Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Movie Review: Chasing Coral

Chasing Coral
Directed by: Jeff Orlowski.
Written by: Davis Coombe & Vickie Curtis & Jeff Orlowski.
There have no shortage of global warming/environmental documentaries in recent years – they have become a staple ever since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth – and arguably even before then. The films, which are all well-meaning, have a tendency to be rather dull and preachy, as scientists and other experts explain the problems, and what we do to correct them – most often, the films end with their rousing scores swelling beneath an inspirational speech, and then a website to go to “learn more”. Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral doesn’t entirely escape those traps – it certainly has the swelling score and the website during the end credits. Yet, it works better than most because there is more of a reason why you should see the movie, and not just read an article or listen to a speech – and that is the films visuals, which are beautiful, mesmerizing and ultimately sad.
The film is about coral – which are massive living things under the sea, made up of many smaller organisms. Coral is necessary in order to have healthy underwater ecosystems – where fish can gather, and feed. Coral disappear, smaller fish disappear, and then larger fish disappear, and all the way up the food chain. As one scientist says “Do we need coral? Well, do we need trees?”
The problem of disappearing coral has been documented before – in articles, etc. – but what makes Chasing Coral fascinating is that the filmmakers decided to try and document a massive coral bleaching event – essentially, over the course of a summer, when the temperature goes up as little as 2 degrees, coral tries to protect themselves, as if they cannot, they end up going white (bleaching), and eventually dying. The final part of the movie is essentially looking at the footage the filmmakers got – and how, over that span, thriving coral dying in a matter of months. The footage takes things out of the “theoretical” – and becomes impossible to deny that something is happening. The images speak for themselves.
Before then though, there are a lot of people talking about coral – and while it’s all rather interesting, it isn’t always that enthralling. The first part of Chasing Coral is almost a making up Chasing Coral documentary – starting with Richard Vevers, a former ad executive, who got tired of that life, and decided to dedicate it to something more useful. Vevers is key to the film as he understands the very basic principle of the film – that if all you have is scientists talking about coral, no one is going to sit up and listen. He watched director Jeff Orlowski’s other documentary – Chasing Ice – and thought that the film was essentially the same thing he wanted to do with coral. In order to do what they want though, they need to create cameras capable of taking time lapse photos, under salt water, for months on end. Enter Zack Rago – who along with others try and do just that. Rago becomes a focus of the film, because he’s not just a camera guy, but a self-professed “coral nerd” – who ends up becoming much more emotionally involved than he thought.
Chasing Coral is available on Netflix right now – and I do think you should see it, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is an important topic – related to global warming, which for some reason is still controversial for some, who want to deny that it is happening. For another, it is interesting to see how they get the footage they do. And finally, because the footage they do get is mesmerizing and beautiful when the coral is healthy – and then, downright sad later. It’s not the most scintillating documentary of the year, but it’s one of the most important – and it’s more entertaining than most docs of its sort.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Movie Review: War of the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes
Directed by: Matt Reeves.
Written by: Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves based on characters created by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver.
Starring: Andy Serkis (Caesar), Woody Harrelson (The Colonel), Steve Zahn (Bad Ape), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Amiah Miller (Nova), Terry Notary (Rocket), Ty Olsson (Red Donkey), Michael Adamthwaite (Luca), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Gabriel Chavarria (Preacher), Judy Greer (Cornelia), Sara Canning (Lake), Devyn Dalton (Cornelius), Aleks Paunovic (Winter), Alessandro Juliani (Spear), Max Lloyd-Jones (Blue Eyes).
I’m hard pressed to think of another blockbuster series of recent years that is better than the new Planet of the Apes films have been. Each film is distinct from each other – not just recycling what has come before, but expanding it, and continually building upon it, taking the fall of humanity and rise of ape as seriously as you can in a blockbuster trilogy like this without taking it too seriously. I still that the second film – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – is probably the best of trilogy – it certainly is the most action packed and viscerally exciting, and has the best mixture of human and ape characters – but the first film – Rise of the Planet of the Apes – was perhaps the most emotional (it certainly was the most heartbreaking) – and both lead brilliantly into War of the Planet of the Apes, which caps off the trilogy in a brilliantly. All three films represent blockbuster filmmaking at its current best.
The infighting between Apes that made up the plot of the second film has pretty much been resolved. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are trying to live in peace in the forest – but humans just don’t seem to want to allow that. The opening sequence involves an army searching for Caesar’s hiding spot – and coming very close to it. The apes fight them off – and take a few prisoner. Caesar, trying to show that the apes are not savages, allows them to go free. That ends up being a mistake, and soon more soldiers – this time led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) return – and kill some of Caesar’s family. As the apes ready their next move – hopefully to a safer place – Caesar plots his vengeance on the Colonel. If only a few trusted allies, he sets out to find his enemy.
War of the Planet of the Apes wears its influences on its sleeve – it’s clearly a war movie in many ways, and it takes its lead mainly from Apocalypse Now and other Vietnam war movies (strangely enough, Kong: Skull Island did the same thing – this one does it better). Harrelson’s The Colonel is clearly based on Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz – the gleaming bald head, the way he shaves it, the insane ramblings (this Colonel’s ramblings form a more coherent thought pattern than Kurtz’s – I think, anyway) – and Harrelson clearly relishes playing the bad guy here. As Caesar, Serkis is once again at his best (for better or worse, you’d be hard pressed to find a more influential performer in modern blockbusters than Serkis – who has already plays Gollum and King Kong for Peter Jackson in motion capture, but does career best work in this series). The special effects that allow the apes their expressiveness is quite honestly astonishing – and allows Caesar to become a more complex character here than he was before (in Rise he was more of a victim who fought back, in Dawn he was the principled leader – here, he is a leader, who makes mistakes and puts his own feelings above all else selfishly – and yet, he maintains the hero of the film in part because of how aware he is of his own shortcomings).
In many ways, director Matt Reeves has stepped up his filmmaking game here – the cinematography by veteran Michael Seresin is great, integrating the special effects in with the surroundings – the lush green forest that is made to feel like the jungles of Vietnam in those old movies, the cold blinding snow, the horrible prison camp of the last half. So many modern blockbusters who rely heavily on CGI (like, undeniably this one does) end up looking almost like a candy colored cartoon – this series has been an exception from the start, as it’s blended everything together well. The film goes long stretches with little to no dialogue – it almost exclusively stays with Caesar throughout, and many of the apes cannot talk – but communicate in sign language. Michael Giacchino’s brilliant score, does some of the emotional heavy lifting in those sequences, without laying anything on too thick.
Each film in this series work on its own terms – it doesn’t repeat what came before, but instead deepens it. As a trilogy, the whole is even better than the sum of its parts. Most Hollywood blockbusters don’t have room for ideas – let alone, allow themselves to address the darkest parts of our humanity (from the first film on, we’re clearly on the side of the apes, not the humans) – but this series went there, and did it with style and intelligence. They’re also three amazingly entertaining films. Modern day blockbusters don’t get much better than this series.

Movie Review: To the Bone

To the Bone
Directed by: Marti Noxon.
Written by: Marti Noxon.
Starring: Lily Collins (Ellen), Keanu Reeves (Dr. William Beckham), Kathryn Prescott (Anna), Liana Liberato (Kelly), Carrie Preston (Susan), Alanna Ubach (Karen), Lili Taylor (Judy), Brooke Smith (Olive), Ciara Bravo (Tracy), Retta (Lobo), Hana Hayes (Chloe), Alex Sharp (Luke), Rebekah Kennedy (Penny), Maya Eshet (Pearl), Joanna Sanchez (Rosa), Lindsey McDowell (Kendra).
I have a feeling that when writer/director Marti Noxon decided to make a film about anorexia – based, in part, on her own experiences dealing with the disease, that she had a long list of things she didn’t want her film to do, in order to avoid the pitfalls of a TV-Movie-of-the-Week or a “very special” episode of a well-meaning family sitcom. This is admirable to be sure – but watching the film, it felt like the moving was trying so hard not to be the clichéd version of this story, that it never really figured out what it really did want to be. The movie throws a lot of terminology about anorexia around, and seems to stress over and over again that there is no one root cause, and no one way to deal with it, etc. But then it doesn’t really show us anything. The brilliant doctor who treats the houseful of patients dealing with the disease (played by Keanu Reeves) doesn’t really seem to have a plan in place at all in terms of treatment. Again, he’s very confident about what won’t work, but doesn’t really know what will.
The story centers on Ellen (Lily Collins) – a 20 year old woman, who has been suffering from anorexia for a while, and been in and out of treatment for years, but isn’t getting any better. Her father is at work all the time (literally, it seems, as he never appears in the movie), her mother (Lily Taylor) came out as a lesbian when Ellen was 13, and has recently moved to Phoenix after yet another breakdown. Her stepmother, Susan (Carrie Preston), talks non-stop, and can be annoying – but she really does care, and she really does her best to try and help (at least it seemed like it to me – the movie, I’m not so sure sees her the same way). Ellen, reluctantly, agrees to go into another in-patient facility for treatment – this one in a large house, staffed by nurses, with a total of 7 patients, and run by Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves) who treatment seems to be a mixture of touch love and praise, and not a whole lot else.
It’s at the treatment facility that things start to go a little sideways for the movie. Ellen meets Luke (Alex Sharp), an anorexic ballet dancer, who is well on the way to recovery – and he becomes a kind of annoying cheerleader, prodder and romantic interest. His romantic gestures are creepier than anything else, and his constant insistence on Ellen doing what he asks is annoying. The rest of the patients are ill-defined, and just kind of there – which doesn’t help when the film tries to milk one them for a big emotional payoff in the third act.
The writing tries to mix in some humor along with the all more serious stuff about anorexia, and it’s probably the best part of the movie. Lily Collins is best here when she gets to be sarcastic and downright bitchy – she has got a killer look in her eyes able to cut you down to nothing with a glance. But Ellen never really comes into focus as a character. The screenplay throws out a lot of stuff about just how dysfunctional her family is – and then pretty much has the doctor dismiss it all as irrelevant. Ellen is said to be feeling guilty about her artwork – that may have contributed to another girl killing herself – but that never really comes into focus, much like everything else in the film.
I don’t doubt the intentions of the people behind this movie – who wanted to address a serious issue in a way that wasn’t maudlin or preachy, but was actually entertaining. But the gap between their intentions and the results is just too wide to make To the Bone all that successful.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Movie Review: The Little Hours

The Little Hours
Directed by: Jeff Baena.
Written by: Jeff Baena.
Starring: Alison Brie (Alessandra), Dave Franco (Massetto), Kate Micucci (Ginerva), Aubrey Plaza (Fernanda), John C. Reilly (Father Tommasso), Molly Shannon (Sister Marea), Fred Armisen (Bishop Bartolomeo), Jemima Kirke (Marta), Nick Offerman (Lord Bruno), Lauren Weedman (Francesca), Paul Reiser (Ilario), Adam Pally (Guard Paolo), Paul Weitz (Lurco), Jon Gabrus (Guard Gregorio).
The Little Hours is a bawdy sex farce set in 14th Century shot on location in Italy, with period accurate costumes and sets, but with actors who make absolutely no effort to disguise their modern way of speaking. It tells the tale of sexy nuns, and drunken priests, rich nobles, and their lowly servants and in it, everyone is fucking everyone else at all times. Written and directed by Jeff Baena, The Little Hours doesn’t go for eroticism at all – it shows the silly, funny, goofy side of sex – but it does contain at least an undercurrent of the feeling that something is deeply wrong with this whole setup. It’s a film that I like in concept much more than I like in execution – which kind of peters out about half way through, and despite some inspired lunacy in the final minutes courtesy of Kate Micucci, doesn’t really add up to much. At half the length, this could be inspired – but at 90 minutes, the laughs are too few with too much in between.
At the center of the film are three nuns, all at the nunnery, even if they don’t much want to me – Alessandra (Alison Brie) is the daughter of a wealthy merchant (Paul Reiser, doing nothing to disguise his Jewishness – in fact, he may well be playing it up), fallen on hard times and cannot afford a dowry right now. Don’t worry, he says, some people’s calling is the warmth and love of family, but Alessandra will always have her embroidery. Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) is, well, the same wonderful comic persona Plaza plays in everything this side of Legion – who hates everyone and everything, and some secrets she’s hiding. Only Ginerva (Micucci) even seems like she has any faith at all – but that could just be her people pleasing personality, that makes her tell the Mother Superior (Molly Shannon) everything everyone else is doing. The Priest who oversees the convent is Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), and he’s drunk on Communion wine most of the time – he blessed it himself, though, so it’s cool. At a nearby castle, servant Massetto (Dave Franco) has had to go on the run when his master, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) discovers that he is sleeping with his wife – Francesca (Lauren Weedman – who I would have loved to see more of here). He ends up running into a drunken Tommasso in the forest, and agrees to become the convent handyman – and pretend to be deaf and mute, for reasons the film explains, but really, it’s because it would be funnier. He promptly starts sleeping with both Alessandra – who believes this is a real relationship – and Fernanda – and her buxom friend Marta (Jemima Kirke) – who have ulterior motives.
For a while, all of this works. For the most part, everyone is playing the film with a straight face, which makes long conversations about where Massetto spills his seed, even funnier than they otherwise would be. There isn’t much of a plot, but it doesn’t need one – the comic performers are rather inspired, and the whole thing is pleasing goofy. Micucci is, in particular, a highlight stealing the movie from her more well-known co-stars, especially in the last act, where she pretty much goes nuts. There are strange visual gags – a turtle with a candle on his back for instance makes an extended experience – and the appearance of Fred Armisen later in the movie serves to underline just how absurd it is for all these nuns – and their priest – to be behaving this way. (The Catholic Church in America has seen fit to come out against the movie – they’d have been smarted just to not mention it).
I know some are going to think that The Little Hours is one of the best – and funniest – comedies of the year, and good for them. But I just didn’t laugh all that much, and although the comedy runs only 90 minutes, it felt much longer than that. When you have a film like The Little Hours, laughter is pretty much all the film offers, so if you don’t find it all that funny, you’re not left with much else to hold onto. I admire what the film was trying to do, it just didn’t get there for me.

Movie Review: Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
Directed by: Joseph Cedar.
Written by: Joseph Cedar.
Starring: Richard Gere (Norman Oppenheimer), Lior Ashkenazi (Micha Eshel), Michael Sheen (Philip Cohen), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Alex Green), Dan Stevens (Bill Kavish), Steve Buscemi (Rabbi Blumenthal), Jonathan Avigdori (Lior Keshet), Yehuda Almagor (Duby), Caitlin O'Connell (Sister Agnes), Hank Azaria (Srul Katz), Harris Yulin (Jo Wilf). 
If they’re smart and talented, movie stars often age into fine character actors when they get to a point when they are no longer headlining big Hollywood movies. During the 1980s and 1990s, that was Richard Gere – and while he had some interesting earlier roles (Malick’s Days of Heaven, Schrader’s American Gigolo) there’s a lot in that period that is pretty generic, middle of the road studio fare – the type of mid-level film Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. Yet, as he’s aged, Gere has done well for himself in taking on roles in smaller, indie movies – and has delivered some of his best performances – as the homeless man with mental issues in Time Out of Mind (2014) or as the Wall Street millionaire under pressure in Arbitrage (2012). To that list, you can add Joseph Cedar’s Norman – a film that is perhaps too complicated for its own good, and does feel rather anticlimactic in the end – but in which Gere – who initially feels all wrong for the role, ends up delivering another fine performance.
In the film, Gere plays Norman Oppenheimer, a Jewish guy in New York who runs a “consulting firm” – which is really just him and his iPhone, putting together “deals”. It’s never really clear what exactly he does, how exactly he makes money (he doesn’t seem to make much) – and yet somehow, he finds himself knowing and meeting everyone. One of the people he meets is Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) – an Israeli politician, who is visiting New York at a difficult time in his political life. He befriends Norman over one long day – as Norman follows him into an expensive tailor shop, and the two talk in a way that feels like it could go South at any minute, but somehow doesn’t. Three years later, Micha has risen in the ranks – he’s now the Prime Minister of Israel – but unlike what we expect, he has not forgotten his “good friend” Norman. His staff wants to put some distance between the two of them – but Micha himself likes Norman – and people know it. Norman uses this as his bargaining chip, as he tries to put together one large deal after another. Norman isn’t doing this for money per se – the deals, even if they were to work, wouldn’t be a windfall for him – but for the prestige of being the guy who can deliver. Norman has to tap-dance to keep all of his lies in the air, it’s never quite clear if he believes he can pull it all off, or if he just wants to be “that guy” for as long as he can.
The film was written and directed by Israeli director Joseph Cedar (who made the 2011 film Footnote, about father and son rival Talmudic scholars, which is way more entertaining than that sounds) – and he has a good sense of pacing, setting and tone. The film moves quickly through the various inner circles that Norman finds himself involved in – with the Israeli government, with high finance, with the synagogue board – led by Steve Buscemi – that Norman says he can help save. The tone of the film is strange – comic, tense, dramatic, and in some time, bordering on the surreal (especially when the magnificent Charlotte Gainsbourgh shows up for a few scenes as a government worker – the first time friendly, the second time, not so much). Through it all, the only consistent thing is Gere’s Norman, as he tries to keep everything going.
It’s an excellent performance by Gere, all the more so because I don’t think he, or the movie, ever really let us know what Norman is really thinking, or who he really is. By the end of the film, you still don’t really know if Norman is a selfish con artist, or just a guy who really is trying, but got in WAY over his head. The film itself isn’t as good as Gere – the politics of it all is too complicated, and not properly explained – the ending feels like a letdown – and yet Gere himself is never less than great – and makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Movie Review: Despicable Me 3

Despicable Me 3
Directed by: Kyle Balda & Pierre Coffin and Eric Guillon.
Written by: Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio.
Starring: Steve Carell (Gru / Dru), Kristen Wiig (Lucy), Trey Parker (Balthazar Bratt), Miranda Cosgrove (Margo), Dana Gaier (Edith), Nev Scharrel (Agnes), Pierre Coffin (Minions / Museum Director / Additional Voice), Steve Coogan (Fritz / Silas Ramsbottom), Julie Andrews (Gru's Mom), Jenny Slate (Valerie Da Vinci).
The original Despicable Me was a pure animated delight. Yes, it wasn’t exactly original to see a movie villain whose heart is melted when he becomes the adopted father of three adorable girls he only got as part of an evil scheme – but it worked. Steve Carrell was great as Gru, the little yellow Minions were hilarious, the girls appropriately adorable (especially the little one, who loved her fluffy unicorn), and the whole thing was wrapped up in an amusing animated package. As far as big budget mainstream American animation not made by Pixar (man, that’s a lot of qualifiers) goes, they don’t get a whole lot better than that. It’s been diminishing returns ever since for this franchise though, that really should end – but of course, won’t. The second film – which found Gru now on the side of good, and of course falling in love (because when you have no other ideas, you give the main character a love interest) was lightweight, and fun – and completely forgettable. The spinoff Minions was loud, annoying and headache inducing – even if I have to admit it was kind of daring to do an entire film aimed at children with characters who don’t speak English. Now comes Despicable Me 3, which finds Gru reunited with his long lost twin brother (because when you really don’t have any other ideas, you give the main character a long lost twin brother).
The film isn’t necessarily bad – but it sure the heck is lazy. Everyone involved seems to be going through the motions here. Part of the problem is that as the series progresses, you have to keep finding things for all the new characters you have introduced to do. So here, the plot doesn’t require the minions at all – and so, they are given an entire subplot of a minion revolt, where they walk out on Gru – but have really no idea where to go, or what to do. The main plot doesn’t really involved Gru’s new wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) – or the girls either – so they have to invent two subplots for them – one involving Lucy being insecure about her new role as the girl’s mother, and one involving the little girls obsession with finding a real life unicorn in the forest. Because the movie has to keep cutting away to those plots, the main thrust of the plot – Gru connecting with his brother Dru, who wants to learn how to be a supervillain like Gru used to be (and their late father, unknown to Gru) was – and at the same time Gru trying to capture supervillain Balthazar Bratt, a former child star on a 1980s sitcom, turned into a villain still obsessed with that decade (voiced by Trey Parker, one assumes, because Seth Macfarlane was too busy) feels even thinner than it otherwise would. Much worse though, is those subplots just aren’t very good.
To be fair, the film will likely please its intended audience. My six year old daughter told her mother when we came home that the movie was “so funny” – and my three year old sat through the whole thing with nary a complaint. It was their father who looked at his watch and couldn’t believe only 45 minutes had gone by when he thought it was about time for the thing to end. I don’t know what it is about animated franchises not made by Pixar where the creators get lazy. While it’s true that something like the Cars franchise hardly represents Pixar at their finest – the truth is that Pixar did actually reinvent the series each time out, and find no avenues to explore – to bad effect in Cars 2, but fine effect in Cars 3. Despicable Me on the other hand, just keeps churning out the same thing over and over again – and this time, the result was both boring and forgettable.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Fires on the Plain (2014)

Fires on the Plain (2014)
Directed by: Shin'ya Tsukamoto.
Written by: Shin'ya Tsukamoto based on the novel by Shohei Ooka.
Starring: Rirî Furankî, Tatsuya Nakamura, Yûko Nakamura, Dean Newcombe, Shin'ya Tsukamoto.
In 1959, Kon Ichikawa adapted the novel by Shohei Ooka and ended up making one of the great WWII movies from Japan’s perspective ever. It is a film about dehumanization, as the Japanese army has already been roundly defeated in the Philippines, but the army refuses to surrender. The few survivors have to make their way across the island they’re on to get to the one stronghold the Japanese still have – that is, if they still even have that. The film follows Tamura, a solider whose unit doesn’t want him – he has TB and they keep sending him to the field hospital, who keeps sending him back until his C.O. tells him to either stay at the hospital or kill himself with a grenade. Somehow Tamura survives, even when his unit and the hospital are decimated, and he’s stuck with various other members, who become increasingly desperate to survive, and do increasingly depraved things – as Tamura attempts to not only survive but also to maintain his humanity.
I’m not sure what current Japanese director could be considered a descendant of Ichikawa – but Shinya Tsukamoto is not him. He is mainly known for his ultraviolent splatter films like Tetsuo (1989) – and that is pretty much what he did in his version of Fires on the Plain. Ichikawa’s film is about the gradual dehumanization of men at war – Tsukamoto takes that dehumanization as a given, and makes his film a vision of hell. He draws out the almost comedy of the opening scenes of Tamura heading back and forth from his unit and the hospital, as he is caught in a Cacth-22 – damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Once the attack on the hospital hits – with explosion and violence – he introduces the two other major characters – a sadistic older man who uses a weak willed younger man as his slave – but then has Tamura by himself for a while. This is an almost surreal, nearly wordless sequence that goes on for quite some time, as Tamura wanders through the land he doesn’t know or understand and the locals who both fear and despise him. The film adds more violence to this segment when Tamura kills a young woman who will not stop screaming – an act that haunts him so much he abandons his gun. Soon though, he has found others to join, and starts his trek across the island.
This leads to one of the most violent war sequences you will ever see in a movie. The Japanese have to make their way across a wide open field that is covered by the Americans. They wait until the cover to darkness, yet as the dozens of men try to make their way across, the Americans flood the field with light, and slaughter them like fish in a barrel. It is one of the most horrifically violent sequences I have ever seen in a movie – with limbs and heads flying, bodies being blown apart, heads being ripped open by bullets, and the chaos on the ground – where two men fight over an arm that has been blown off, since they’ve both lost one and they don’t know whose this one is. This sequence is long and intense – but at some point it does go a little too far, tries for a little too much splatter makeup that ends up looking a little false. Until then, it was a great sequence however.
The rest of the movie is a further descent into hell. The survivors wander through the island, past countless rotting corpses, many with a sickening look and full of maggots. The original movie is famed for its portrait of cannibalism – and this one will be as well. And like everything else in the movie, Tsukamoto takes it farther than Ichikawa did – at least visually – the better for stomach churning visuals.
The movie is an effective portrait of war as hell. It doesn’t move you like Ichikawa’s film does – mainly because that isn’t what Tsukamoto is going for. He wants to make the most violent, gory, disturbing and violent war film that he can – and he does that. Whether you want to see it or not, is up to you, but I found the combination of art house and splatter films fascinating. It doesn’t quite work, but it’s an experience to witness.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF 2014, and at this point, I have to believe it’s not going to get a proper released in North America – so I decided to publish the review I wrote then anyway.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Movie Review: The Beguiled

The Beguiled
Directed by: Sofia Coppola.
Written by: Sofia Coppola based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan and the screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp. 
Starring: Colin Farrell (Corporal McBurney), Nicole Kidman (Miss Martha), Kirsten Dunst (Edwina), Elle Fanning (Alicia), Oona Laurence (Amy), Angourie Rice (Jane), Addison Riecke (Marie), Emma Howard (Emily).
The Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood version of The Beguiled is a fascinating movie – a Southern Gothic horror film really about a group of Southern women in the Civil War who take in a wounded Union soldier, nurse him back to health, project their own feelings onto him, and then torture him when he doesn’t live up to their standards. From the start of that film, you know that Eastwood’s character is a liar and a conman – but it’s not like the women in the film are all that much better, as they gleefully head towards the climax. For the most part, Sofia Coppola’s film follows the same sequence of events – it excises an incest backstory of one character, an interlude that felt rather rape-y and eliminates a slave character altogether (a move that some have criticized Coppola for – but I don’t have much of a problem with, as Coppola herself has said, she isn’t the director to tackle a subject like that). And yet, it’s an entirely different film, with an entirely different tone. Coppola continues to be fascinated by groups of privileged women, hidden away from the world, and the havoc that can cause. The Beguiled is more of a genre piece than she’s done before, but it’s clearly a Sofia Coppola genre piece.
In this version, the Union solider, Corporal John McBurney is played by Colin Farrell – who is pretty much perfectly cast in the role. He has, at many times in his career, been cast as much for his physical presence as his acting abilities (in film like Terrence Malick’s The New World or Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, I’d argue, more for the former, than the later) – and he puts both to great use here. He is wounded in the forest, when young Amy (Oona Laurence) finds him, and brings him back to her school for young girls, where the headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) can nurse him back to health. Most of the young women have left the school – but there’s a few left, alongside their teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). McBurney wants to know if there are men around – there aren’t.
Throughout the movie, McBurney subtly reads each of the women, and what they want from him, and responds accordingly. The Siegel/Eastwood version makes everything much more explicit through dialogue, where here, it’s mainly done through meaningful glances. Farrell wonderfully changes facial expressions – softens or hardens it, changes his tone of voice, depending on who he’s talking to. He says little to any of them – promises nothing until late in the movie, and yet they all read into him anything they want. The main female characters are Martha – the one with the complex backstory excises, although Kidman is a brilliant enough actress to suggest so much, with so little – the aging matriarch of the place, who sees McBurney as a potential man of the house. Edwina is the teacher, who is living out her prime “marrying age” with all the men off to war, who almost melts with a few kind words. The oldest student is Alicia (Elle Fanning – adding another great performance in a young resume full of them) – whose teenage sexuality is dying to get out, but doesn’t have an outlet – who sees McBurney as a potential plaything – and a way to turn the rest of the women – both younger and older – into playthings as well. Young Amy may see McBurney as more of a father figure than anything else.
The film was shot in a large house in New Orleans, and is the type of film where you can feel the humidity coming off every frame, The cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd (stepping in for the late, great Harris Savides, who shot Coppola’s last two films) is superb. Coppola doesn’t quite go over the top like Siegel did (most notably in a strange montage) – but she walks up to that line. The film is wonderfully fun – especially watching the women as they exchange so much information between them without saying a word. The film works as an extension of themes that Coppola has always explored, and at the same time as a thriller, and at times even a comedy (not a laugh out loud comedy per se – but I did have a smile plastered on my face the entire last act). I said of the original Beguiled that it raises more questions than it answered – and the same is true of this film, which doesn’t really seek to answer anything. In both cases, that’s a strength of the film, not a weakness.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming
Directed by: Jon Watts.
Written by: Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley and Jon Watts & Christopher Ford and Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers based on the Marvel comic by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko.
Starring: Tom Holland (Peter Parker / Spider-Man), Michael Keaton (Adrian Toomes / Vulture), Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Marisa Tomei (May Parker), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Jacob Batalon (Ned), Zendaya (Michelle), Laura Harrier (Liz), Tony Revolori (Flash), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Donald Glover (Aaron Davis), Bokeem Woodbine (Herman Schultz / Shocker #2), Tyne Daly (Anne Marie Hoag), Abraham Attah (Abe), Hannibal Buress (Coach Wilson), Martin Starr (Mr. Harrington), Garcelle Beauvais (Doris Toomes), Michael Chernus (Phineas Mason / The Tinkerer), Michael Mando (Mac Gargan), Logan Marshall-Green (Jackson Brice / Shocker #1), Jennifer Connelly (Karen / Suit Lady).
Mark me down as one of those crazy people who thinks we didn’t really need a third Spider-Man franchise started in the last 15 years, and one of those even crazier people who thinks that even if we did that, we don’t need it to connect to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is already bursting at the seams with many memorable heroes, and one memorable villain. I think it’s doubtful that a Spider-Man movie will ever top Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 – which remains one of the great superhero movies ever made, mainly because it’s done with the boring origin story (I was never much of a fan of Raimi’s original Spider-Man), but hadn’t gotten to the going through the motion phase of the third installment. While Raimi knew he was making franchise films each and every time – and knew sequels were possible, they weren’t inevitable, so he could work on telling his own story. I didn’t dislike the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man films like many did – I may even argue the first one is a better origin story than Raimi’s first one – but they were wholly unnecessary. Perhaps the best thing to say about Spider-Man: Homecoming is that they don’t cast some poor sap to play Uncle Ben to tell Peter that “With great power comes great responsibility” before being shot.
Ok, now, I’m just being an asshole, because that isn’t the best thing about Spider-Man: Homecoming (it is, however, a relief) – which overall is – like most of the films in the MCU – a fun, entertaining film, a breezy, entertaining way to kill a couple of hours and have a hell of a lot of fun. No, it isn’t as good as Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 – but perhaps it’s the second best Spider-Man film so far, so there’s that – and while the film does take pains to connect itself to the larger MCU – starting right where the fight in Captain America: Civil War, which introduced this Spider-Man, left off – there is hope that in the future, it won’t be quite as beholden to it.
So, the good news is that there is no Uncle Ben, no radioactive spider bite, not hour of a kid discovering his powers, and thinking that they’re supercool, before he gets in over his head using them. He pretty much already starts there, when he stumbles across some thugs selling some powerful weapons, built using alien technology. He follows along this path, and it leads to Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, because apparently the message of Birdman is that all actors should do Superhero movies) – who 8 years ago in 2012 (yeah, I know, that doesn’t make sense –just role with it) was kicked off the sweet salvage he thought he had cleaning up after Loki attacked New York – and got pissed. Now, he and his crew get all the alien tech they can, make weapons out of it, and will sell it to anyone. Peter tells Tony Stark about it, but he doesn’t seem to care, so Peter decides it’s all on him to stop him – despite the fact that Peter also pretty lives in a 1980s John Hughes movie version of high school, where he and his nerdy best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon) pine after the pretty Liz (Laura Harrier), even if we know Peter’s real love interest is eventually going to be the cynical Michelle (because she is played by teen star Zendaya).
The film was directed by Jon Watts, whose previous film was the low budget indie Cop Car, which wasn’t a bad film by any means, although it is the type that makes you wonder why they hired him to make a Spider-Man film. He handles the movie well for the most part – I thought the action sequences moved a touch too quickly at times, but at least didn’t succumb to rapid fire editing, so that’s a plus. I almost preferred the films action climax – where for reasons to complicated to get into here – Peter has to wear his very low tech suit, as opposed to the high tech one he had for the rest of the film – as everything did feel a little bit more like I was watching a human and a little bit less like I was watching a computer program.
As Peter, Tom Holland delivers a fine performance – he perhaps whines a little too much, but then again, he’s a teenager, so that’s kind of his thing. He’ll be a good Spider-Man for a while, and hopefully, they’ll let this one age a little bit before thrusting us back in high school with a fourth iteration of the character. Keaton is nicely menacing, and refreshingly, he has rather down-to-earth motivations, rather than world domination or an obsession with infinity stones – which oddly, has been driving this larger franchise for nearly a decade now, and no one much seems to care if they ever pay that off. Can Robert Downey Jr. take some time off from Iron Man though? I know he’s seemingly the only major actor in this franchise who appears to have lost in interest in doing anything else other than play Iron Man (and isn’t that just a little bit sad), but I could use a break from his Tony Stark for a while.
I know this review probably sounds harsher or more cynical than I intended it to. Spider-Man: Homecoming really is a fun movie, and I would gladly watch another installment of this Peter Parker fighting bad guys (especially if that bad guy turns out to be Michael Mando, from Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul, as setup in this film). It’s hard not to be a little cynical about these movies though isn’t it, which are more money and rights issues, etc. than actually making good movies. If they do make good movies, that’s a plus for the studios, not an imperative. This time, it’s a plus, so I guess we should be happy with that and move on to Thor: Ragnorok in a few months.

Movie Review: Bokeh

Directed by: Geoffrey Orthwein & Andrew Sullivan.
Written by: Geoffrey Orthwein & Andrew Sullivan.
Starring: Maika Monroe (Jenai), Matt O'Leary (Riley).
The movies have long been obsessed with the end of the world – so much so, that both the Hollywood special effects extravaganza version and the indie movie low-key version have both essentially become clichés – in the later, the world goes out with a whimper, in the former with a bang. Bokeh is definitely the later – an indie film about an American couple on vacation in Iceland, who wake up one morning to find that the city is completely empty except for the two of them. Is this the rapture? After all, everything else is still there, and there are no bodies. They try and contact people back home, and they can’t – the internet hasn’t been updated since the previous day. As far as they can tell, they are utterly alone in the world.
Bokeh wants to be a profound and beautiful film about the experience. The later it certainly is, as there are many dreamy shots of the beautiful countryside in Iceland, the lights in the sky, etc. At times, the film seems to want to be a low key version of a later Malick film – going for the same result, with less twirling, and there are moments of quiet beauty throughout the film. As for profound, not so much. The film doesn’t really do much with its premise once it establishes it. The runtime feels like it has been padded with unnecessary actions – like when Jenai (Maika Monroe) decides that she must check every house she comes across – and then just as quickly abandons it.
The film really is about this young couple – one who hasn’t been together for all that long (this is their first trip together), who, like all couples, eventually get to know each other perhaps too well. Being the literal last two people on earth speeds the process along somewhat, and you have to wonder if the differences between them that become untenable throughout the film would have been revealed at all had they had some sort of other outlet – other people to interact with. Often, early in a relationship, you do see little wrong with the other person, and you devote yourself to that relationship at the expense of all others. It’s only gradually, you begin to ease back on that.
As a seed of an idea for a movie, that’s not a bad one, and I guess I could see it working – especially as a short. The problem with Bokeh is that even at just 95 minutes it feel ponderous and slow. Even though little happens in the movie, it feels like it pounds its message into your head again and again. The two lead performances are pretty good – I particularly like Monroe, although I wonder if that is some residual goodwill from films like The Guest and It Follows – but then again, neither is given much to do. The ending feels rather pat and predictable – again, for a film with such little going on, they sure do like their foreshadowing. Basically, while I was intrigued with the premise, I just kept waiting for the film to do something interesting with it, and it never really did.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Movie Review: The Big Sick

The Big Sick
Directed by: Michael Showalter.
Written by: Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani.
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani (Kumail), Zoe Kazan (Emily), Holly Hunter (Beth), Ray Romano (Terry), Anupam Kher (Azmat), Zenobia Shroff (Sharmeen), Adeel Akhtar (Naveed), Bo Burnham (CJ), Aidy Bryant (Mary), Kurt Braunohler (Chris), Vella Lovell (Khadija), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Nurse Judy), Jeremy Shamos (Bob Dalavan), David Alan Grier (Andy Dodd), Ed Herbstman (Sam Highsmith), Shenaz Treasury (Fatima).
I’ve never been much of a fan of romantic comedies – which peaked sometime in the 1930s, when great directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and George Cukor were making them, and haven’t much evolved since, except to make everything less funny and charming. The Big Sick. For the most part, romantic comedies have followed the very same path – two impossibly attractive white people, with really cool jobs, fall in love, but something holds them apart for most of the movie, until in the end, they fall into each other’s arms and the film ends, just as the real work for their relationship should be starting. The new romantic comedy, The Big Sick, doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to romcoms – but it does feature two important twists in it – the first being that the male star of the film, Kumai Nanjiani, isn’t white, and comes from a Muslim family, and the family pressure on him to do what they want (i.e.: an arranged marriage) feels stronger than normal, and second is that the female star of the film – Zoe Kazan – spends most of the film in a medically induced coma. As far as obstacles to a traditional romantic comedy couple go, either of these would feel much more real than most romcoms, but the duo combined results in a film, that somehow feels organic, even as it mines (almost) every romantic comedy cliché it can.
It probably shouldn’t be all that surprising that the film has the ring of authenticity, since it was written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon – and was based on their own courtship. It would pretty much have to be a true story, because otherwise you wouldn’t believe it. The story follows Nanjiani, as he plays a version of himself, a struggling standup comedian, who is lying to his parents about his plans to take the LSTATs (he has none) and his interest in all the young Pakistani women who just happen to “drop in” whenever Kumail goes to his parents for dinner. He knows that, like his brother, he probably will marry one of them sooner or later, but he’s hoping it’s going to be later. When he meets Emily (Kazan) at the comedy club – when she heckles him (or as she says, “Woohoos” him) they both think it’s only going to be a fling, but then they just cannot stop hanging out together. They both have secrets – he holds his closer to his chest that she does – and eventually it all comes out, and they break up. And then, the coma. Kumail feels guilty, and wants to be at the hospital for her – even after her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) arrive – which gives lots of time for awkward conversions to ensue.
Almost everything about The Big Sick works. Nanjiani’s point of view as a secular Muslim in America, grappling with his more conservative family and their expectations, and what he really wants, would be enough to fuel most movies – in particular because the screenplay takes time to make his family’s point-of-view come across as more reasoned than it might otherwise. As Emily’s parents, both Holly Hunter and especially Ray Romano give great performances (to be fair, they may well be equally great performances, but we’re used to seeing Hunter this good as a feisty, little firecracker of a woman, which she does to perfection, but Romano’s more laid back routine, adds a dimensional to his usual sad sack persona). The standup comedy stuff – and the friendships Nanjiani has within that world – also ring true as well.
There are certainly nits to be picked here – the biggest one being that someone, even though the real life Emily co-wrote the movie, her character feels underwritten – Kazan breathes a lot a life into the role, but I wish they may have taken a second to explore her post-coma outlook more. The film does feel a little long (Judd Apatow is one of the producers after all) – even if director Michael Showalter keeps the pace up nicely. A cynic could complain that the film is a little too overly engineered to be a manipulative crowd-pleaser as well.
But only a real cynic could truly dislike a film like The Big Sick – which is funny and sweet and insightful and just downright entertaining. It doesn’t reinvent the romantic comedy as much as it tinkers with it – but here, that’s enough.

Movie Review: American Anarchist

American Anarchist
Directed by: Charlie Siskel.
The Anarchist Cookbook was written in the early 1970s by an angry, 19-year-old young man named William Powell. The book combined information on weapons and combat, and how to make explosives, that Powell culled together from information he found in military pamphlets at the library, as well as Powell’s rage filled rantings calling from armed revolution in America to overthrow the corrupt system. It was published by a sleazy publisher looking to make a quick buck – and immediately caused controversy – a controversy that has never really gone away, although there have been long periods of time in the almost 50 years since it was published where it lies dormant. Powell himself sold off all the rights to the book for $10,000 at some point in the 1970s, so even though the book keeps on being published, he isn’t seeing any more profits. He has largely stayed out of the spotlight ever since.
The documentary American Anarchist is essentially all about Powell as he talks to director Charlie Siskel about why he wrote the book, and what he’s done with his life since. It seems like he quickly grew out of his anger – as many young men do – and became a teacher – one who often worked with kids with emotional problems. He seems more embarrassed by the book than anything else – he certainly no longer agrees with it, and thinks his angry rants in the book are now drivel. The book has affected his career – schools he applied to be more often than not sent copies of the book anonymously, which often sunk his chances from being hired. He seems like a quiet, intelligent well-educated, polite man. He has also mastered the art of denial – he has essentially buried his head in sand to almost all the incidents that his book may have help to inspire. He says he didn’t know of any of them until a friend of his saw Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine – and wrote to him about how the book was mentioned in the film, as being an influence on Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. At that time, he wrote a message for Amazon to put on the book’s page, saying he wants to the book to die a “quick and quiet” death. He wrote an op-ed for The Guardian 12 years later essentially arguing the same thing, when they approached him in the wake of another school shooting, in which the Cookbook was said to inspire.
Powell’s pleas of ignorance clearly are not enough for director Siskel – who grows increasingly frustrated throughout his conversations with Powell – as he pushes harder and harder (I would argue at some point, too hard) to get some sort of reaction out of Powell. He lists all the incident he could find – dating back to the 1970s and including things like the Oklahoma City bombing – in which the Cookbook was at the very least owned by the people who made bombs that killed people. He shows various Youtube clips of idiotic young people testing out the explosives Powell’s book told them how to make – including many, many close calls. Siskel very clearly wants Powell to take some personal responsibility for it all.
Honestly, I think Siskel pushed Powell too hard at points in the movie – not necessarily because I disagree with him - although, Powell is correct in saying that he never did anything violent to others, and the people who did, made their own choices, and certainly in the age of the internet, his book is no longer necessary for people who wants to know how to make bombs, or find the angry rantings of violent young, white guys – but more because I think the documentary is at its strongest when Powell trades to evade taking responsibility. I think about what a director like Errol Morris would do if he interviewed Powell, as Morris is a master interviewer at giving his subjects enough rope to hang themselves with, without every pushing as hard as Siskel does here (Morris does this brilliantly in both Mr. Death and The Fog of War – and tried in The Unknown Known). A simple, quiet scene like when Powell e-mails Senator Diane Feinstein, who called for the banning of the book, but giving up when he gets an automated response from her office, says more about Powell, and how he has dealt with the book than when Siskel pushes him to the point of anger.
In short, I think there is a better, more complicated documentary to be made about Powell and his book – which sadly, will never be completed, since Powell died a year after filming the movie took place. Siskel clearly feels righteous anger towards Powell, and wants the audience to as well – and up to a point, we do. A better, more confident documentary may well have examined the way in which Powell has compartmentalized the actions of his youth – has put it away, and doesn’t want to think about it anymore, because it’s easier not to. That’s something that anyone could relate to – and making us empathize with Powell is trickier than making us condemn him. As Powell’s wife says at one point, a lot of people have done stupid things when they were long – it’s just that most of ours didn’t get published.

Movie Review: I Called Him Morgan

I Called Him Morgan 
Directed by: Kasper Collin.   
Written by: Kasper Collin.

I Called Him Morgan is a beautiful, sad documentary about a great musician whose life ended far too early. In many ways, jazz musician Lee Morgan lived the clichéd life you think of when you think of jazz – a young, gifted, African American trumpet player, whose greatness was recognized early on, but whose life was derailed by heroin. Unlike many, though, he somewhat pulled himself together – even though he still ended up dead at the age of 32 – not from the drugs, but from his wife. That was Helen More, who was significantly older than Morgan, but found him at his lowest point, and helped to drag him out of it, and back into music. She was the jealous type though, and when he started seeing another woman – even if, by (most) accounts the drugs had such an effect on Morgan, he couldn’t “perform” that way even if he wanted to, she got jealous, and shot him one cold, stormy night at Slug – a Jazz club in New York. On many other nights, he may well have survived – but that night, there was a billiard, so it took the ambulance an hour to reach him – by which point, and it was too late.
Although the elements of I Called Him Morgan probably sound like the stuff of documentary cliché, as directed by Kasper Collin, the film becomes something altogether more haunting and beautiful than that. Yes, it has elements of True Crime – but it’s not a whodunit, and the reason behind it are simple and straightforward. It is a portrait of these sad people, who lives were full of regret and loss. The movie is built around an audiotape interview with More, conducted in 1996, the month before she died. She tells how she meet and fell in love with Morgan – she didn’t call him Lee, because she didn’t like that name – and how eventually she killed him. Collin intercuts clips from that interview with interview with Morgan and More’s contemporaries, families, friends, etc. – giving a fuller portrait of both of them, and the era. Oddly, there is not a lot of anger in the film –everyone seemingly feels empathy for both parties involved. There are fond memories though, and a lot of Morgan’s music – which Collin lets speak for itself, not providing much in the way of context or analysis for it.
I Called Him Morgan is an example of what I wished more documentaries would do. Far too often, documentary directors do not think visually or aurally when crafting their films – they simply set up a camera, film a few interview, throw in some archival footage, and call it a day. When the material is strong enough, this can still work – but the best docs have something a little extra to them. Collin has crafted his film, constructing it in a way that highlights the music, and underscores the sadness of the story. This isn’t just a series of talking heads – but something greater.
In the end, you’re left with a sad story of two people who in many ways destroyed each other. Morgan has been gone for more than 40 years – More, more than 20 now. All that’s left now is the memory of those who knew them, sadness over the wasted lives, and, of course, the music. This is a beautiful doc that hit me harder than I expected it would – because it goes deeper than most docs of its kind do.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Movie Review: Okja

Directed by: Bong Joon Ho.
Written by: Bong Joon Ho and Jon Ronson.
Starring: Ahn Seo-hyun (Mija), Tilda Swinton (Lucy Mirando), Paul Dano (Jay), Jake Gyllenhaal (Dr. Johnny Wilcox), Byun Hee-bong (Heebong), Steven Yeun (K), Lily Collins (Red), Yoon Je-moon (Mundo Park), Shirley Henderson (Jennifer), Daniel Henshall (Blond), Devon Bostick (Silver), Choi Woo-shik (Kim), Giancarlo Esposito (Frank Dawson).
Bong Joon Ho’s Okja is not a perfect film by any means – yet, in its way, it shows why perfect films can sometimes be rather dull. The Korean auteur behind such great films as Memories of Murder (he least seen film, which is a shame, because it’s his best), The Host, Mother and Snowpiercer – has crafted something truly original and strange with Okja – a film that seemingly throws everything at the wall to see what will stick. Not everything does, of course, but I’d rather a film go for broke, and not quite stick the landing, than play it safe. Okja is by no means perfect, but it’s sure as hell memorable.
I’ve been struggling in coming up with a way to describe the film. It is a corporate satire, but also a dark children’s fantasy film. It’s got a clear political message against the factory farming of meat – and perhaps against eating meat at all, but it does find room to poke fun at people on all sides. It is a film that children would both relate to, and find utterly, completely horrifying. It feels like a large budgeted film for some bygone era in which they were allowed to contain ideas along spectacle. And man, is it ever strange.
Basically, the film revolves around a little girl in Korean named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), who lives in basically in the wilderness with her grandfather, a farmer. He was given the title character – Okja – a genetically modified “super pig” who will be part of a 10 year experiment, in which 10 of these pigs are distributed to farms around the world, to determine the best way to raise them in order to maximize their meat production. Mija and Okja are best friends – and do everything together, and trust each other – but when the 10 years expire, he’ll be given back to the company that created him. That is, unless Mija – with the help of an animal rights group – ALF – can save him.
Okja, the creature, is a triumph of special effects – he looks like a giant, black pig crossed with a hamster, but he truly does have one of the most expressive faces of a CGI creation I have seen. This is crucial, because Okja is essentially about the bond between him and Mija – how much he loves and trusts her, and the expressiveness in the first act helps solidify that bond – and the sheer pain and horror on his face in the latter half, are truly horrifying. Little Ahn Seo-hyun does a great job for a child actress as well, displaying the kind of single minded devotion to principle and her friend that you really only find in children – before the world crushes it out of them. The love between these two characters is really the subject of the film.
The adult performers are more a mixed bag. I’m not quite sure what the hell Jake Gyllenhaal is doing in his performance – he plays a child friendly celebrity spokesperson for the company that created the super pig, and the performance is purposefully broad, but I cannot help but think it’s too broad to be at all believable. You have to kind of admire his devotion to it though, don’t you? I did like Tilda Swinton, once again playing twins – the evil sister who is now the head of the company, and the even more evil sister who used to be head of the company, and wants back in. I feel like Paul Dano could have been better as the leader of ALF, had the screenplay given him slightly more to do – the film pokes gentle fun at his obsessiveness, but I fear Bong liked him too much to push that element into the extremism that I felt the movie wanted to go in. In fact, much of the ALF stuff kept feeling like it was going to go further, and never quite got there.
Still, Okja is a film packed with ideas, and unlike Bong’s last film Snowpiercer – I didn’t feel a letdown by the ending. The ending here is a happy one – I guess – but not too happy to sell out what has come before it. Nothing really has changed on the larger scale of the movie – but it has on the smaller one, which here makes a difference. The film was funded by Netflix, who has done a great job with getting their TV shows in the spotlight, but a terrible one doing the same for their movies. Okja hopefully changes that – and also, hopefully, serves as their model going forward – give a great director money and freedom to do whatever the hell they want.