(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Much-ballyhooed as a more ambitious kind of Netflix original project (as in: a major director’s film approved and financed by Netflix rather than them buying the distribution rights of an independent production), Okja also represents the latest in Bong Joon-ho’s typically scattershot blend of comedy, action, drama, horror and irony. Decently budgeted, Okja presupposes the existence of genetically modified super-pigs, leading to animal activists trying to prevent their exploitation by a heartless corporation. Obviously, Okja‘s anti-animal abuse themes are often undistinguishable from a recognizable vegan agenda, but don’t let that stop you from sampling what it has to offer. Okja itself is an often-delightful CGI creation, a creature bred for meat but designed for cuteness. That balance informs the rest of the film, as it veers between horror at animal exploitation (with a forced-breeding scene that’s as horrifying as anything else in movies this year) and good-natured charm at the creature and the efforts of a heroic ragtag band of activists at saving it. Intentionally, Okja itself is uncomfortably semi-sentient, bringing us to the uncanny valley of what’s dumb enough to eat even for confirmed carnivores. Tonal shifts are part of the Bong Joon-ho experience after all, and if his previous films have already been a bit challenging because of the way they go from one genre to another, Okja is a magnified instance of the same. The Anglo/Korean cast is wonderfully eclectic, with Ahn Seo-hyun in the lead role with Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Giancarlo Esposito and Jake Gyllenhaal being some of the best-known names recognizable to a western audience. Challenging, uncomfortable, surprisingly enjoyable at times and just as surprisingly disgusting at others, Okja is not the kind of film to watch on a lark. But it’s a good thing that Netflix can get behind such unconventional projects.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) I’m the kind of viewer that should be open to weirdness in movies, but that’s not always true and Swiss Army Man clearly shows the limits of what I can tolerate. To be clear, the idea of a man using a farting corpse to escape from a desert island ranks as quirky and faintly cool. But it’s when Swiss Army Man gets deeper into “explaining life as if to a child or alien” that it steps from weird to twee and loses me along the way. By the time the ending of the film attempts to blur the lines between dream-logic and magical realism, imposes some kind of moral conclusion and crafts a magical soaring coda, I have checked out. The film, literally and figuratively spends too much time in the woods for me to care, and it’s not the frank language, candid looks at humanity or piled-upon weirdness that help the film along the way. To be fair, Paul Dano is almost perfectly cast as the protagonist, while Daniel Radcliffe has a terrific turn as a corpse gradually coming back to life while revealing prodigious capabilities. Sometimes, a film’s details don’t matter as much as the way it’s put together, and it’s that overall atmosphere that annoyed me so much about Swiss Army Man. Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood for twee, or perhaps I’m just far too much of a square to tolerate the kind of questions asked by the film. All I know is that I found the film far less interesting than its hype suggested.
(On Cable TV, April 2016) By now, fictionalized music biographies have settled into such a rote pattern that any deviation from the form is liable to make the result look better. Love & Mercy is certainly part of those exceptions to the norm: Chronicling the life of Beach Boys member Brian Wilson, it chooses to focus on Wilson’s life at two different eras, and to have Wilson played by two different actors in those eras. Sixties Wilson is played by Paul Dano, and chronicles not only how Wilson came up with the iconic Pet Sounds record, but also how, at the same time, his life was spinning out of control due to undiagnosed mental health issues. Twenty years later, John Cusack plays Wilson as a recluse, manipulated into social exile by a misguided (possibly malicious) psychiatrist and gradually finding a path back to good mental health via the intervention of a good woman. Both eras are shot differently, 16 mm cameras helping set the sixties era, while the eighties are portrayed as considerably bluer and flatter. The result is unequal, but there are a few good moments: Dano’s portrayal of Wilson is mesmerizing, never more so than when the movie dares to re-create his production of “Pet Sounds” in the recording studio. Meanwhile, Cusack gets to step away from his screen persona of late. The file goes back and forth between its two eras, and in doing so creates an interesting portrait of a tortured musical genius who ends up earning his way back to inner peace. Director Bill Pohlad skilfully balances a number of daring elements in Love & Mercy, and the result is more interesting than the usual musical docu-fiction.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) I approached Prisoners reluctantly. Sure, it got great reviews… but it also came along with the reputation of being a dark and unpleasant thriller. I kept putting it off, constantly reasoning that I wanted to see something lighter in my short free time. Well, now that I have finally sat down to watch Prisoners, can I acknowledge that I was wrong in delaying watching it? This has to be one of the finest films of 2013. Sure, it’s dark. Really dark, as stories about child abductions and psychopath criminals usually are. But it’s temporary darkness at worst: The film wraps up to a fine conclusion that strikes a perfect balance between hard-earned light and unforgiving consequences. There are a few unfortunate coincidences within the plot, but much of Prisoners has the satisfying heft of a good crime novel. (Remarkably enough, it’s an original screenplay.) Moral dilemmas abound, and the sense of barely-repressed darkness is constant. As a no-fun crime drama, it allows actors to shine: Hugh Jackman turns in one of his best performances as a grief-stricken family man taking justice in his own hands when the police won’t hold a suspected abductor while his daughter is missing. Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal also has a career-best role as a driven investigator trying to make sense of a convoluted web of back-stories and shadowy criminals. Paul Dano is also remarkable as a punching-bag character. Still, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve gets the credit for a film that manages a satisfying conclusion out of a bleaker-than-bleak film. (Significantly enough, the film either takes place at night, or during overcast/snowy days.) The film may not be fun, but it is strangely uplifting and shows what happens when viewers are trusted to handle more than the usual Hollywood pap.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) I have an obvious soft spot for movies about writers, so it didn’t take much to get me interested in this story in which a novelist so powerfully imagines a love interest character that she shows up the next day. Everything he writes is reflected in her, and it doesn’t take a long time for the goofy romance to cede ground to weightier matters. Never mind the theme of authorship and dealing with one’s characters: as a Pygmalion-inspired meditation on control within relationships, Ruby Sparks works well and culminates in a hair-raising sequence of existentialist horror. Fortunately, it’s not where the film ends, and the satisfying wrap-up is enough to bring back the film in the romantic-comedy genre. Paul Dano is good in a role that requires us to find the protagonist annoying, sympathetic and even despicable at times. But it’s Zoe Kazan who steals the show as the eponymous Ruby, turning in a vivid performance in the middle of a film that she has written. It’s not an easy role as the character is artificially manipulated to and from self-determination, in-between polar emotional states. (There’s something trivially interesting in knowing that the film’s lead couple is also a couple in real-life.) While Ruby Sparks may be a bit too low-key to earn much attention in an age of blockbusters, the high-concept premise is executed with wit and charm, touching upon a variety of themes (just the material on male insecurity within relationships is enough for an entire movie) while keeping a sharp focus on the characters. It’s an intensely likable film despite a few intensely unpleasant moments and is well-worth a bit of time –doubly so for would-be novelists.