(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.
(Video on-Demand, March 2017) Given Marvel Studio’s accumulating success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they now find themselves both freed to try new things, and doomed to refresh their formula before it become stale. Doctor Strange certainly shows how they tread the line, as it introduces yet another character, but in a realm far … stranger than the consensually rational universe of most of the non-Thor series so far. The paradox with Doctor Strange is that it’s narratively interesting at its basic character-driven level (which is to say: a gifted surgeon trying to regain his abilities after a terrible accident) and visually fascinating when it throws the rules of reality outside the window in time from some spectacular action sequences, but there’s a big mushy intermediate step in-between that’s almost unbearably dull. But such is the trouble with otherworldly fantasy: In between the characters and the cool sequences, there’s often a stultifying accumulation of bad-guy names, dull plots to enslave the Earth and other assorted generic material from the genre fantasy playbook. Doctor Strange succumbs to that issue, but can still fortunately rely on enough special effects to remain afloat. Benedict Cumberbatch may not be playing a role very much outside his established persona (it’s why he was cast, after all), but he’s compelling enough—and so is Tilda Swinton as an ethereal sorceress. Then there’s the work from Industrial Light and Magic, conjuring an Escheresque nightmare of an urban landscape folding upon itself during an action sequence. Doctor Strange is worth seeing for either (or both) of those reasons, but don’t be surprised to wish for the film to move faster during the rest of it—we know the origin stories by now, and the galactic-threat ones … it’s time for something else.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) Some movies are unbearable because they a terrible. Others are unbearable because they’re arguably too good at what they do. We Need to Talk About Kevin falls squarely in the second category, as it explores the inner drama of a woman who has to live knowing that her son killed her husband and daughter, then went on a school massacre. She doesn’t even has the luxury of mourning, as the son is alive and in jail. Ostracized by her community, desperately alone, stuck in a miserable house after losing everything in civil suits, our heroine reflects on her life and how it led to such terrible events. Ping-ponging through twenty years of history, gradually revealing its disgusting secrets in a way that’s as depressing as it’s predictable, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horror film disguised as heavy drama. Surprisingly enough, it works much better than expected: The editing between the various time periods is clear and the sheer competence of the execution manages to rehabilitate a core story that could have been seen as far too melodramatic. The sociopathy exhibited by Kevin is off-the-scale to a point where a less confident approach might have sent the entire film falling apart. But writer/director Lynne Ramsay keeps everything under control, and she can count on Tilda Swinton for a terrific performance in a difficult role. All of this makes We Need to Talk about Kevin remarkable to watch, but it also makes it the kind of film you never, ever want to see again. Sensible natures should be forewarned: This is a movie that works far too well at what it does.
(On TV, April 2015) I seem to remember The Beach being some kind of minor cult-classic film for disaffected young adults in the early 2000s, and watching the film fifteen years later does offer a few clues as to why. The Big One is the promise of pure escapism, as our backpacking protagonist hears of a secluded Thai beach where expatriates have established their own little hedonistic society. But as our main character understands soon enough, utopia doesn’t work so well in the real world. The Beach at least has a bit of a plot running through it, even though the real star here remains either Leonardo Di Caprio (who, at the time, was starting to transition from teenage heartthrob to the serious actor he’s become today) or Danny Boyle’s direction, which showcases the fondness for hallucinatory deviations from objective reality that would be used to such good effect in later films such as 127 Hours. The film doesn’t always move quickly, but it does have a small number of standout sequences, a lovely setting, an interesting performance by Di Caprio and a younger Tilda Swinton attempting a fairly generic role. Still, there’s a whiff of pretention here in the way our privileged hero philosophizes on the nature of life through a temporary escape. What’s meant as meditative comes across as jejune, and the protagonist isn’t much to cheer for. Still, the stylish touches remain interesting and there’s always the scenery to look at.
(Video on Demand, July 2013) Madness awaits those who try to interpret Snowpiercer as a completely realistic “vision of the future”: Its central premise (a train running into an infinite loop after a world-wide disaster, carrying what remains of humanity) is so deliriously impossible that a heap full of disbelief suspension salt is required before the film even begins. But moving on, since one big deviation from reality is what is required for nearly all SF movies… Snowpiercer‘s saving grace is that it’s well-directed and imaginatively justified: Director Joon-ho Bong brings visual inventiveness and slick action directing to the mix. It sort of helps, in this fable-like story, that the narrative structure looks so simple: An uprising of oppressed passengers starts at the back of the train, and makes its way forward –we know the story will reveal its final mysteries and conclude once the front has been reached. Chris Evans is solid as the protagonist, but an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton steals the show as an unhinged matron bureaucrat trying to perpetuate the train’s social order, with good supporting performances by Ed Harris, John Hurt, Ah-sung Ko and Kang-ho Song. Occasionally as visually warped as Terry Gilliam’s best films, Snowpiercer has a number of set-pieces that linger in mind: The darkened-tunnel action scene, the wildly impossible loop shoot-out, the demented classroom sequence… It almost doesn’t matter that the premise makes no sense (and that the ending, far from being triumphant, boils down to “and now their troubles really begin.”) when the rest of the film is so richly imagined and well-handled. Unlike a film like Elysium, which so clearly attempts to be realistic that it disappoints when it’s not entirely consistent, Snowpiercer carries with it an ember of madness (Swinton’s first big speech, for instance) that makes it easier to consider without perfect coherency. I’m not entirely convinced that it’s a great SF movie, but it’s enjoyable and original enough. (And if nothing else, it’s quite a bit more satisfying than the original French graphic novel, which purposefully seeks to end without satisfaction.)
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I had trouble enjoying writer/director Wes Anderson’s earliest films, but with 2007’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and now Moonrise Kingdom, things may be turning around. I’m not the same person who saw Anderson’s first films as they appeared in theaters, obviously, and Moonrise Kingdom is a lot like Fantastic Mr. Fox in that it takes Anderson’s fascination for the twee presentation of flawed characters and puts them in a more broadly accessible context than, say, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Simply put, here we get kids acting like adults rather than adults acting like kids and that makes a huge difference: As Moonrise Kingdom follows the repercussions of two 12-year-olds eloping together, the film feels charming, comic and affectionate at once. A strong cast of eccentric adult characters (Bruce Willis as a policeman, a pitch-perfect Edward Norton as scoutmaster, hangdog Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton as a social services meddler) acts as a good foil for teenage protagonists Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. Moonrise Kingdom’s whimsical tone seems perfectly controlled, and it’s hard to watch the film without looking forward to the next trick to come out of Anderson’s fertile imagination. It’s an odd film, with comparisons to be found mainly in Anderson’s cinematography (well, maybe that of Jared Hess as well), but it works better than it should. I’m calling Moonrise Kingdom a pleasant surprise, especially given that I expected practically nothing from it. I may, however, expect more from Anderson in the future.