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: War Machine

30 05 2017

Admittedly, I am not that interested in how David Michod’s “War Machine” plays into cinema’s canon of films about the Middle Eastern conflicts of our century. I am, however, very interested in how it plays into Brad Pitt’s filmography over the last decade or so.

Pitt was once (and still is, to an extent) a major tabloid sex symbol with a charisma so potent that it could ensnare a co-star. His macho swagger could level city blocks in Hollywood. But now, he’s been playing a different type … over and over and over again. As General Glen McMahon, a lightly fictionalized version of infamously terminated General Stanley McChrystal, Pitt adds another chapter to what can most charitably be described as a moment of clarity. Some, less generously, might also call it a mid-life crisis.

McMahon follows in the footsteps of Billy Beane from “Moneyball,” Jackie Cogan from “Killing Them Softly,” and Ben Rickert from “The Big Short” – among other characters – as Pitt’s new favorite archetype. These ponderous veterans of their respective trades are straight shooters with a radical approach to their field greeted with skepticism by those still trapped by conventional wisdom. Gradually, they increase their risky maneuvers for personal vindication, only to meet fierce pushback from the established vanguard. And usually some kind of character flaw, usually pride, serves a major Achilles’ heel along the journey.

McMahon’s quest involves getting a broader sign-off on his counterintelligence strategy in Afghanistan, a cause for which he’s even willing to enlist a civilian PR director (Topher Grace’s Matt Little) in order to ruffle some feathers in the Obama administration. Michod mostly operates in a satirical mode to display his hubristic “hearts and minds” campaign, though “War Machine” has plenty of genuine moments of real introspection about America’s conflicted role in enduring conflict.

Perhaps to give the proceedings some groundings in actual war, the third act takes a huge detour into actual armed combat with characters we haven’t received enough information on to feel invested in. We do, however, have plenty to intellectualize the United States’ peacekeeping and democracy-spreading operations through McMahon. This comes from both the movie itself and everything Brad Pitt brings to the role with an earned stoicism and world-weariness – but a penchant for innovating and retooling moribund strategies. B





REVIEW: Doctor Strange

4 11 2016

There are so many movies of the VFX-driven variety, most of which have interchangeable and ultimately forgettable spectacles. Films that feel as if they want to try something new, or head into uncharted waters, are a rarity. Genuine surprise and awe is hard to come by.

Color me delighted to report that “Doctor Strange” actually does manage to achieve true visual astonishment in its action set pieces. The titular hero, his allies and his pursuers do not just duel in urban areas. They bend space and time in a manner that’s appropriately gobsmacking, recalling to some extent the wow factor of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.”

Before you let your mind run away with you on that comparison, that’s primarily speaking of the feast for the eyes. “Doctor Strange” is a cut above the average Marvel Studios production, and I do not even mean that as damning with faint praise. The company has figured out a way to tell satisfying origin stories (“Iron Man,” “Ant-Man“) when the concern is establishing a character, not connecting to mythology or chronology.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s smug, silver-tongued surgeon turns into a dimension-hopping hero after seeking faith healing for his damaged hands. He’s appropriately equipped with smart-ass banter and lessons to learn while perfecting his manipulation of matter. Strange also has an exalted mentor in the Ancient One (a bald Tilda Swinton) and a menace to fight in her turncoat former mentee Kaecilius (a manbun-sporting Mads Mikkelsen). And maybe I was just reading too much into the score from Michael Giacchino, which sounded an awful lot like his work on “Star Trek,” but Strange also seems to have a Kirk-Spock dynamic with his straight-laced partner in crime Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

The action unfolds predictably, but also beautifully and humorously. For all those who thought it would take a maverick like Terrence Malick or Harmony Korine to get Tilda Swinton to narrate trippy shots of alternate universes, guess what? It happened in a Marvel movie. Note to whoever is preparing a career highlight reel for Swinton’s lifetime achievement awards in a decade or so: feel free to use this as the backbone of the montage. B+3stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 25, 2016)

25 08 2016

ThumbsuckerMuch of Mike Mills’ “Thumbsucker” treads fairly standard young adult coming of age territory. Lou Pucci’s Justin Cobb, the protagonist whose titular habit serves an effective metaphor for his juvenility, must undergo familiar trials that provide him confidence and self-worth. He has to learn public speaking skills and romantic graces with a decidedly modern twist – Justin has just added medication for his recently diagnosed ADHD that totally transforms his personality.

But there’s something more to “Thumbsucker” that makes it my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” Mills, working from a novel by Walter Kirn, does not stop the coming of age with Justin. As it turns out, his emotionally stilted parents have plenty of growing up to do in their own right. The film is just as much about their own slow maturation process as their son’s.

Vincent D’Onofrio’s Mike insists that Justin refer to his parents by their first names since the terms “mom and dad” make him feel old. He serves as the manager of a large sporting goods store while still nursing bitterness and resentment over a knee injury that thwarted his football career. His family serves as a daily reminder of what his life is not.

Meanwhile, his wife, Tilda Swinton’s Audrey, handles all the love and affection for their two kids. She’s genuinely curious and attuned to Justin’s issues. But Audrey cannot shake a girlish fascination with a soap opera actor Matt Schramm. The infatuation reaches levels that embarrass her children; they do not think she would literally cheat on their father, though she is not exactly quick to dismiss the possibility of her fantasy.

“Thumbsucker” shows everyone fumbling through this thing called life together in their own way, and that even includes Justin’s zany, hypnosis obsessed dentist Perry Lyman (played by none other than Keanu Reeves). With over a decade of distance since release, it feels very reflective of a mid-2000s suburban malaise that already feels like a time capsule. Mills is earnest in his explorations of what causes people’s unshakeable, throbbing sensation of vague discontent with their current situation. The sincerity goes a long way in making these unsatisfied characters ones that are worth spending time with to probe their pain.





REVIEW: We Need To Talk About Kevin

13 06 2016

We Need To Talk About KevinI have somewhat a shameful bad habit as a critic – sometimes, I cannot bring myself to write about the movies that transfix my senses and command my thoughts. Look through my pages of reviews and see the scores of films at the top of the list – “Shame,” “Spring Breakers, “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “The Big Short” – all without a formal review. It feels mostly rooted in a desire not to demystify the experience combined with a feebleness before the work. What good can my words really do in the face of such a colossus of art?

Tonight, I sat before my editorial calendar with a big gaping hole in my schedule. Nothing new left to review, nothing old particularly pertinent to a new release. What to write about, especially given the horrendous events dominating the news? (If you read this further out from publication and June 12 is not a date branded in your memory, I wrote the sentence you are reading in the wake of the slaughter at Pulse in Orlando.) Then, I remembered one film that I have been long overdue to appraise. Roughly five years late, as a matter of fact.

If you didn’t read the title or look at the poster, that film is Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” a chilling look behind the headlines at the mother of a murderer. Of course,  a one-to-one correlation between the Orlando massacre and the killing at the center of this film is not the point. The murder weapons are different, and the family environments and the means of radicalization are likely dissimilar as well (though answers are not known now). As we enter the backstretch of this decade, I cannot shake the feeling that this film will be among its definitive works and most potent responses to the crises of our time.

The film primarily takes place in the aftermath of the carnage carried out by the titular character with frequent flashbacks to the past of Kevin (Ezra Miller) and his mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton). In such times, we cast a backward glance to determine the cause of the present. And “cause” is just a polite word for “blame.” Once we know where we can point the finger, we can shake off the act.

I come to bang out this piece with the words and sounds of countless politicians, thinkpieces and cable news segments about Orlando swirling around in my head. It’s about gun control, some say. It’s about ISIS, declare others. It’s a hate crime, a mental health issue and probably countless other causes that my mind does not have the space to store.

Yet while I respect these journalists and newspeople, I found myself turning to artists for solace and understanding. That final scene from “Milk.” Charlie Chaplin’s powerful monologue from the end of “The Great Dictator.” The big address from the end of “The King’s Speech.” (Yes, I still resent it beating “The Social Network,” but I don’t have an ice chest in place of a heart.) Heck, even the comedy news stylings of Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers. It is artists who can take one step back from the messy business of the day and attempt to bring some perspective, highlight the complexity and sometimes even restore some prudence.

Lynne Ramsay brings a variety of perspectives, techniques and approaches to adapt Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel into cinematic terms. She finds a pulsing, urgent narrative throughline to carry the patiently doled out details of Eva’s suffering on the page. What Ramsay assembles in “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is truly the gold standard among films that dare to delve into the cycle of violence that rips apart communities. We can see its destructive ends, but the multiplicity of factors that culminated in such an act form too great a web to untangle. That does not stop her from pointing out each thread.

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REVIEW: A Bigger Splash

22 05 2016

ABS_1Sheet_27x40_MECH_03.04.16_FIN11.indd“Interesting.” It’s the catch-all phrase for critics and reviewers, simultaneously meaning everything and nothing.

The word is often used in place of legitimate commentary, an adjective appended to an observation meant to prove the writer has two eyes but not two minutes to unpack the greater meaning of something. It’s a judgment with no value system to back it up.

When used before a comma and a negating conjunction, the word grants faint acknowledgement to what others might perceive as a strength – only to obliterate that argument to shreds.

Now, having said all that, “A Bigger Splash” is ever an interesting movie. The term here is not applied liberally or lazily. The entire film, from David Kajganich’s script to Luca Guadagnino’s direction, falls perfectly into the realm of the “interesting.” They play with stock melodramatic character types, the exotic European travel subgenre and plot developments both predictable and borderline outlandish. Their slight revisions draw attention and intrigue, sure, but they never come close to shock and awe.

It’s just … interesting. Enough to justify the retelling of a familiar type of erotic quadrangle – and expend the efforts of four in-demand actors to do so. Enough to cohere the romance, the suspense, the quiet political backdrop and the behind-the-scenes of rock ‘n’ roll – albeit not without some creaky tonal swings. Enough to draw out engagement and entertainment. Just maybe not enough to drive anything home.

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REVIEW: Hail, Caesar!

8 02 2016

Hail CaesarThe kind of auteurism favored by most today places a high priority on repeated patterns and frameworks within a director’s body of work. I, however, tend to prefer filmmakers who can produce a consistency of mood, tone and experience without ever allowing themselves to be easily pinned down. There is perhaps no better example of this than Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing, directing and editing duo who can bounce across genres and budget sizes without skipping a beat.

Audiences most recognize the Coen Brothers for their trademark deadpan wit, with perhaps a little more emphasis on the “dead” part. They may well hold court as America’s greatest living ironists. In fact, their gifts in this realm are so well established that just seeing their names on a film imbues the proceedings with dramatic irony. Anyone who knows the Coens and their tendencies likely recognizes that the journey of the characters will not be determined by their own actions so much as it will be guided by their cosmic fate.

The brothers’ latest outing, “Hail, Caesar!,” bears many of their hallmarks. The dry humor begins with protagonist Edward Mannix (Josh Brolin) doing his best efforts at a confessional and scarcely lets up for an hour and 45 minutes. But underneath all the laughter, a very serious undercurrent of sacrifice, redemption and salvation runs resolutely. More than ever, the poker-faced Coen Brothers are tough to read. Mind you, these are the guys who got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2000 for turning Homer’s “The Odyssey” into “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – and have claimed for 15 years now that they have not read the source text.

Where a gag ends and profundity begins provides the primary friction in “Hail, Caesar!” Their very interconnected nature seems to be the point of the film itself, and finding that point of intersection proves to be a joyous puzzle. It begins in each episodic scene as Mannix, studio head at Capitol Pictures, puts out fire after fire on the backlot for his pampered stars. This structure allows the Coens to dabble in the Golden Age of westerns, sword-and-sandals epics and musicals in both the Busby Berkley and Gene Kelly style. To call these a love letter to post-WWII Hollywood feels a little strong, but to declare it a satire or lampooning of the era’s excesses hardly feels appropriate either.

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