Vying for Oscars: ‘Pain and Glory,’ ‘Parasite’

By Tom Von Malder | Feb 02, 2020
Photo by: Sony Pictures Classics Asier Etxeandia and Oscar-nominated Antonio Banderas, right, star in "Pain and Glory."

Owls Head — Pain and Glory (Spain, Sony Pictures Classics, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 113 min.). Nominated for two Oscars – Best International Feature Film and Best Actor for Antonio Banderas – this is writer-director Pedro Almodovar’s 36th film and one of his most personal, as the lead character is film director Salvador Mallo (Banderas) who is in physical decline. In the film, Mallo has a series of encounters with people from his past and he also recalls incidents from his childhood. Overall, despite the occasional pain, it is a sweet film, with one scene in particular that echoed my own past.

That Banderas, who does possibly his best work ever here, can be seen as a stand-in for Almodovar is easy, after all, he has made eight films with Almodovar over 40 years. Another of Almodovar’s frequent collaborators, Penelope Cruz, also is here, playing Mallo’s youthful mother, Jacinta, in the flashbacks, when Mallo was a boy. We first see her washing clothes in a river with other women, the hanging them on bushes to dry as all the women sing a song. It is a beautiful memory. In contrast, the elderly version of Mallo is wracked with pain, scruffy looking in the face with his stubby beard and most likely depressed by his isolation.

Mallo learns that a cinematheque in Madrid has restored his most famous film, “Sabor” (“Flavor”), and he is invited to present it and attend a Q&A session afterwards, along with his lead actor, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia, who conceivably could be a stand-in for Banderas). The two were once best friends, but Mallo has not spoken to Crespo in 32 years, because the actor had interpreted the famous role differently than Mallo had envisioned it – although Mallo says, now with age, he can see Crespo did justice to the role.

As they meet to discuss the upcoming event. Crespo turns Mallo on to heroin, which provokes both fantasies and memories in Mallo’s brain. Mallo, at least briefly, becomes dependent on the drug to ease his pain. When Crespo visits Mallo, he sees an unpublished memoir, “Addiction,” which he eventually convinces Mallo to let him perform as a one-man play. During a performance of the play, an audience member (Leonardo Sbaraglia as Frederico) recognizes himself as one of the characters and realizes Mallo must have written the play. Frederico was an early love of Mallo’s, but their relationship – ironically now – ended because of Frederico’s heroin use.

Some of the youthful memories center around a handsome young worker (Cesar Vincente as Eduardo) whom Mallo’s mother hired to fix up the literal cave they were living in. Mallo, then 9, was drawn to the young man’s physicality and thus was pleased when asked to tutor Eduardo in writing and reading. Eduardo also aspired to be a painter, which leads to two emotional scenes. Even more powerful and emotional is a scene between Mallo and his mother (now played by Julieta Serrano) in her last days as she discusses some of her burial wishes. (According to Almodovar in the extras, some of these scenes with the dying mother were not in the original script.)

Those extras include a fine Q&A session with Almodovar, who says he began the script after having surgery on his back, and Banderas (33:10; partially translated) and Almodovar, in Spanish, talking about the film and how it reflects the societal changes in Spain in the 1970s. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

All About My Mother (Spain, 1999, Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, NR, 101 min.). Another film by writer-director Pedro Almodovar that centers on a mother and her son, it branches out delightfully to include a small group of women (one of whom is transgendered). In fact, while being a film about the importance of family, the main characters include two battling lesbians, two transgendered hookers and a pregnant nun who is HIV positive. The film won both the 2000 Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.

The main character is Manuela (Cecilia Roth, who plays Zulema in “Pain and Glory”), a nurse whose life also centers around her just-turned 18-year-old son (Eloy Azorin as Esteban). A single mother, she has never revealed who Esteban’s father is, although Esteban, who wants to be a writer and is constantly writing in his notebook, wants to know. On Esteban’s birthday, they go to see Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes, also of Almodvar’s “The Skin I Live in”) in a performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Throughout the film, we get to hear quite a bit of the play, performed in Spanish. Manuela had performed the same role in her youth.

Trying to get Rojo’s autograph afterwards, Esteban is struck by a car and killed (filmed sideways), setting events in motion. Manuela travels to Barcelona to find Esteban’s father to tell him the news. She had left Barcelona without telling him she was pregnant. Arriving in Barcelona, Manuela has her taxi head for The Field, where transgendered hookers hang out to meet up with clients. There, she finds the old friend she wanted to find – Antonia San Juan as Agrado – being beaten by a client. Agrado introduces Manuela to a nun (Penelope Cruz of “Pain and Glory” as Sister Rosa), whom she decides to help after learning Rosa is pregnant.

Manuela goes to see Rojo in “Streetcar” several more times and eventually becomes hired as her assistant. She even gets to perform in the play one night as Rojo’s co-star and lover has failed to show. This all brings the women together is a tight-knit group.

The film not only has a lot of Tennessee Williams in it, but also Bette Davis scenes from “All About Eve.” When Manuela finally does find her old boyfriend, it is a very emotional scene.

Extras include a 2012 documentary on making the film, which opens with the filming of Esteban’s death (52:19); a 1999 Spanish TV segment, with Almodovar revisiting La Mancha, where he grew up, and his mother in her home (13:35); and a 2019 post-screening Q&A with Almodovar, his producer brother Agustin Almodovar and actress Paredes (48:33). The 32-page booklet includes an essay by scholar Emma Wilson, a 1999 interview with Almodovar and a 1999 tribute Almodovar wrote to his mother. The film is presented in a2k digital restoration. Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Parasite (South Korea, Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 132 min.). Also nominated for the 2020 Oscar as Best International Feature Film, as well as Best Motion Picture of the Year, is this clever film about a lower-class family who takes advantage of an upper-class family, before everything goes to hell. Bong Joon-Ho received Oscar nominations for directing the film and co-writing it with Jin Won Han. Its other two Oscar nominations, making it six in all, are for production design and film editing.

Bong has touched on class before in his equally remarkable “Snowpiercer” – a TV series version of which debuts May 31 on TNT – but there are many more twists to this film. The set-up is rather brilliant. The Kim family of four live in an apartment that is partially below ground level. They barely have enough money for food – they fold pizza boxes for a delivery company – and hijack an upstairs neighbor’s wi-fi signal until it is password protected. They leave their window open when the building’s outside is being fumigated so they can get the bugs in their apartment killed for free, even though they choke on the fumes. The son Ki-woo (Chai Woo Shik), due to enter college next year, has a friend, Min, who is headed abroad and asks Ki-woo to take over the tutoring of a rich girl, Dae-hye Park, whom Min hopes to someday marry. Min says he can trust Ki-woo, while his college friends might try to take advantage of the girl. The Park family is very wealthy – they live in an amazing, expansive house – but Min describes the mother as rather simple.

Through cleverness, Ki-woo not only gets the tutoring job, but soon has his older sister tutoring the Parks’ young son in art, his mother installed as the Parks’ new cook/housekeeper and his father as Mr. Park’s new chauffeur.  When the old housekeeper comes back an hour into the film, she reveals a secret that starts the unraveling of the whole situation. In fact, I would call the climax real dark and more than a bit senseless.

The only extra is a Fantastic Fest Q&A with the director that talks about all the stairs in the film, which I found to be a pretty obvious stand-in for social differences (19:03). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extra 1.5 stars

Piranhas (Italy, Music Box Films, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 112 min.). We all know war is hell (see “Battle of Jangsari” below), but growing up in an urban setting can be hell as well, as shown in this strong, non-judgmental film by director Claudio Giovannesi, based on a novel by Roberto Saviano, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Giovannesi and Maurizio Braucci. The film won for best screenplay at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it also was nominated for best picture.

The film is named “Piranhas” because it is about the little fish who rise up in the vacuum when the big crime bosses are incarcerated or killed. As Saviano points out in the extras, in some urban settings, the young are dying at a rate equivalent to the Middle Ages.

Overall, the film, set in the historic center of Naples, is about the loss of innocence as it centers on 15-year-old Nicola (newcomer Francesco Di Napoli, with a face an artist would love). Wanting money for expensive clothes and to attend clubs, Nicola’s life takes a turn the day he sees his mother, who runs a laundry, having to pay protection money to mob collectors, even though she has very little, and then he and his friends are unable to enter a nightclub for lack of enough money. Nicola befriends Agostino Straino (Pasquale Marotta), whose father used to run a mob, but now the family is disgraced.

Nicola realizes that working for the drug dealers is an easy way to make lots of money and get to use drugs. After working for a couple of gangs, Nicola proposes that he and Agostino form their own gang, using Nicola’s friends. Nicola’s young brother is fascinated by all this, especially when Nicola brings some guns home.

There is a mounting sense of dread in the film, especially once guns are introduced. One just knows that things will not end well, even if director Giovannesi ultimately cuts the film short, before that inevitable ending. There is a bit of Romeo and Juliet to the plot as Nicola starts dating Letizia (Viviana Aprea), whose disapproving father lives within a rival gang’s territory. The city, with its narrow streets that the young hoods navigate on their scooters (recalling “Quadrophenia” at times), is very much a character in the film. The film works best when the kids are just being kids, such as their noisy celebration in the nightclub. Extras include a making-of featurette (7:22); a brief interview with Saviano (2:22); and a press conference Q&A with cast members and filmmakers at the Berlin festival (28:51). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.75 stars

Battle of Jangsari (South Korea, Well Go USA, Blu-ray + DVD, NR, 103 min.). The intense battle scenes in this film reinforce the notion that war is hell, especially when the defenders of their nation are school-aged, untrained soldiers being slaughtered during a beach landing. It made me sadly wonder what my father went through fighting in Europe during World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge – something he would never talk about.

The situation in this fact-based film is the Korean War began when North Korea, with China’s support, invaded South Korea in June 1950. The United Nations, meaning mainly the United States, entered the conflict to support South Korea against the Communist aggression. With the North Koreans winning, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the United Nations forces led a counter-offensive from the sea in September at Incheon, a move that cut off many of the North Korean troops. Prior to the assault at Incheon, small, diversionary attacks were launched at Wosan, Jumunjin, Kunson and Jangsari. The 772 South Korean soldiers sent to take Jangsari Beach were mostly students, with only 10 days of training before deployment. Their boat arrived in a storm, the promised aerial attack came after the landing and the young soldiers had little ammunition, low food supplies and second-hand weapons.

The film, directed by Kwak Kyung-tack and Kim Tae-hun, puts the viewer in the midst of the horrific action. It also centers on a small group of the men, putting a human face on the destruction to come. One fighter for the South even comes face to face with his cousin who is fighting for the North. One of the young soldiers is played by Choi Min-ho of the K-pop boy band SHINee.

Although prominently displayed on the box and with their scenes in English, Megan Fox as a reporter and George Eads as a U.S. commander really do very little in the film and easily could have been left on the cutting room floor. The film’s only extra is a brief making-of that talks about filming in water in winter (3:20). Grade: film 3 stars; extra 1 star

The Knight of Shadows (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 108 min.). This is one strange movie. It blends animation, animated/puppet characters and live action, with lots of computer-generated tricks and, of course, a not-as-spry-as-he-once-was Jackie Chan. Chan, in his 132nd film, plays Pu Songling, who at first seems to be just a storyteller, trying to peddle his new book for 10 cents each to school children. However, he actually is a legendary demon hunter who is able to catch demons via spells he draws in the air with his magic Yin Yang Brush, then send the captured demon into his book that sends them to a dimension where they are eventually destroyed so they cannot reincarnate.

However, the film also is an almost epic love story. Yan Chixia, who is revealed to have been a serpent demon, has given his spirit orb to his lover, Nei Xiaoqian (Elane Zhong), rendering him human and her a demon. Xiaoqian’s part of the bargain was to give Yan her shadow. Another lovely animated section tells the history of their relationship, but overall relationships get very convoluted in the film. Some of the fighting sequences were unique to me, such as the female mirror demon who can jump from mirror to mirror, shooting out parts of her body to attack. During Pu’s fight with her, he gets separated into two halves at the waist and struggles to be reunited. Another fight sees Pu use chairs as weapons.

The film opens with an animated section about how demons came into the world, narrated by Chan. For a minute or two, it had me thinking this was an animated movie. Shortly thereafter, Chan’s Pu gets involved with over-eager young constable Yan Fei (Lin Po-hung), who ends up working with Pu, after being fired by his boss for upstaging the boss. Pu and Yan try to find Ms. Jade, the kidnapped daughter of the County Chief. The heavily-animated ending takes place in the realm where Pu sends the demons.

The Blu-ray also comes with an English language version, and the small print on the back of the Blu-ray container does refer to the film as “The Knight of Shadows: Between Yin and Yang.” Grade: film 2.5 stars

Mr. Nice Guy (China-Australia, 1997, Warner Archive Blu-ray, NR/PG-13, 97/88 min.). This first Blu-ray release restores some nine minutes that New Line cut from the Golden Harvest version, newly restored and remastered with a 4k scan of the original camera negative. The shorter version also is included.

This film, directed by Chan pal Sammo Hung, who has a cameo as the frustrated cyclist, came between Chan’s Hollywood breakthrough in “Rumble in the Bronx” (1995) and the vastly popular “Rush Hour” (1998). The film is set in Melbourne, Australia, where Chan plays Jackie, a popular chef and co-host of the TV show “What’s Cooking Tonight?” Jackie throws in some martial arts moves as he makes pasta, for example. The co-host is Baggio (Barry Otto of “Strictly Ballroom”), whose son Romeo (Vince Poletto) is a police detective.

The film cuts away from Jackie to show cocaine dealer Giancarlo (Richard Norton) trying to buy back $10 million of product from the Demons gang, who stole it. The meeting turns into a gunfight, but it is revealed that a reporter for “The Big Story” and her cameraman have filmed the meeting. The reporter (Gabrielle Fitzpatrick as Diana) is chased out of the building, where she encounters Jackie, who nobly fights off her attackers, leading to a wonderful, lengthy chase sequence that involves the disruption of a multiple wedding of motorcyclists, a giant character balloon landing on the wedding cakes and a superb stunt of Diana landing in Jackie’s moving convertible. The tape everyone is after, by the way, is a videotape, what was used back in the day.

Meanwhile, Jackie meets the hoped-for love of his life (Miki Lee as Miki) at the airport. After the gangsters show up during a cooking show segment at a mall, there is a grand mall chase, with lots of escalators, that spills out onto the street, where Miki and Jackie try to escape in a buggy pulled by two horses. Also good is Jackie’s fight involving many blue doors and a construction site fight evokes several laughs. At one point, Jackie is forced to fight while four guys who on his arms and legs with ropes. To top off the film, there is a monster truck, car-crushing, set-destroying finale.

Some of the acting, particularly by the bad guys, is a bit over the top, but the action sequences delight. There are outtakes during the closing credits, including some minor injuries to Chan, who, at one point says, “When I speak English, I’m nervous.” The only extra is the shorter version of the film. Grade: film 3.5 stars

Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic: The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb (Germany/France/Italy, 1959, Film Movement Classics, NR, both films 101 min.). The great German-born director Lang (“The Testament of Dr. Mabuse,” “Metropolis,” “M”) returned to his homeland after 21 years in Hollywood to make these two films that were meant to be watched back-to-back. Lang would make only one more film after these, “The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.” Lang actually had a long history with the project as he and then-wife Thea von Harbou wrote the script in 1921, but he was not given the chance to direct the film. The 1921 German silent version was directed by Joe May.

Lang’s version is considered a cinematic link between the classic silent serials and the modern action adventures of “Indiana Jones.” It was shot on location in India and around Spandau in Germany and features a large international cast and huge sets. Less impressive is the fake snake during Debra Paget’s near-naked dance, but then most eyes will not be on the snake.

In “The Tiger of Eschnapur,” German architect Harold Berger (Paul Hubschmid of Switzerland) is hired by Chandra, the Maharaja of Eschnapur, to design hospitals and school for the kingdom. While he waits for his partner (Claus Holm as Walter Rhode) to show up, along with Rhode’s wife Irene (German Sabine Bethmann), who also is Berger’s sister, Berger rescues temple dancer Seetha (Paget, an American) from a tiger and starts to fall in love with her. Unfortunately for Berger, Chandra (Walther Reyer), whose wife has died several years earlier, also falls in love with Seetha.

Meanwhile, Chandra’s older brother (Rene Deltgen of Luxembourg as Ramigani) is plotting to dethrone Chandra, as he resents having been passed over despite being the elder son. The late Maharajini’s brother (Jochen Brockmann as Padhu) also seeks to overthrow Chandra, whom he feels is too much influenced by the West.

The first film ends with Berger and Seetha escaping into the desert, where their horses die and then they run out of water and collapse near death. In “The Indian Tomb,” Chandra instructs Rhode to build a large tomb, in which he plans to throw the still-living Seetha. Meanwhile, more is revealed about the many caves and passageways beneath the island castle, including a colony of lepers.

Extras include audio commentary by film historian Mark Rappaport for both films; Rappaport’s video essay on the career of Paget (36:37); and a making-of featurette (21:03). Grade: films 3 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.