Okja — 9/10

OKJA (2017, Bong Joon-ho)

One of the keys to this ebullient, expansive near-masterpiece is in noticing just how much it values globalism and different-ness. Early in the film, our heroine Mija is sleeping atop her best friend and pet, the giant hippo-manatee-superpig Okja. When Okja rolls over, Mija does too, so she doesn’t fall off. This happens while both of them are unconscious – not only showing the bond they have, but since it all happens in wide shot, we also see the extreme physical disparity between them. By contrast, Tilda Swinton’s twin characters Lucy and Nancy (between this and HAIL CAESAR! she’s having a banner couple years for dual roles) look identical, yet their relationship is fraught, and has a poisonous effect on the company and the public at-large. The less we are similar, the more we can and should connect. (This isn’t even mentioning a Korean character who gets “Translations are sacred” tattooed onto his forearm).

You might miss this message about crossing cultural and species boundaries, since the food-industry critique, anti-capitalism, and animal-activism messages are more front and center. But even with those, Bong is pointedly equivocal – the activists are just as wrong-headed at times, they betray each other and their missions are compromised by poor logic. This isn’t a Morrissey video. Bong still eats meat. The goal is to explore which values drive our behavior, and the consequences that come from perhaps overvaluing fame, popularity, money, or power over shared experiences, unconditional love, and unconventional bonds. After all, Mija wouldn’t even have a pet were it not for Mirando’s genetic engineering.

Not to make this review too much about the subject matter – formally, it’s dazzling. The special effects are sensational: Okja is from the designer who gave us the tiger in LIFE OF PI, and I’ve rarely seen such seamless CG work on screen. Add to that Bong’s sense of scale and proportion, and you get a work of visual beauty and comedy. Jake Gyllenhall is maniacally over-the-top but it works like a dream because he’s committed and knows what will make the character seem moored to the story. This isn’t just a stunt to show off Gyllenhall doing something new; it’s a controlled piece of physical performance art from the knees to the eyes and I couldn’t stop laughing.

On top of that, there’s the mastery of tone, which is something given just how dark and serious it can get between scenes of gut-busting hilarity. And here’s where I brag that I saw it at the only theater on Earth showing a 35mm print of it (even though it was shot digitally) with the director a few seats over – and his comments after the screening revealed him to be just as insightful as his film suggests. Even though seeing it with a big crowd made the comedy more uproarious and the sense of community stronger, I strongly urge everyone reading to head to Netflix where this is readily available for streaming. It’s one of those times where “you’ve never seen anything like it” is both true and good.

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Baby Driver — 7/10

BABY DRIVER (2017, Edgar Wright)

There’s a trend these days in action movie trailers of the music beats being accompanied by diegetic sound effects — most often it’s guns being cocked or fired, and punches being thrown. This can be done either brilliantly (cf. the ATOMIC BLONDE trailer), pretty good (FATE OF THE FURIOUS), or weakly and try-too-hard (AMERICAN ASSASSIN). Imagine this gimmick for an entire movie and you might want to cry. But imagine it done by a craftsman as skilled and giddy as Edgar Wright, and suddenly your ears perk up. That’s essentially what Wright is doing here, and he has pretty much made a musical out of a heist movie. Every detail from the clink of spent bullet casings landing on pavement to a passerby shouting into his mobile phone provides the soundtrack to the action, punctuating the music, accompanying the melody or the beat, and often driving the story. It’s a glorious feat of cinephilia, even if it’s in the service of a weightless and cold genre picture.

Wright has never lacked for a fun, spirited energy behind the camera, mixing his gorgeous eye for framing, economical use of camera movement, and whip-smart edits with a nod to filmmakers of the past — guys from Romero to Carpenter to Bay. Here he’s going for a combo of Walter Hill and Stanley Donen, and he drives donuts around poor Damien Chazelle’s flailing LA LA LAND. And in the way that musicals will cram exposition and dialogue into a few brief scenes before soaking in their extended dance numbers, Wright efficiently slips in just enough backstory and motivation to get us going, then lets his camera and the actors do the rest.

Once the plates are spinning, though, there’s nothing for them to do but eventually stop, and when they do stop there isn’t anything on them. I appreciate him going after a basic genre movie plot, but it couldn’t hurt to add a little spice to it. Maybe make Debora a little more of a human being; maybe give Jamie Foxx a reason to take the crew into the diner. Maybe don’t just coast through the last 10 minutes in neutral. HOT FUZZ similarly uses its form as its content and descends into a third act that gets too gore-killy, while THE WORLD’S END is an absolute gas until it’s not. Even SCOTT PILGRIM runs through the video game motions a few too many times. One of these days this guy is going to make a masterpiece, but until he does, it’s still pretty fun to watch a guy with this kind of command of sound and image make candy.

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The Big Sick — 8/10

THE BIG SICK (2017, Michael Showalter)

Really puts into perspective just how off-key so many failed attempts at this genre are. First of all, there hasn’t been a straight-up romantic comedy this good since probably NOTTING HILL (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the final scenes of both films are extremely similar), and in addition, it handles the intricacies of immigrant families (and interracial relationships) with nuance, complex detail, and earnest understanding.

Take for example the slapstick version of Indian parents in Netflix’s MASTER OF NONE from Aziz Ansari. No doubt his version stems from deep truths, but he casts his own parents (who are not actors, and are terrible at acting) and writes his scenarios with simplified arcs. What Nanjiani has done here (with deeply felt direction from Showalter) is present a Pakistani family with similar reservations but characters that extend beyond the screen; they’re stars of their own movies, not supporting roles in Kumail’s.

Then there’s the treatment of stand-up comedy — usually the domain of sad-clown clichés (where creators love to dig into the drama of “trying to make it,” and showing the dark side of this cutthroat business), here it’s just a solid creative outlet full of a variety of people, skilled and unskilled, that lack the psychoses of characters in everything from PUNCHLINE to I’M DYING UP HERE. Nanjiani plays a version of himself in the same way Louis CK or Jerry Seinfeld have done, but he’s done an excellent job of proving wrong his parents’ (and everyone else’s, perhaps) stereotypes about the business. [That said, I could have done without the set-that-goes-wrong-because-the-comic-gets-real sequence, which has been overdone to death ever since Tig Notaro nailed it in real life].

As for the supporting roles, the cast is overflowing with talent. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are both incredible: believable and uproarious in all the right ways. Small turns from people like Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant also find the right tone. Showalter, while not exactly Edgar Wright with the camera, nonetheless knows comedy as well as any filmmaker in America, and this thing is bursting with huge laughs. And they’re earned laughs, and they come from a real place that’s deeply human and heartfelt. That makes the gear-shift to sad, tension-filled drama a graceful one — it’s never too maudlin or cheaply sentimental. These are tough things to get right, and even if you can’t put your finger on one thing this film does that’s extraordinary, just compare it to everything else and you’ll realize just how special it is.

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Wonder Woman — 4/10

WONDER WOMAN (2017, Patty Jenkins)

Finally, the misogyny of Hollywood has been lifted just long enough to prove that women, too, are capable of directing and starring in crushingly boring, deliriously formulaic, overlong grey casseroles of CG mayhem. No longer merely the domain of greedy, artless male hacks, now the comic book superhero model of blockbuster that has shat itself across multiplex screens for the better part of the 21st century has proven its equality — even Patty Jenkins can make a movie as lame as Zack Snyder.

With producer and story credit to Snyder, it’s no surprise that this virtually indistinguishable entry into the colorless, humorless genre of DC bludgeon-fests has the Snyder-ized action scene earmarks of slo-mo jump-punching, bloodless bloodletting, and graceless editing. Jenkins may have had enough input to develop the deeper character traits of Diana (and indeed those aspects are among the film’s few merits), but she lends no original style to the action scenes or the overall pace and narrative, which are par for the increasingly numbing course. It’s edited carelessly by Martin Walsh (who in the last decade has done PRINCE OF PERSIA, CLASH OF THE TITANS, and WRATH OF THE TITANS) and photographed by Matthew Jensen, whose resume is almost entirely TV episodes save for Josh Trank’s debacle FANTASTIC FOUR. The fact that this movie looks like ass isn’t Jenkins’s fault, but she should’t get much credit either.

Take, for example, the second act, when Diana goes to London with Steve in search of her prey, the God of War. Jenkins and co. mine this sequence for fish-out-of-water laughs, but there are zero of them. Remember the only good part of THOR, which had a Norse god wandering through small town America ordering coffee in diners? None of that humor or satire is remotely present in this similar setup, which has Diana trying on a Victorian gown only to say “how can a woman fight in this?” Crickets. Chris Pine is allowed one or two moments of levity as Steve, but the IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT-inspired boat trip with Diana is forced and self-satisfied; not at all entertaining.

So the film just snoozes along for about 100 minutes, filling in the occasional gaps with perfunctory and predictable action beats, but we’ve been here before a thousand times (except with male heroes, who aren’t forced to spout dialogue like “love is the only thing worth fighting for”) so it’s all somnambulant garbage. Then the last 40 minutes hits, and it’s as loud, obnoxious, and stakes-less as you could expect. Gadot acquits herself nicely from the dour performance she gave in BATMAN v SUPERMAN, summoning nice physical skills to match her inspiring determination. And we do get a brief NAKED reunion almost 25 years later with David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner. But the overwhelming sensation this entire enterprise evokes is one of defeated plastic — yet another sausage product encased in the cynicism of a studio that has shrugged “might as well.” And the fact that this is a huge hit just proves that audiences are so thirsty for a film that serves this demographic that it doesn’t even have to be good. I’m not crazy about living in a post-quality cinematic world, where a film’s release (and its entire content) are an afterthought to its bottom line, but yet that is where we are. Welcome to 2017.

 

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It Comes At Night — 8/10

IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017, Trey Edward Shults)

Few horror movies lack subtext. But even some of the best ones make their metaphors obvious — whether they be political, religious, or existential. IT COMES AT NIGHT, directed by a kid from Texas who isn’t even 30 yet, is the rare thriller to not only contain intelligent, profound subtext, but to deliver it without hitting you over the skull. And the point Shults makes throughout — clearly, consistently, and smartly — is that every bit of human interaction involves risk. Every selfless gesture, every empathetic action, every attempt to grow closer to someone else — it means putting yourself at risk. Those who are risk-averse will tend to be safer, yes, but will also be less sociable, less sympathetic, and most likely lonelier. It’s a harsh truth, but a potent one, and you would’t expect a rich thesis like that to be found in a 6-handed, 90-minute body-horror suspense movie with a budget that couldn’t even cover Vin Diesel’s trailer.

Every time Joel Edgerton’s protagonist Paul suggests a violent or heartless action, he says it’s because “we shouldn’t be taking any risks.” The unknown illness driving the narrative (so undiagnosed and peculiar that people have to wear gas masks and gloves every time they’re outside just in case it’s airborne or easily contagious) presents several opportunities for Paul to justify his risk-aversion, but his humanity keeps trying to crawl through the cracks, like a disease penetrating the skin. Christopher Abbott is every bit his equal, a younger alpha-dad with similar motives. I didn’t think Abbott was going to be nearly as good as he was in JAMES WHITE, but then comes the scene where he tastes a nice glass of whisky and takes exactly the right amount of time after swallowing to go, “Oh, fuck. That’s smooth.” He’s sensational, and so is Riley Keough in two brief but memorable sequences.

Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Travis, however, is the real beating heart of the story, and Shults understands so much about what makes a 17 year-old tick: the quick crushes you get as a horny teen, the devotion to a family pet, and the curiosity that comes with optimism and naiveté. Travis is hardly the person we expect to prove Paul wrong after the latter says “you can’t trust anyone but family,” yet every decision he makes is believable and interesting. It’s hard to know when you look in the mirror whether you’re sick or not.

Shults directs and edits this film with a lot of guts and rhythm. Its suspense scenes are fist-clenching, and the frames are filled with claw-like angles, rough edges, sharp perspectives, and confined space. I haven’t yet seen KRISHA, but for a second feature, this is remarkable.

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Alien: Covenant — 5/10

ALIEN: COVENANT (2017, Ridley Scott)

Ruthlessly bleak, nasty, and mean-spirited — it may be the right time for a movie that assures us nothing good will survive, and entropy is an unstoppable fate for all species, whether their undoing is by their own hand or by the vast indifference of the universe; but even so, that doesn’t mean such a film is a success.

If anything, the intelligent nihilism running throughout this series and especially this entry is so much of a bummer that it halts narrative momentum and pacing. Ridley Scott has never been the master of the fleet-footed romp (everything from BLADE RUNNER to BLACK HAWK DOWN to THE COUNSELOR has been marred by an uneven flow, with only THE DUELLISTS and GLADIATOR as exceptions to the rule), but this one is especially murky and lugubrious. It has Danny McBride in it, and he’s playing a straight dramatic role! Come on, man. Even Idris Elba had some light-hearted moments in PROMETHEUS, but this thing is a humorless dead zone of single-minded philosophical preaching. It’s almost like Ridley was offended his last film THE MARTIAN was in the Golden Globes Comedy category.

Billy Crudup and Michael Fassbender are dialed in perfectly nevertheless, the former conveying Captain Pussy’s wishy-washy nervousness succinctly and unmistakably, while the latter carries over his sensational PROMETHEUS performance and adds another character completely. The best joke in the movie is that the two Fassbenders are named Walter and David, after the franchise’s producers Walter Hill and David Giler. (Yes, that’s how few moments of levity are in this). The rest of the cast, however, gets crushed under the weight of the script’s grandiosity, finding precious little room to build memorable characters. I can barely remember any other names at all aside from “Tennessee,” so what lingers beyond the credits are some isolated moments of spectacular action (the med-bay in act 1 and the cargo lift escape in act 3), and some cool touches like the help-beacon’s sound being integrated into the score. As for the rest, yeah some disgusting space insects burst out of people’s torsos.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — 5/10

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017, James Gunn)

Way too long and mostly boring, it’s difficult to imagine this appealing to anyone who isn’t already gung-ho for it. If Marvel movies aren’t your bag, this won’t change your mind. If you line up like a lemming for anything with a colorful costume or a spaceship, it’s doubtful you’ll be disappointed.

One thing Gunn’s sequel does well is focus heavily on character and motivation. It doesn’t dispense with spectacle — on the contrary, its big climactic set-piece is a yawn-inducing numb-fest with so many flashing lights and computer FX that you’ll find yourself going over a grocery list or wondering if Swansea will be relegated by the time it’s over — but in its downtime it makes personal conflict more important than interstellar ones. But it doubles down on the daddy issues that dominate far too many sci-fi blockbusters of late, not the least of which is the obvious template for this movie: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. And for a film that puts Chris Pratt and Kurt Russell at the center of this dynamic, it’s interesting that Michael Rooker comes out looking like the best part of the subplot.

Drax has some amusing lines (“Haha! I have famously huge turds!”) and Bradley Cooper continues to curiuosly give one of his best performances, but Zoe Saldana once again is left to play a thankless role of the humorless moral center (with Karen Gillan going through a lot of effort to draw out the running time for no good reason). And while Gunn  finds clever ways to keep the visuals fleet-footed and slick, he sticks to his K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ’70s thing, to the point where a mid-movie prison break is hyper-violent and brutal but all you can think of when it’s over is Jay & The Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer.” As if that somehow makes the mass murder okay.

And how do you have a Tango & Cash reunion but never put them on screen together? Ridiculous.

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