done the time! He got what he deserved!

Nonetheless, I couldn’t refute his very real story of a grave injustice at the hands of a government that was essentially run by a military dictatorship (in the 1970s). I couldn’t defend a corrupt system where an admittedly guilty man gets convicted, serves most of his sentence, and then just a few months before being released gets *retried* again for the same crime and subsequently is given life imprisonment. Imagine that for a shocker. Life imprisonment!

Sometime around 1997, while still in the employ of the Turks, it occurred to me I’d never actually read Billy Hayes’ book, Midnight Express, which was the first-person account. Reading it with an open mind seemed way overdue.

The text of Midnight Express, penned by a college graduate who once aspired to be a journalist and commanded a mastery of both language and expressing his own emotions, recalibrated every thought I had about the story, the book, and even the movie (which took extraordinary artistic liberties and even added incidents that didn’t really happen). As I closed the book following the final paragraph, guided by Billy Hayes’ narrative, I was a changed man, or at least I saw things differently than before. There was no genesis of opinion, nor even a definitive finality to that story. All of life’s experiences and the way we look upon them — good and bad — contribute to the rolling assembly line of evolutionary thought.

Billy Hayes and Midnight Express had once again affected me in ways I didn’t expect. His story made me think of things differently, and in a very tangible sense had also broadened my horizons at looking at subjects in a more existential way — that there can be contrasting even contradictory truths which depend on where we are in time and who we interact with, some by intent and others purely by chance. The truth we believe today might be the falsehood of tomorrow.

Perhaps I felt closer to Billy Hayes and his story solely because I spent all that time also influenced by Turkish people, which was a clash of perceptions. This all happened more than twenty years ago. Occasionally, I wondered what happened to Billy Hayes?

I wondered:  Did he disappear? Did he try to forget about his years in Turkey? Was he even still alive?

Between 1997 and 2020, Midnight Express appeared on television sporadically and like a firefly to the flame, I felt the magnetic pull of curiosity tugging at my soul. I watched the movie a few more times, each viewing a chasm driven deeper into the divide between illusion and reality.

Then, about three weeks ago, something remarkable happened.

A local magazine was sitting on my living room table. I don’t even recall how it got there. The front cover showed a photo of Billy Hayes. Was that the same Billy Hayes who wrote Midnight Express?

It was. What was he doing on the cover of a publication about Las Vegas? He was sitting in a pose a Red Rock, seemingly at peace with himself. Wait — Billy Hayes was now in Las Vegas?

I was about to explore….and discover so much more.

 

billy hayes in las vegas

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PART TWO

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On the night of October 7, 1970, an American college student named Billy Hayes duct-tapped four pounds of hashish to his torso and attempted to clear customs as he was about to depart Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. He made it successfully past the initial terminal search, then boarded a transport bus that shuttled international passengers to a waiting airplane out on the tarmac. It seemed he was home free.

But just as the bus pulled up to the jetway, Hayes was confronted with a horrific sight. Turkish Army soldiers were lined up waiting to search passengers for a second time. Recent terrorist attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization put Istanbul and other airports on a heightened state of alert. Hayes had just made the biggest mistake of his life. His life was about to change in ways no one could have predicted.

Yet, Hayes later said his arrest, trial, conviction, and five-years spent inside a hellish Turkish prison turned out to be one of the very best things that could have happened. Watch the video clip here, which runs about three minutes. It’s a short, but thorough account of Billy Hayes and the factual background story of what became the incendiary 1978 movie, Midnight Express.

So — almost fifty years later — what was Billy Hayes now doing in Las Vegas?

I read the well-written expose on Billy Hayes that focused on what he’d done in the four-plus decades since his escape from imprisonment in Turkey when in 1975 he paddled 17 miles in a storm across the Marmara Sea and crossed the heavily fortified border into Greece and on to freedom back home. Turns out, Billy Hayes had moved to Las Vegas.

Now 73 (his birthday was last week), Hayes has made peace not only with himself but with his once-hostile captors — the Turks. Hayes was invited to return to Turkey as an official guest of the government, actually the TNP (Turkish National Police). He openly spoke of his experiences and even expressed love and admiration for the country and especially its people. It seemed such an unlikely, even an impossible reconciliation, but Hayes had never *hated” Turkey or the Turks despite his imprisonment and brutal treatment.

What I remember was Billy Hayes’ book and the movie destroying Turkey’s tourism industry and jading an entire generation as to how it perceived a proud culture and people. Certainly, this had not been his intent. In fact, he’s been trying to correct the record and make amends, ever since. These noble efforts speak to the remarkable qualities of a man I somehow thought of as a friend, with so many kindred interests — experiences with Turkey (indeed very different), deep love and background in writing, a free-spirited outlook on life — but who I’d never actually met.

None of us is ever likely to be locked up inside a Turkish prison, nor understand the fear and nightmare of what it’s like to face a life sentence for drug possession (later changed to drug smuggling). Nonetheless, his remarkable story resonates with all who have read it, and who can now hear it, thanks to Hayes’ doing what amounts to a one-man show of his life and experiences. He has written other books, directed a movie, and even appeared as the hired assassin in a Charles Bronson movie, Assassination.

When our lives return to normal after the CV-19 crisis, I hope to go see Billy Hayes’ show. I expect there are many more things I can learn, not just bout him and bygone days in Turkey, but about myself. His story is a rebirth and a revelation.

Last week, Billy Hayes and I became Facebook friends. This is one of the many unanticipated benefits of social distancing and isolation, which is to create of our time what we want to make of it. Hayes doesn’t know I’m writing this, but I expect he’ll read it. If so, I have some words for him:

Thank you for sharing your story and for your gifts as a writer and for your courage to self-examine through intense introspection and for being fully human and for enduring and for moving to Las Vegas and now being one with us on social media.

Midnight Express, which factors in the title of Billy Hayes multiple narratives, refers to an uncharted labyrinth of escape from captivity. In a sense, we all remain captive to all of our outmoded perceptions, those old ideas, destructively archaic thoughts, and paralyzing fears. Yes, each of us remains in perpetual pursuit of truth’s liberation, of finding our own Midnight Express.

 

__________

 

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Posted by on Mar 27, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews | 0 comments

Malcolm X

 

malcolm-x

 

Writer’s Note:  Why am I writing a review about a movie released 28 years ago?  Well first, I’d never seen this movie until last night.  Second, I think there are some lessons to be learned by watching, even all these years later.  Third, it seems there’s still a deep divide on the way we perceive people and history.  Even though we grow up in the same country, things are not always as clear as Black and White.

 

MALCOLM X (MOVIE REVIEW)

This is a hastily-written short review I feel compelled to share.

I have no clue as to why I’d never seen Malcolm X, the biopic of the iconic Afro-American civil rights political activist who was assassinated in 1965. An oversight, perhaps.  It was on TCM last night, so I watched the final 90 minutes.

Directed by Spike Lee, this is clearly a very personal project for virtually all who were associated with the film.  Released in 1992 to nearly universal critical acclaim, this film may even be more important now than it was initially shown.

Indeed, Malcolm X never reached the pantheon of inclusion along with other political thrillers or biographies, perhaps unintentionally revealing the continuing divide and misunderstandings on race in America. I believe if this film had been about a white activist/hero, it would have been up there with movies like Patton. But we rarely hear Malcolm X mentioned in the same breath as films on so-called “American heroes.”

Side Note:  Consider the way Malcolm X is remembered by Blacks versus Whites.  Even today, Whites do not view Malcolm X favorable, proving we will have a long way to go.  Read More:  MALCOLM X REMEMBER FAVORABLY BY BLACKS BUT NOT BY WHITES

Denzel Washington is outstanding in the title role. Mesmerizing even. (He lost the Best Actor Oscar to Al Pacino that year for Scent of a Woman that year). The characteristics are subtle, but Washington disguises his real NY accent well and speaks identically to Malcolm Little (ne “X”), who was actually from the Midwest (Omaha, NE). It’s uncanny how much Washington sounds and speaks with the same dictatorial syncopation as Malcolm X. These are little details, but when you hear the nuances, it’s remarkable.

Predictably, the film diefies the controversial leader, but it also reveals the flaws of its subject. Malcolm X lived a very modest life, which caused considerable disharmony at home (he was married and had five children). He also made a number of inflammatory statements that aren’t exactly endearing, including the infamous “chickens came home to roost” comment after the JFK assassination. But given the context of his life and greater struggle, we’re inclined to dismiss some missteps.

I’m generally sympathetic to Malcolm X as a historical figure. I’m appalled at the religious trappings of the movement, but given churches (including mosques) are the primary community centers in most Black areas at the time, the alliance is understandable.

The movie has its flaws. There are some campy scenes that don’t belong and detract from the overall seriousness of the film. But these blips are overcome by the strength of Washington’s performance and the weighty subject matter.

I must now say this: The last 15 minutes of this film is stunning. It’s brilliant. We see the assassination filmed in old newsreel style, and then gradually Washington’s portrayal becomes interspersed with real B/W photos of the leader, speaking his own words, and then eulogized by others. There’s also a surprise guest appearance at the end of the movie which is monumental in scope and meaning, which I will not give away if you haven’t seen the film. I can’t stress enough how powerful the final minutes of this film is to watch. If I was moved, I can only imagine the feelings inside by those much more closely attuned to the subject matter and movement.

Also, the film credits seem to go for 10 minutes, as Spike Lee intentionally listed every conceivable contributor to the film, from the violin player in the soundtrack to the drivers who worked on set. It’s consistent with the message of inclusion.

I wish more people, especially White people would see this movie. It was understandably embraced by Black culture, which resonates to this day. But I think we can *all* learn something by understanding something of the life of Malcolm X.

__________

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Posted by on Mar 22, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews | 0 comments

Movie Review: The Andromeda Strain (1971)

 

the andromeda strain

 

MOVIE REVIEW: THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971)

 

I first saw The Andromeda Strain at a drive-in when I was nine. Despite my youth, the thriller left an indelible impact on me nearly half a century later, even to this day.

The film instilled an early appreciation for science. Graphically, sometimes horrifically, it illustrated what a true horror movie was (and is) — a forgotten reminder that the gravest threats to our safety, security, and human civilization are not monsters nor distorted fictional figments of the imagination, but rather very real hidden dangers we can’t see, nor hear, nor measure.

Given the current coronavirus crisis, a reflection of the 1971 film on a killer epidemic is both timely and fitting.

The movie is based on Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel of the same title published in 1969. Then, only 27 at the time of the book’s release, Crichton would go on to write books that inspired 11 movies in all, including The Great Train Robbery, Rising Sun, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, and State of Fear.

The Andromeda Strain was directed by Robert Wise, then one of the most commercially successful directors of the time, evidenced by West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. This was clearly a movie guided by stellar writing and artful direction. The only criticism from a studio standpoint was, it might have been too dark, and too realistic for most audiences.

The Andromeda Strain opens with top-level scientists being summoned to a secret underground test lab in Nevada, tasked with researching biological hazards. Though somewhat dated now fifty years later, everything about this film still looks plausible. One can imagine facilities like this which certainly do exist.

There are some remarkable technical marvels in the film. Since it was made long before CGI, hologram-type figures had to be shot in multiple layers. Lasers also factor into the story. There are also some disturbing scenes with animal testing which were so upsetting that I was compelled to research exactly how they were filmed. Without giving too much away, the animals in the lab subject to testing were filmed in a chamber and breathed carbon dioxide. Then, when they pass out (this is a very disturbing scene), a team of vets rush onto the set and revive the creatures with oxygen off-camera. The film makes it appear they’re dying from the virus.

And speaking of the virus — never has anything looked so frightening as microscopic specs crawling around inside a petri dish. Watching the virus grow and the explode out of control in the lab is terrifying, especially in these contemporary times.

The film’s very best scenes document the laborious testing procedures which end with one dead end after another, as the clock is ticking on humanity. Since the virus has infected a small town and can spread, it’s up to the scientists to put in 20-hour days, testing and re-testing to try and save the planet. There’s one astounding scene when one of the scientists is working alone in the lab watching a monitor when the virus suddenly explodes into something resembling the bubonic plague. It’s absolutely terrifying.

Arthur Hill plays the lead researcher, but Kate Ried steals the movie. The original book had mostly all-male characters, but the production changed one of the researchers to a female. That turned out to be a wise creative adjustment. Think of a badass intellectual Sigourney Weaver, only bookishly realistic.

The Andromeda Strain is by no means a perfect film. It’s flawed with faux-suspenseful scenes that really aren’t necessary. For instance, we really don’t need a chase scene within the top-secret Wildfire biological bunker. The virus is scary enough without the added Mission Impossible-like countdown to self-destruction.

On a more personal note, I have seen The Andromeda Strain perhaps twice since my initial viewing as a child. I saw it again about 25 years ago and then watched it another time on TCM a few years ago before anyone thought it was a modern-day commentary. Each viewing gave me a different perspective. I was struck by one of the final scenes which shows the researcher (Arthur Hill) testifying before Congress on the aftermath of a viral outbreak. In what is a very plausible scenario we’re going through today, Hill essentially says we’re focusing on the wrong enemies. The more serious threats to us all are those things we can’t see and know way too little about.

How prophetic that warning turns out to be.

Note:  I recommend giving 1971 “The Andromeda Strain” original film a viewing. I cannot recommend the remake, which I have no interest in seeing.

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Posted by on Feb 17, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews | 0 comments

Parasite — A Short Move Review

 

Parasite-Movie

“PARASITE”

A Short Movie Review

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I made the mistake of seeing Parasite last night, a week after it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. All the accolades for the South Korean film catapulted my expectations to an unreachable height, no fault of Bong Joon-ho, who co-produced, wrote, and directed this gritty capper masterpiece.

My expectations were lifted even higher by the enthusiastic comments and recommendations of people I trust on social media and friends who I know have discernable taste in movies. Some of the posts on Facebook first brought Parasite to my attention a few months ago. I wish I had listened to their recommendation sooner.

Parasite is a well-crafted thriller, texturally engrossing, with heavy undertones of class struggle — the privileged versus the desperate. There are no “good guys” in the film. The story’s the thing.

I rate the first half of the movie as brilliant. A masterful black comedy set in Seoul, South Korea — but which could take place anywhere in post-modern urbania where gross inequities exist. The guilty pleasure of watching a mannerless viper’s nest of lowlifes-turned-con artists who methodically integrate a rich unsuspected family of victims with their own demons and secrets is shocking and often hilarious. The writer-director’s juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy is a marvel of perfectly paced moviemaking.

The second half of the film, when the mood turns considerably darker and more violent doesn’t match the brilliant set up. I also had some doubts as to believability towards the end of the movie. But these criticisms weren’t enough to dissuade me from saying it probably deserved the Best Picture Oscar.

I tend to like movies about con artists and scams. When they’re done right, they’re among the more enjoyable topics explored in cinema. Parasite will take its rightful place alongside films like The Sting, American Hustle, and others as a caper where we don’t know who to cheer for.

In the end, I suppose the lesson is — we’re all parasitic in one way or another.

__________

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