Okja

July 2, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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You could possibly accuse me of cheating with this review, as the film has been released on Netflix and will not ever get a wide-release in the U.S. That said, Bong is a major director, this film has had wide-release in other countries and was shown at Cannes. So, I decided to treat it like any new release. Plus, it is one of my favorite films of the year, to date. Bong Joon-ho is responsible for some of my favorite Korean films, including “The Host” and the beautifully creepy “Mother.” He has an eye for the bizarre and loves a fantastic parable, as in the less successful “Snowpiercer.” Here, he takes on factory farming, evil corporations and mass consumption, in general. At times his message is as poignant as it is pointed. And at other times it feels a bit one-dimensional; his depiction of The Animal Liberation Front seems like propaganda, better suited for one of their flyers. But, look beyond that and what you’ll find is a remarkably funny, heart-wrenching and provocative story. Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) is CEO of a company that has secretly bred genetically modified pigs and now wants to send them all to mass slaughter. But 13 year old Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) has fallen in love with one of them. When the evil corporation takes Okja away, Mija goes on an epic journey to get her back. Swinton loves playing extreme characters and does a brilliant job of it, she was the best part of “Snowpiercer,” and she does not disappoint here. Jake Gyllenhaal also gives a full on, over-the-top performance as the far less than stable Johnny Wilcox. But the real credit goes to the young Ahn and the CGI team that created Okja. The creature was genuinely beautiful and expressive. The love between the two felt completely believable. In Ahn’s hands, Mija is an incredibly strong and unrelenting hero, and you can’t help but root for her every step of the way. This film was equal parts social commentary, laugh-out-loud comedy and non-stop action film. Every scene was a joy to watch. It will surprise and amuse and maybe annoy you, but it is unlikely to ever bore you.

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Life

April 2, 2017 at 10:08 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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The late-winter doldrums (between last year’s Oscar bait in January/February and the blockbuster season, starting in May) can always be a bit lean. Occasionally, we get a few independent gems during this period. Films that were too small to justify a release during busier times of the year (“Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring” would be a classic example). Or we might get riskier films that the studio is afraid might flop (like last year’s “Deadpool”). This general dearth is what has brought me to the rather ironically named “Life.” I could have chosen this or “Ghost in the Shell” but, as one of my friends put it, at least this one has Ryan Reynolds. That really wasn’t quite enough, though. This space horror takes place entirely on the International Space Station as 6 astronauts do battle with a rapidly growing space flower. I’m sure that’s not how the studio would want to describe this alien but this ain’t no capital A Alien. While clearly an homage to Ridley Scott’s horror/sci-fi classic, this film lacked virtually everything that one had: atmosphere, escalating tension, real terror and (oh yeah) an actually scary monster. This film’s see-through, “Little Shop of Horrors” knock-off was kind of hard to find frightening. It also didn’t help that I kept thinking of ways they could have killed the thing if they were just following any reasonable protocols. Like, why the hell wasn’t the lab with the unknown alien life form in it attached to an airlock? The film also had a painfully slow build up. It took 40 minutes to get to any action. That’s a lot of time in a film that’s only 1:45 long and seeing the crew members joke with each other and talk to cute kids didn’t make me like them or care about their deaths. The film ended with a haunting twist ending that was neither haunting nor much of a twist. Who didn’t see that coming? I was also really bugged by the fact that they seemed to keep calling the Japanese crew member Cho, which is a Korean name. That drove me crazy. Well, it turns out they were actually calling him Sho (apparently the character’s name was Sho Murakami, which is Japanese). But I am still going to bitch about it because that’s what type of movie this was. It really is a shame to waste a simple, vital name on such an inert movie; “Life” was, in the end, utterly lifeless.

Nightcrawler

November 14, 2014 at 5:09 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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Fortunately, this is not another addition to the “X-Men” franchise. Rather, it is a brilliantly chilling story about the guys who go skittering through the dead of night hoping to catch tragedy on their cameras to sell to the evening news. In particular, it’s the story of how well one sociopath takes to the job. Said sociopath is played with an unnerving intensity by Jake Gyllenhaal in what may be his best performance to date. The film is so effective and creepy largely because it does not oversell the evil of Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou Bloom. Many films portray their psychos as all schoolboy charm on the surface (“nobody would ever know”) while being deeply sadistic. Bloom is obviously disturbed; nobody could possibly want to be around him if they didn’t have to. His brilliance is in knowing which people need him badly enough to put up with him. And his a-morality comes out in small chilling ways, like the way he rearranges a crime seen to get better video. Moments like that cut right through me and there were plenty of them. Gyllenhaal was masterful at getting wholly inside this character. The way he carried his body (what he did with his hands, how he held his head) was unique to Lou and suited him perfectly. It’s really amazing to compare him to “Jack” in “Brokeback Mountain;” that gives you a sense of this man’s ability to inhabit a character. In another brilliant bit of writing, Lou spoke in a series of internet infomercials. As though he was incapable of normal conversation, almost everything he said sounded like something he read and had memorized. With his wild eyes and frozen grin, everything about this man was so deeply disturbing. Only a couple of times did I feel like he strayed into cliché but these were minor quibbles in what turned out to be by far the most disturbing movie I’ve seen this year.

Prisoners

September 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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I was a big fan of director Denis Villeneuve’s last film, “Incendies” (you can see my review here).  As dark as that one was, I knew “Prisoners” was not going to be a light romp.  True to form, Villeneuve has created another harrowing tale.  This one involves two missing young girls, an out-of-control father and a possible suspect.  As you might imagine, things don’t go well.  Be warned, this film is disturbingly violent in parts, though most of the physical violence occurs off screen and we only see the aftermath of it.  The psychological violence is another matter; that is on full display throughout.  The film has a fine cast of actors including Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and the brilliant Melissa Leo.  Paul Dano puts in another fine performance as the not-quite-there suspect; he manages to imbue a very passive character with no small amount of creepiness.   However, the film really revolves around Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal as the father and the investigating officer, respectively.  Jackman does a fine job but anger seems to be his go to emotion on screen (or perhaps I am just influenced by the fact that “Wolverine” is pretty much the only character I have seen him play).  I was more impressed during the moments when fear, worry and something close to regret were present.  I was actually more taken by Gyllenhaal’s performance as the twitchy, driven cop who seemed haunted by a back story we didn’t know but was none-the-less present in his performance.  I also loved the cinematography that was haunting at times, especially during a racing car scene through the snow.  The plot had twists and turns and, while the clues were all there, I never figured any of them out until a few moments before they were revealed (unlike “Incendies”).  I really like to be able to say, “Oh, I should have seen that coming but didn’t” and this film did that for me.  It was not without it’s flaws.  I was mostly disappointed that it did not wade into more morally ambivalent territory.  I had expected that and there was plenty of opportunity here but, in the end, I think the film makes it clear what we are supposed to think about all the characters and their actions.  I don’t imagine too many people debating with their friends about it afterwards.  Too bad; that lost opportunity would have made this a great film instead of just a really good thriller.

End of Watch

September 23, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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As far as the fast-paced, thrill ride, cop drama goes, I would say this belongs near the top of the list.  Through a clever use of hand-held cameras mixed with the more traditional, stationary ones, the viewer is easily drawn into the steady stream of action on screen.  The film covers three months in the lives of two beat officers (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) in South Central L.A., one of whom is video taping their tours of duty for a class.  We get some scenes of criminals who are recording themselves or the officers in their personal lives at weddings, quinceañeras, etc. but most of the film focuses on these two men on duty.  Scenes of them laughing and joking with each other feel intimate and real and the audience laughs with their easy camaraderie.   Likewise, scenes of violent engagement are tense and I could feel my heart racing.  While this film could have been a series of disconnected scenes (ie a random slice of life for two cops), it definitely has a narrative arc that builds toward a fairly predictable ending.  That one flaw aside, I found the movie engaging and fun for what it was: a grown-ups cop/buddy movie.

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