REVIEW: Okja

27 06 2017

Director Bong Joon Ho took oblique shots at social malaise through allegory in his films “The Host” and “Snowpiercer,” but he goes in for a more direct kill shot with his latest, “Okja.” The film is a blistering sendup of multinational corporations’ hunt for profit and the ridiculous measures they take to appear responsible while pursuing policies that cause harm.

The story is a bit disjointed, but that seems to be by design. After a brief prologue introduces the Mirando Corporation’s bio-engineered “superpig” program to the world, Bong cuts to ten years later where a well-adjusted creature, Okja, lives happily with her owner Mija (An Seo Hyun). The idea, perfectly engineered by company public relations, is to lease out these new creatures to farmers across the world who can raise them humanely. Then, the bells and whistles of sleekly-produced, insidious infomercials featuring Jake Gyllenhaal’s reality TV star  Johnny Wilcox – essentially Steve Irwin on smack – will convince the public that the meet made from these animals is safe for consumption. And delicious, to boot!

The farm-to-slaughterhouse pipeline gets disrupted when an animal rights group intervenes to save Okja. They call themselves the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and establish their non-militancy before their ideals, a hilarious sendup of politically correct protest culture. These young idealists involve Okja and Mija in their plan to inflict economic damage on the Mirando Corporation and its CEO Lucy Mirando, played by Tilda Swinton as a woman who talks like she’s forcing every word with the energy of someone trying not to drown.

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REVIEW: Cars 3

26 06 2017

LPixar, like any purveyor of family entertainment, tells stories laden with themes. They do a better job than most at letting those life lessons arise naturally from an ingeniously derived plot rather than letting the morals dictate the proceedings. For whatever reason, the “Cars” franchise has been an outlet for some of the animation studio’s most blatant sermonizing, and “Cars 3” is no different.

As champion racer Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) faces obsolescence in his sport thanks to an influx of “Moneyball“-esque stats and data, he has to take his game back to the basics. At the new racing facility, his trainer Cruz (voice of Cristela Alonzo) tries pulling some Mr. Miyagi style mind tricks on him as she eases him into their high-tech treadmills and simulators. Yet for all Cruz’s fancy techniques, Lightning shows how little she knows when taking her outside to race. There’s something to say for real-life experience as opposed to simulations of it.

But lest we think that Lightning is the pinnacle of senior sagacity, the duo eventually links up with some pals of his mentor, Doc Hudson. (Paul Newman’s character from the first film keeps appearing in so many flashbacks that you’d think he died in 2016, not 2008.) These vintage autos help Lightning realize that joy and promise lie beyond our youthful days, though they also help raise his game with some of their classic, road-tested techniques. The limitations of older generations gave them different, not less, skills, and we’d all be wiser to heed their lessons.

It’s not a radical message, and Pixar did better conveying intergenerational understanding with “Up.” Still, it’s harmless to see repeated and beneficial to remember. B





REVIEW: The Little Hours

25 06 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Raunchy comedies set in a distant past always run the risk of relying too heavily on anachronistic humor. (Cough, “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”) The humor that arises from performers in period garb rattling off profanities or talking in the present-day vernacular is the definition of low-hanging fruit.

Jeff Baena’s “The Little Hours” tends to lean on this dissonance to generate comedy. Aubrey Plaza dropping F-bombs in a nun’s habit is inherently pretty darn funny. Whether it leans too heavily on the ahistorical humor is up to the individual viewer – I found it a little overloaded – but thankfully it’s not the only trick Baena has up his sleeve.

The film’s story, adapted from the Medieval novella “The Decameron,” finds laughs from sending up the era’s sexual repression and religious rigor. Three naughty nuns (Plaza, Alison Brie and scene-stealer Kate Micucci) toil away in their convent under the watchful eye of John C. Reilly’s Father Tommasso, lamenting their inability to act on certain desires. Luckily, Dave Franco’s chesty handyman Massetto arrives to light their flames.

This feudal Rudolph Valentino escapes one manor, where as servant he beds the master’s wife, and gets smuggled into the nunnery pretending to be a deaf mute. Thinking him unable to hear them, the sisters let loose with some of their wildest sexual fantasies – some of which they consummate to his delight and horror. “The Little Hours” is certainly a one-of-a-kind sex comedy, worth seeing for its brazenness alone and worth staying for Fred Armisen’s Bishop Bartolomeo, who arrives at the end to scold them all with a poker-faced gall. B





REVIEW: The Hero

24 06 2017

“I know we were hoping to get good news from this biopsy,” begins the doctor of Sam Elliott’s Lee Hayden. “Unfortunately, I don’t have good news.” The scene happens so early in Brett Haley’s “The Hero” that I held out hope this kind of dialogue was not indicative of the rest of the movie and the doctor just had terrible bedside manner.

I was wrong.

“The Hero” is a stale rehash of cliches surrounding estranged fathers, aging Hollywood actors and ailing elderly people coming to terms with illness. Most of the film entails Lee avoiding the disclosure of his pancreatic cancer diagnosis so he can continue chugging away on film sets and toking his marijuana to feel the slightest hint of contentment. He’s moving slightly closer to a younger romantic interest (Laura Prepon’s Charlotte Dylan) and rapidly farther from his daughter (Krysten Ritter’s Lucy).

The one interesting bit of the movie comes when Lee sees his stock rise after a viral lifetime achievement award acceptance speech that’s sincere, thoughtful … and also the result of a Molly trip. It puts the wind back behind his sails for a brief moment, landing him an audition for one of the hottest parts in town. As he prepares, the part inspires at outpouring of feeling and emotion that he hasn’t tapped into in years since he started phoning it in.

What a shocker, life can lead to inspired art, and art can lead to an inspired life! While Elliott chewing on something more than an archetype with his distinctive drawl is a pleasure, it’s a shame that he gets such banal material to work with for his moment in the spotlight. (Haley did such a great job crafting a unique and charming story for the AARP crowd in “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” but he does not recreate that magic here.) Elliott has more to give than welling up with tears by the ocean and spouting bland platitudes of regret. Hopefully someone else lets him. C





REVIEW: The World’s End

23 06 2017

Edgar Wright might be known for his visual comedy and genre pastiche, but he’s also not afraid to throw in a little social commentary with his trademarks. Like many contemporary directors, he’s concerned with the effect of cell phones and technology on society. Part of the joke in Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” was how little separated the undead zombies from the barely living humans on a treadmill of electronic stimulation.

His 2013 feature “The World’s End” takes that comparison to newly absurd heights. In this reunion comedy-cum-apocalyptic action flick, cell phones are the tool that’s turning residents of a sleepy British town into robotic versions of themselves. (Hit them hard enough in the head, and they’ll spew blue liquid!)

Wright’s clever twist on the genre is to focus on replacement over annihilation. As an exposition-heavy section of dialogue tells us, “They want to make us more like them.” Social change happens not as an invasion or hostile takeover, although the horror films that speak to our anxieties about it usually portray it as such. Rather, the decline of civility takes place as a gradual erosion until our humanity is barely recognizable.

Wright (and co-writer Simon Pegg) are smart to set this observation against the backdrop of the pub tour of five estranged friends brought back together by Pegg’s lonely alcoholic. As he yearns for the mythical past of his glory days, he finds the present-day changes to the people of the town make his nostalgia impossible. Yet the social commentary, which is not anything particularly monumental, comes at the expense of Wright’s usual cheeky fun. It’s nice to get a reminder that friends and happiness are two things worth fighting for – these characters just aren’t always the best merchants for that moral. B





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 22, 2017)

22 06 2017

I’d been a little iffy on Edgar Wright as a brand-name director for years … that is, until I saw his latest film, “Baby Driver,” which was so good that it inspired me to go back and revisit his entire filmography. I’d given “Shaun of the Dead” and “The World’s End” second chances before but never returned to “Hot Fuzz,” his 2007 crime caper. Wow, was I missing out.

A second watch revealed “Hot Fuzz” to be an obvious “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” It’s smart, stylish and subversive – all the things that mark Wright’s best cinema. He can successfully play with genre like few other working directors, and this re-teaming of Wright with comedic muses Simon Pegg and Nick Frost exhibits his most seamless blend.

The adventure starts as a fish-out-of-water comedy when the impressively efficient London Metro Police officer Nicholas Angel (Pegg) gets transferred to the sleepy country town Sandford. He’s used to his presence being necessary to enforce the law in the big city. Here, Angel finds that the police have made themselves largely ornamental. There’s a strong amount of social trust in the community, and the existing police officers take a hands-off approach to handling any misbehaviors and misdemeanors they observe. Not Angel, though, who takes thwarting underage pub drinking as seriously as foiling a terrorist plot.

But lurking under the blissful bucolic facade is a cabal that threatens the townspeople by exploiting their trust and naïveté. They’re certainly lucky to have Angel around for this, although he’s hamstrung by the provincial local police chief (Jim Broadbent) and his aloof son Danny Butterman (Frost) … who just so happens to be Angel’s partner. Danny’s chief preparation for the job, aside from his lineage, is watching lots of ’90s action movies. As it turns out, that proves most helpful for combating the menace facing Sandford.

Wright pulls off the tricky task of paying homage to a series of influential films (“Bad Boys,” “Point Break”) while humorously sending them up and one-upping their antics. His comedy goes far beyond the lazy “Scary Movie” spoof; Wright works in how people interact with film and how it tints their view of the world to hilarious ends. Furthermore, he’s not just cribbing an incident or a feel from the genre and calling it a take on them. He’s mimicking their aesthetic with loud, smashing cuts and big pyrotechnics. Just appropriately adjusted for the real world.





REVIEW: The Bad Batch

21 06 2017

Fantastic Fest

I watched Ana Lily Amirpour’s “The Bad Batch” late at night as the fifth movie in a single day at Fantastic Fest – and there was still one after it – so my grasp on its granular details is admittedly not as strong as usual. Yet experiencing the film in a state of altered consciousness where I had to fight against my body’s impulses to understand what was happening in front of my eyes feels oddly fitting.

“The Bad Batch” unfolds in a richly textured dystopian Texan wasteland where even the crows do battle. The authorities leave the condemned Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) to fend herself in this wasteland where she almost immediately becomes aware of its perils after a group of cannibals take her arm. Talk about initiation by fire!

From there, the film follows Arlen’s search for revenge and answers in the unforgiving territory. But Amirpour’s interests do not lie in mere plot progression. She’s all about exploring textures, details and atmospheres – far more than in the flat, staged tableaus of her debut “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” The film amounts to more than just a series of thematically interconnected music videos. “The Bad Batch” is a sustained two-hour trip, wildly unpredictable, utterly gonzo yet completely controlled. I’ll have to revisit it in a more composed state of mind, although a part of me does wonder if that will tinker with its delicate chemistry. B+ /