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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F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 24, 2016)

24 11 2016

meeks-cutoffWith “Certain Women,” Kelly Reichardt took a move back toward the kind of stories that made her career – the quiet routines that define and confine the lives of Pacific Northwesterners. But earlier this decade, Reichardt made some notable forays into the world of genre filmmaking with 2014’s “Night Moves,” an eco-thriller, and 2011’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” a revisionist and feminist take on the Western.

I caught the former at the 2013 London Film Festival, which forced me to abandon all ties to the outside world and dive headfirst into her carefully constructed universe. I was not so lucky to see “Meek’s Cutoff” in a theater, however, which meant years of putting off watching the film since I knew it would command so much of my attention. I stopped and started the film several times, knowing that anything that took my brain out of the experience would make the viewing a wash. When I had the chance to interview Reichardt earlier this year, I knew I could wait no longer.

Once I finally plunged myself into “Meek’s Cutoff,” my latest selection for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” I was rewarded handsomely for my patience and attentiveness. Reichardt does not subvert genre tropes, as many revisionist filmmakers do in a self-congratulatory exhibition of their own cinematic knowledge. Rather, she inverts them, ascribing the same respect and earnestness normally accorded to heroic white men to their muted female companions and Native American guides.

Reichardt tells “Meek’s Cutoff” from a woman’s point of view, which includes making certain information obscured or downright off-limits. When the men in charge are talking, she makes things intentionally hard to hear or keeps the camera at such a distance that we cannot help but feel entirely removed from the decision making process. When Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow is privy to some information from her husband, Will Patton’s Solomon, she receives it in a whisper during the utter blackness of the prairie nights.

Tensions of all kinds flare on this 1840s journey along the Oregon Trail as the wagon caravan’s guide, Bruce Greenwood’s Meek, inspires doubts among the group. Amongst themselves, the settlers begin to wonder if he has intentionally led them astray to their demise. Supply begins to run as low as spirit, leading to rash decisions and some surprising assertions of authority. As survival instincts kick in, the clamor of wisdom from the women grows louder and harder to ignore. While an adjective like “thrilling” or “exciting” may not apply given the pace of Reichardt’s film, “compelling” sure does. Anyone willing to stop everything and simply live in the frame will find a textured, intelligent and unique take on the Old West.





REVIEW: Swiss Army Man

29 06 2016

Swiss Army Man PosterFor what was likely the better part of a decade, I spouted off the line “Better out than in, eh?” from the movie “Shrek” without really knowing what it meant. The maxim refers to passing gas, of course, but the true and deeper meaning eluded me for quite some time. What the crude ogre really says relates to being yourself and embracing the stench rather than letting something you need to expel bottle up inside.

15 years later, “Better Out Than In” could be an alternate title – or at the very least a slogan – for the Daniels’ “Swiss Army Man.” (The directing duo Daniel Schienert and Daniel Kwan make it easy on everyone and go by just “Daniels,” like Madonna or something.) The movie has farts and flatulence to spare, but they are not some kind of sophomoric gag for easy laughs. Farts serve as a hilarious, self-effacing encapsulation of the film’s thematic heft. We have to embrace that which other people – and society as a whole – want us to keep inside. Sometimes, we even have to let it out, no matter how sloppy, stinky and unpleasant it might turn out.

Farts save the life of Paul Dano’s Hank, a depressed drifter about to hang himself in his beachfront isolationism. He hears them coming from Daniel Radcliffe’s Manny, a corpse (yes, you read that correctly) that washes ashore just moments before he tightens the noose. In many ways, the two men are ironic contrasts at first meeting. Hank may be the living, breathing and functioning human, but the involuntary toots make Manny’s lifeless body more animated than him.

From there, the film enters into a truly Gonzo realm – especially once Manny becomes more than a human-sized sack of potatoes for Hank to lug around on his back. The Daniels take daring absurdist leaps where the boundary between miracle and hallucination is never quite delineated. In a rustic playhouse of imagination that recall the most vividly realized creations of Michel Gondry, Hank begins instructing Manny on how to function in the world.

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REVIEW: Youth

4 12 2015

From its opening shot, a twirl around a retro band covering Florence and the Machine’s “You’ve Got The Love,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” announces itself as an odd bird. To quote a project from star Harvey Keitel’s youth (which itself quotes Kris Kristofferson), the film is a walking contradiction. Many films set up dualities, even taking on a paradoxical quality, but this is really something else.

Despite its title, “Youth” is a film starring mostly senior citizens looking back on that stage of life through a foggy retrospective lens. Michael Caine’s Fred Ballinger, a retired composer, twiddles his thumbs in a Swiss mountain resort with Harvey Keitel’s Mick Boyle, a screenwriter still trying to plan his magnum opus with a team of industry neophytes at his beck and call. They pine for their younger years and opine on the frustrations of their more advanced ones, mostly just spinning their wheels.

Sorrentino matches their conversations with the style of his screenplay, a lax, discursive saunter that unfolds almost in vignettes. Separating these dialogue-heavy sequences are highly stylized montages of various guests and workers around the resort, each presented in a grotesque kind of tableau. (Except the lounge singer, for whom Sorrentino jarringly cuts from a performance to her chowing down on a chicken wing.) Be they the whorish fame-obsessed fans lusting after celebrities, a morbidly obese soccer player or a Miss Universe, all bystanders gets warped by his bizarre camera.

The people who get the most thorough cinematic treatment, oddly enough, are not the film’s two grey gentlemen. While they mosey around, much younger people in their field of vision find it quite easy to articulate themselves. Rachel Weisz, as Fred’s daughter and assistant Lena, hesitates little in expressing her disappointment with him. Paul Dano’s Jimmy Tree, a zen Method-style actor, loves walking others through his views in neat dichotomies. And, of course, Jane Fonda shows up for a cameo-length appearance as Mick’s starlet and muse Brenda Morel, an actress who certainly does not mince words in her big tirade.

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REVIEW: Prisoners

19 09 2015

Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” possesses a remarkable precision in nearly every aspect of its execution.  It is palpable in the mood, the performances, the script from Aaron Guzikowski, and especially the photography by Roger Deakins.  As the abduction of two children forces a father (Hugh Jackman) to extreme measures of extracting vengeance, the film patiently and methodically follows his descent into an inhumanity on par with his daughter’s abductor.

At times, Villeneuve’s realization of this unraveling feels so airtight that it comes across almost as stifling and constrictive.  Somehow, the film feels like it needs to breathe.  Yet on further inspection, that is not the case.  Villeneuve knows exactly how much oxygen “Prisoners” needs to survive and refuses to dole out any more of it than is necessary to give each scene a pulse.  This makes his film burn not only slowly but also consistently, illuminating the depravity of cruelty to children with its steadfast flame.

His exactitude directly counters the nature of the narrative, a complicated ethical story with neither an easy outlet for sympathy nor a character that lends his or herself to identification.  The closest figure offered for a connection is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, whose adherence to rationality and order makes him the most level-headed presence in “Prisoners.”  He retains a rather detached perspective on the case of the missing girls rather than allowing himself to succumb to the levels of hysteria from the grieving families.  If everyone else in the film yells, Loki speaks in a whisper.

In a way, that soft-spoken approach makes for the only major flaw of “Prisoners” that I could find.  The film’s audio mix is all over the board; the sound goes in and out, then up and down.  I watched it twice at home on two different television sets, but the problem persisted.  I often had to rewind and jack up the volume to catch a line of dialogue muttered under someone’s breath.  This sotto voce technique makes the film chillingly clinical – so make sure you can hear it in all of its complexities.  B+ / 3stars





REVIEW: Love & Mercy

7 06 2015

Love and MercyStruggle is an inevitable, unavoidable part of creating art and living life.  But in Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy,” an unconventional two-panel biopic of Beach Boys lead singer Brian Wilson, struggle is practically the whole story.  Rather than running through his entire life, writers Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner take a pair of cross-sections featuring Wilson’s breakthroughs and breakdowns.

The 1960s Wilson, as played by Paul Dano, struggles to break his band out of their disingenuous surfer boy marketing gimmick.  To do so, he sets out to create a record that will redefine the capabilities of rock and make The Beatles quiver.  Observing Wilson hard at work fine-tuning the iconic tracks of the Pet Sounds album, which includes such staples as “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” provides an undeniably joyous sonic rush.  (It was almost enough to make me forget I was watching Paul Dano.)

Fast-forward to the 1980s, and a middle-aged and overmedicated Wilson is now played by John Cusack.   The lights are on, but the person at home is hard to pin down.  “Love & Mercy” might be the first time since “Being John Malkovich” that Cusack does not play some variation of himself, and it proves devastating to watch a helpless soul squirm under the oppressive thumb of exploitative psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, angry as ever).  Thanks to some tender love and assistance from the kindly soul of Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter, played by an absolutely ethereal Elizabeth Banks, Wilson finally manages to get some relief.

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REVIEW: Looper

30 12 2012

It’s about time for a changing of the guard in science-fiction, and “Looper” heralds perhaps the sign that the genre is in young, fresh, and good hands.  Rian Johnson’s time-traveling tale is an intelligent film that hopefully points to revitalization by the people who grew up on the classics of the 1980s.  Its delicate construction and serious contemplation moves Johnson into the league of J.J. Abrams and Duncan Jones in terms of directors moving what was formerly considered kitsch into respectable art.

“Looper,” upon a little bit of pondering, feels very much inspired by James Cameron’s “The Terminator.”  Though we still watch that movie nearly three decades later, it’s mainly to be amused by the ex-Governator, not to be wowed by the script or the direction (and most definitely not by the performances).  And yes, it’s in the Library of Congress and is unilaterally praised, but “The Terminator” is able to get away with its unabashed Roger Corman, B-movie background now largely because of our fondness for nostalgia.

Johnson takes what worked about “The Terminator,” the time traveling plot device and the thematic weight, and sets it in a frame evoking “A Clockwork Orange” or “Blade Runner.”  His “Looper” takes place in a future not blatantly dystopian, but rather cleverly thought out with depth that doesn’t draw attention to itself.  Viewers willing to take the plunge into Johnson’s world multiple times will undoubtedly be rewarded by the subtle details he hides throughout the film.

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