Film critic Scott Wilson reviews a documentary about the biggest pop star in the world fresh from premiering at Sundance, a descent into madness on a storm-battered island, and an instant modern classic.
Miss Americana – ★★★★☆
When you’re the biggest pop star in the world, every part of your life is micromanaged and scrutinised. Taylor Swift, one of the most successful artists in the history of music, inspires fierce devotion from countless fans, but bloody ire from just as many. Miss Americana can’t possibly delve into everything the lovers and the haters want from her. Instead, what Lana Wilson has put together feels more like a coming of age film, where Swift – who turned 30 in December – reflects on the past decade, about what used to be important to her, why it isn’t anymore, and what she wants to devote her energy to going forward.
A standout from Swift’s latest record Lover, ‘Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince’ deals with her disillusionment with American politics and gives the film its name. Much was made at the time of her decision to come out against Marsha Blackburn, who successfully ran for senator in Tennessee. What wasn’t as clear was the process: here we see Swift battling middle-aged male members of her management and her dad over her decision to make a political statement. One worries it will cut concert ticket sales in half; one envisions having to travel in an armoured car. It’s a candid scene where one of the world’s most powerful women is told ‘no’ by no-name men, which she ultimately ignores because the Taylor Swift she has become looks to prioritise what she believes in over keeping everyone happy.
You’re never not aware of how the film is another part of that micromanaged persona, which is inherently artificial while resonating with so many.
This politicisation is punctuated by footage of her songwriting process, which is infinitely watchable. Melodies and lyrics flow from her with apparent ease, recording them on a smartphone for posterity, before working with one of several mega-producers to turn it into a hit. It’s a show-don’t-tell way of making Swift out to be the real deal that she is, someone who has used music to tell stories with sincerity and built a devoted fanbase in the process.
With everything that’s Taylor Swift branded an exercise in PR, it’s tempting to question Miss Americana’s legitimacy. You’re never not aware of how the film is another part of that micromanaged persona, which is inherently artificial while resonating with so many, as if her real personality – whatever that is – can’t help but burst through. And along with her politicisation, she’s open about her relationship with food and her body image, as well as a sexual assault case. It’s in no way a tell-all biography of Swift, but instead a look at life in your 20s, where approval means less and less and you instead begin to question your legacy. But as PR goes, it’s pretty damn great.
The Lighthouse – ★★★★☆
Robert Eggers never winks at the audience. His feature-length debut, The Witch, committed fully to the hysteria of witch hunts and the language of Puritanical New England, making for one of the 2010s’ best films. With The Lighthouse he does it again, this time stranding Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson on an island as two lighthouse keepers who become increasingly mad.
Shot on film, in black and white, in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, it’s a film that feels as old as the seas themselves. This presentation makes everything more tactile: Pattinson is lashed with rain, Dafoe is covered in dirt, and just watching them consume bottle of alcohol after bottle of alcohol burns your insides. Shots of waves lashing the island as a storm rolls in go further than making the characters feel trapped; they’re being closed in by hellish and violent forces not allowing them to leave.
Dafoe’s Thomas is Pattinson’s Winslow’s employer, making him do the menial tasks while he gets to tend to the actual light at the top of the tower. Tom’s a superstitious man with a pre-meal mantra and who heeds the warnings of whispered seamen’s stories. Winslow just wants paid, but through a combination of loneliness, alcohol, Tom’s attitude, and sexual repression, he slowly slips into hysteria, dragging Tom with him.
It’s a machismo power struggle that’s steeped in physicality and caked in filth.
The Lighthouse bears little resemblance to the Edgar Allan Poe story that inspired it, but the master of gothic’s attention to mood and horror are well-observed. Maybe there is something otherworldly going on, in which curses and legends torment the men. But maybe the real horror is our inability to find harmony when we need it most, leading to heightened tensions and clashes between two very different sides.
But that’s not to take away from the film’s humour too. Watching two actors in their prime bickering endlessly and with increasing amplitude does have a notable effect on the viewer, as if their hysteria is infectious. Each rambling rant and predictable outburst eventually becomes slightly hilarious, as Pattinson and Dafoe go through hell in this manky movie. It’s a machismo power struggle that’s steeped in physicality and caked in filth. Along with Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) and Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), Robert Eggers completes the modern triumvirate of male directors who make accessibly tormented films which linger in the mind long after they’re done.
Parasite – ★★★★★
This Palme d’Or winner has become that rare thing: a film which everyone agrees is something special. On Letterboxd, a website where users can rank films out of five, it has overtaken The Godfather to become the highest rated movie of all time. While such a feat inevitably brings with it the perils of being overhyped, Parasite has got people talking.
The less known about the film before seeing it the better, so this review will not mention any plot details past the initial premise. The Kim family are poor, working low-paid jobs in a basement flat which is half-below ground. Ki-woo poses as a university student to take over from his friend’s tutoring duties while he’s out of town, teaching the Park family’s daughter English. Enamoured with the Parks’ home, Ki-woo and the rest of his family try to work their way into the Parks’ lives to enjoy the benefits of being employed by people far wealthier than them who live in a modern house.
Bong Joon-Ho has form for this kind of social commentary. Snowpiercer, never released in the UK until it arrived on streaming services, follows an uprising by people dumped at the backend of a train circling a frozen Earth. The Netflix-funded Okja critiques consumerism and capitalism, and how that’s tied up in animal welfare, as the Mirando Corporation breeds ‘super pigs’ for mass consumption.
The Kim family’s basement flat isn’t just half-below the ground, but also half-above, symbolising a kind of placated underclass where a glimmer of hope is just enough.
Not only does Parasite deal with the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, but also how the have-nots treat each other. We root for the Kim family, all of whom are immensely likable, particularly the cool Ki-jeong played by Park So-dam, and her father Ki-taek, played by Director Bong’s frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho, who wants what’s best for his family while always suppressing a righteous anger just below the surface. It’s tempting to think of the Park family as pleasant company, but microaggressions towards those less fortunate than them reveal a toxicity inherent in those who are more well-off. Even more disturbing is how far our support for the Kims go at the expense of others, and whether we actually want a liberated society or just one where we, the individual, benefits.
For it to already have achieved modern classic status, it’s unsurprising that every facet of Parasite’s production aims for perfection. In particular, the homes of both families are so realised that you’re constantly aware of their layout, how they feel, and what they are capable of having within them. The Kim family’s basement flat isn’t just half-below the ground, but also half-above, symbolising a kind of placated underclass where a glimmer of hope is just enough. The Park home is many times larger, but with that scale comes more secrets that belie the pristine appearance of the kitchen and living space. The entire film exists within everything that went into making it: the houses are the film as much as the families.
Fresh from winning Best Film Not in the English Language and Best Screenplay at the BAFTAs, there’s quiet optimism that Parasite could win Best Film at this Sunday’s Oscars. Regardless, it has already secured its place in film history and deserves every bit of praise heaped upon it.