Archive | July, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes – Review

19 Jul

When Rise of the Planet of the Apes first came out in 2011, I didn’t really think anything of it. It took me a little while to finally get around to watching it and when I did, I was floored. The action, the story, and the superb special effects were movie magic at its purest. In 2014, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was released and improved on everything that was established in the first film. I thought that entry couldn’t be beaten, but here we are in 2017 with the third, and final, film in the trilogy called War for the Planet of the Apes. I am kind of sad to see this trilogy ending, but it’s remained a solid example of blockbuster film making and this latest entry may be the best of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy.

Years after the Simian Flu infected and wiped out a large portion of humanity, the apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) struggle to survive in the woods that provide limited isolation from vengeful human survivors. After their camp is attacked by a military faction called Alpha-Omega, Caesar decides it’s time to move camp for good, but disaster soon strikes which escalates the need to move but also ignites a vengeful spirit hidden deep within Caesar. Along with his trusted friends Maurice (Karin Konoval), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and Rocket (Terry Notary), the ape leader sets out to find the base where Alpha-Omega is located. The group finally arrives and sees that AO, along with its vicious leader Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), has taken the other apes captive and are forcing them to build a wall to protect Alpha-Omega from arriving military forces. As Caesar comes face to face with an enemy like this that he has yet to encounter, he must look at his actions and the needs of his clan to determine how to proceed and get everyone to safety once and for all.

The first thing I have to talk about with this movie is the special effects. I honestly believe that these new Planet of the Apes movies are the shining example of how to use motion capture and computer generated effects to tell a story and make a movie feel more complete. Remember the old Planet of the Apes films and the costumes that were used for the apes. Looking back on them they look kind of odd, and this coming from someone who adores the original series, even at its cheesiest. The motion capture effects for Caesar and the rest of the apes instill them with a level of reality that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise, and I can say this for every film in this trilogy. There are a few close up where the eyes of these apes look so real that it’s hard to believe they just don’t have actual apes playing these roles. While I’m on this topic, can Andy Serkis just get an Oscar already. The emotions and movements of Caesar are all Serkis and I feel like he doesn’t get the praise that he has deserved for years.

With this being the final film of the trilogy, I expected this to be the largest and most epic in terms of scale. This really isn’t the case. Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a huge finale on the Golden Gate Bridge, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has Koba and his followers attacking the humans in an all out battle, but War for the Planet of the Apes has a climax that is relatively smaller in comparison. This doesn’t make it more intense, however. When the major conflict of the film is finally addressed, which is the tension between Caesar and the Colonel, it’s a devastating scene that completely reinforces the themes that this movie is presenting and the moral strength and beliefs of the characters. There is a lot less action here, but Caesar’s war to free his apes and lead them to freedom is a continuing struggle that will leave your eyes glued to the screen for the nearly two and a half hour long runtime. There can be a lot of adjectives used to describe this movie, but boring would not be one of them.

The story to this film isn’t just a leave your brain at the door kind of narrative. In fact, I feel like I need to watch this movie again to fully see everything this movie had to offer. From beginning to end, there’s Biblical symbolism sprinkled throughout which can be both obvious and subtle. While there’s also clear hero and villains in this movie, writer/director Matt Reeves is interested in also showing the flaws of both. Caesar starts to see a lot of Koba in himself which frightens him, and the Colonel has motivations to do what he does other than just pure evil and sadism. This makes the story and the outcome feel heavier and puts it a step above the average summer blockbuster. I will say, there are a few moments of this movie where the suspension of disbelief is taken to the most extreme. One scene in particular actually pulled me out of the cinematic trance I was in and prompted me to turn to my friend, who was equally confused, and just ask why the film makers would make this choice.

War for the Planet of the Apes is one of the strongest summer blockbusters to come out in quite a while and is certainly the strongest film in this new Planet of the Apes trilogy. It explores themes of leadership and morality in such deep ways while also telling a science fiction/fantasy story of highly intelligent apes fighting for survival. With a story like that successfully tackling themes that deep, you know this film has to be something special. It also works as an intense action/adventure film that has plenty of exciting moments to keep the viewer on the edge of their seats. One more time for the people in the back, GIVE ANDY SERKIS AN OSCAR. In all seriousness though, War for the Planet of the Apes is an excellent film, and this entire trilogy shouldn’t be missed out on.

Final Grade: A

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Review

15 Jul

It’s hard to believe that we’ve reached our 16th Marvel movie, and it’s finally one that stars my favorite superhero of all time: Spider-Man. In Captain America: Civil War, Tom Holland was introduced as Peter Parker, also known as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. It was really exciting to see a new iteration of the character that wasn’t awful (Yes, I’m looking at you Amazing Spider-Man). Now, Holland’s back and he’s front and center in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which is one of my most anticipated movies of the year. I have to say, I love the Web Head, and this was a really good movie that’s here to kickstart his own series of stand alone films. In that way, it works really well and I can’t wait to see it again, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed in the end result.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) seems like a mild mannered teenager just struggling to fit in at school. His best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), is socially inept but lovable, but what Parker really can’t get his mind off of is Liz (Laura Harrier), the girl of his dreams who he fears he doesn’t stand a chance with. Seems like pretty normal stuff for a guy his age, but after school he also fights crime in anyway he can as the superhero, Spider-Man. He can’t seem to get too far in his crimefighting endeavors with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) constantly on his case about his safety and how his abilities have progressed. Things get even riskier when Spidey finds out that Chitauri weaponry is being sold on the streets of New York, and the culprit is one Adrian Toomes, aka Vulture (Michael Keaton). Peter is determined to get these weapons off the street and stop Vulture, but despite his good intentions and will power he still doesn’t have the full range of his powers nor his suit, which will make this particular mission very difficult to accomplish.

I had really high hopes going into this movie just because my favorite superhero was finally getting a proper MCU treatment, but also because of all the rave reviews I was hearing about from screenings before the official release date. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me and think I thought the movie was bad. That’s simply not the case, and I’d go so far as to say it was really good. Let’s get the negatives out of the way immediately so we can get into the good stuff later. My biggest complaint is that a lot of the story focused on Peter’s school. I understand that Spider-Man is a younger hero, especially compared to some of the other Avengers (that means you, Cap), and it is a good idea to show his interactions with kids his own age. All of the actors were very good, but it just wasn’t nearly as interesting as what was happening with Vulture and the Chitauri weapons. I’m also not thrilled when superheroes in their films don’t have full control over their powers. I know this is Spidey’s first film in the MCU and he has a lot of growing to do, but it was such a tease to see him webbing all over New York while I was thinking he was capable of so much more. I will say, however, that I’m excited to see the character evolve more in the movies to come.

Now that we got the negatives out of the way, it’s time to have some more fun. Let’s start with the cast. Tom Holland is clearly the best choice to play a young Peter Parker. He’s full of the nervous energy that defines Peter, but once you get him in that Spider-Man suit, he all attitude and brimming with that lovable arrogance that only the Web-Slinger could pull off. There’s also scenes that get pretty heavy on the drama and Holland also manages to pull those scenes off with relative ease. At this point, there really is no one else for this role. He completely owns it. Michael Keaton as Vulture was also unsurprisingly great, but what is surprising is just how well rounded Vulture was. The MCU doesn’t always have the strongest villains, especially since Loki in the first Avengers movie. Keaton gives what could be the best villain performance since Hiddleston. His character has some real depth and understandable motivation, but that motivation could have certainly been explored just a little bit more. Who surprised me the most out of the whole cast was Jacob Batalon as Ned. He had some of the funniest lines in the movie but he wasn’t there solely for comedic relief. He actually got into the adventure with Spider-Man/Peter Parker and it made his character all the better for it.

Let’s get to the action, since that’s something these movies rely so heavily on. Is the action in Homecoming fantastic? Sometimes. It definitely has its moments, but like I said before, Spidey doesn’t have complete control of his powers yet. Vulture’s suit does look awesome in these sequences though, and Jon Watts does have a good eye for directing large action set pieces, which is certainly not an easy thing to do. Adding to the pleasing aesthetics of this movie is Michael Giacchino’s excellent score that fits every piece of action, drama, and comedy perfectly. I’ve always liked Giacchino’s work and this entry into his catalogue is extra impressive. Finally, we have to take a look at how this movie fits in with the others of the MCU. Well, to put it simply, it fits very well. Tony Stark being in the movie works great, but the character that really pulled me into the world building even more was Happy. He provided some excellent comedic relief and also helped push the overall story of the MCU forward. This movie doesn’t just get me excited for more Spider-Man movies, it also gets me pumped for whatever comes next in this universe we’ve all gotten so attached to. Finally, and without spoiling anything, keep an eye out for some of Spider-Man’s most iconic villains that share some screen time with Vulture.

Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t quite the movie I wanted it to be. It focused a lot on Peter’s high school life while I could’ve used a bit more with the villains and their evil schemes, and even some more time with Tony and Happy. This is Spider-Man’s first feature length movie in this universe, so I understand the character building, but it didn’t excite me the way I wanted it to. Luckily, Tom Holland and Michael Keaton’s performances were outstanding and the action sequences along with the music were as thrilling as they could ever be. The Wall-Crawler definitely has a good future in front of him in terms of the big screen and I can’t wait to see the next installment.

Final Grade: B+

The Return of the Living Dead Series – Review: Part 1

14 Jul

Zombie films, at this point, seem to have been done to death. There was a time however, where messing with the formula was providing audiences with some new and exciting content, and one of the most popular blends of genres just so happens to be the horror/comedy. Enter Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a cult classic from 1985 called The Return of the Living Dead, which despite what the title will have you believe, is not related to George Romero’s series of films. It didn’t end there however, with four sequels being spawned to create a series that has lasted over a couple decades, with varying results of course. In this review, I’m going to be looking at the first three and will finish up with the last two in the second part.

Let’s kick this off with O’Bannon’s cult smash.

Freddy (Thom Matthews) is a bumbling punk kid who just got a job at a medical supply warehouse and is being trained by the equally bumbling foreman, Frank (James Karen). While trying to impress the new hire, Frank shows Freddy a container in the basement which contains a corpse and a toxic gas, which was part of an experiment that reanimated the dead and inspired George Romero to make Night of the Living Dead. After fiddling with the container, it springs a leak which released the toxic gas into the warehouse and reanimates the corpse within it. After calling their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), to help destroy the corpse with the mortician next door, Ernie (Don Calfa), the groups actions poison the rain outside that is falling over a cemetery which causes all of the dead resting there to come back to life. Of course, a group of Freddy’s friends happen to be loitering there at the time and make a quick escape to the mortuary. From this location, the group must get innovative with their surroundings if they are to survive, but chances begin to get slimmer and slimmer as members of their party start falling victim to the zombies.

The Return of the Living Dead is a special kind of movie. It’s just the right blend of horror and comedy that is so hard to come across. Everything from the poster to the characters and even the way the zombies are design and behave just scream of a punk rock attitude, and that’s exactly what writer/director Dan O’Bannon was going for. It’s so funny to think that the mastermind behind the original Alien would go on to write and direct a movie like this. I’m not saying this is a bad movie at all, it’s just such a departure from what I’ve already seen of his work. So anyway, what this movie is is a comedy with horror elements, and boy can it be funny. What really helps the humor is that this movie takes place in a world where George Romero’s zombie films are around and just as popular. This fills the character’s heads with useless knowledge about zombies that don’t apply to these zombies in the least. In fact, the zombies from Return of the Living Dead are responsible for all the impressions of the undead that involved someone yelling “BRAAAAINS!” Even if you haven’t seen this movie, it’s reach still extends to you through the powers of cult film references that abound.

While The Return of the Living Dead holds up well as a comedy, it also has to hold up as a horror. In that respect, it also succeeds. This isn’t really a creepy movie, but more of what you’d expect from a zombie film. That’s lots of gore and some really great special effects, like on the Tarman zombie that hides in the basement of the warehouse. The other zombies also look great, with some really great make up and practical effects used to complete the illusion. I do have a couple minor complaints with the film as a whole however. For one thing, the set goes on for way too long and it really takes a while for the movie to really get going. Once it does, it’s off the walls, but I was surprised that so much time was used up in just laying the ground work of the story. A story that isn’t really that hard to understand, I might add. The ending also isn’t that spectacular. It is admittedly funny and does work with the nihilistic punk sensibilities, but it all happens way too fast and then the credits just begin to roll. Kind of an odd way to end the film, but it does leave me wanting more.

The Return of the Living Dead shouldn’t have to be compared with something like Dawn of the Dead, but it is possible. This isn’t a perfect zombie film, but it does reinvent the formula in such a way that makes it stand out from the massive amount of other works in this subgenre of horror. This is also a really funny film with a cast of faces you will probably recognize from some other cult favorites. The make up and effects are on point and the gore will leave any horror fan satisfied. If some of the pacing and storytelling issues were cleaned up, you’d have something close to being a perfect horror comedy. Even with those flaws, The Return of the Living Dead has rightfully succeeded in standing the test of time.

Final Grade: B

When The Return of the Living Dead proved to be a critical and box office success, it’s pretty easy to look back now and see that a sequel was inevitable, only this time without Dan O’Bannon. Instead, Lorimar Pictures took a script by Ken Wiederhorn and said they would fund it if he turned the story into a sequel of Return of the Living Dead. He did just that, despite wanting to get out of the horror genre, and it’s certainly weaker than the first film but it isn’t without its charms.

After a barrel of Trioxin falls off of a military transport truck and lands in the river a small town, it’s pretty clear that something very bad is going to happen. After being bullied by a group of neighborhood kids, Jesse (Michael Kenworthy), and his tormentors find the barrel and accidentally open it. Jesse was long gone at that point, but the other two kids weren’t so lucky. Meanwhile, two inept grave robbers, Joey (Thom Mathews) and Ed (James Karen), witness firsthand the dead begin to rise from their graves after a rainstorm sends the gaseous Trioxin underground. Joey and Ed soon meet up with Jesse, his sister Lucy (Marsha Dietlein), and their cable man Tom (Dana Ashbrook), who have also been slowly learning the truth about the undead crisis. With the military surrounding and barricading the town, this unlikely group of heroes have to fight for their lives against the zombies at any moment while also looking for anyway to stop this disaster before it gets any further.

The first thing I noticed about this movie is that it’s shameless about ripping off major plot points of its predecessor. If you go into this movie expecting a sequel that builds off of the events of the first film, then you’ll be let down by this movie on a major level. Return of the Living Dead Part II is a watered down retelling of the first film on a bigger scale. While the first film just took place in a very contained area, this one takes place in an entire town. This change doesn’t necessarily make for a better movie and it just makes the zombies seem stretched thinner. The first movie was tight and made it a lot harder to avoid the undead, where in this one there’s plenty of places to hide. The humor in this one is also watered down big time, which was done in order to attract a wider audience. This backfired miserably since it only made $9.2 million while the original grossed $14.2 million. The zombies in this movie are utter buffoons. This choice sacrifices the wit and anarchic attitude of the first film for zombies that fall all over each other and just meet whacky demises. I really did miss the clever dialogue and original humor that the original offered, but there were still some laughs to be had in this sequel.

I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t an entertaining movie. It definitely had its moments, and they can’t be forgotten just for the sake of railing on the film. The kid that played Jesse was actually very good and it was fun to see Thom Mathews and James Karen practically revive their roles, even though other actors probably could have been chosen. James Karen is absolutely hilarious though, and its a better movie with him in it. There’s also some really good special effects that stand up well with the effects of the original film. Return of the Living Dead Part II is a very light hearted film that relies way more on the comedy than the horror, instead of finding a balance between the two. This is a pretty bad movie, but it’s a bad movie that’s easy to like just for its absurdity and self awareness. Just don’t go into this movie expecting quality.

Final Grade: C-

Return of the Living Dead Part II was the last of the series to be released in the 1980s, and also the last to have a wide release in theaters. In 1993, Return of the Living Dead 3 was released in select theaters and admittedly has the worst box office results of the first three films. Other than financially, how well does it hold up with the others that came before it.

After stealing his father’s high class military key card, Curtis (J. Trevor Edmond) and his girlfriend, Julie (Melinda Clarke) sneak onto an army base and witness a group of scientists and officers reanimate a corpse with the Trioxin gas. Col. John Reynolds (Kent McCord), Curtis’ father, is part of the project and when it ultimately fails he is reassigned to another state, much to the devastation of Curtis. Curtis decides he isn’t going to leave and runs off with Julie, but the two get into a motorcycle accident that kills Julie. Curtis soon realizes that he still has the key card and uses it to get back onto the base to reanimate his girlfriend. As the two lovers start realizing that this new life (or afterlife in Julie’s case) isn’t going to be easy, Julie’s need for human flesh and brains causes an out of control situation of undead flesh eaters that could cause the next apocalypse if not contained quickly.

The mood of Return of the Living Dead 3 is way different from the mood of the first and second. The first film is a witty dark comedy/horror film while the sequel is mostly an exercise in slapstick. This entry totally does away with the comedy, while still retaining the sense of punk rock, even more so than the second film. I’ll get into the positives of that later, but I do want to focus on some of the not so great elements of this movie. For one thing, it’s kinda boring. Compared to the craziness of the first two, this entry is really tame. I could easily count the number of zombies in this movie and there’s never really a moment where they seemed to be overpowering anyone. Zombies work best as a horde, not a clump. We’re also meant to really buy the romance between Curtis and Julie, but Curtis is such a selfish idiot, it’s really hard to root for him in any circumstance. I ended up feeling bad for Julie having to be stuck with him and his awful ideas.

As a whole, though, this is a pretty solid movie. It isn’t anything grand, but it has some strong redeeming qualities. For one thing, and this is probably the most obvious thing to praise, Julie’s design for when she gets progressively deeper into “zombie mode,” if you will, is awesome. This make up and costume design is an under appreciated gem of the horror genre, and it’s something that needs to be revisited. This film also feels like it can stand on its own. The second film relied on the first one so much that it felt like a crutch. Return of the Living Dead 3 has its own style, mood, and storyline that is, for the most part, completely its own and unique. I also have to once again give props to the special effects department for once again showing that practical effects is the only way to successfully craft a zombie film.

As I already said, Return of the Living Dead 3 is a solid movie that does have some major flaws which will surely annoy viewer. It’s a tad boring and feels much smaller and less suspenseful than a zombie movie should. It does, however, have a cool concept to work with and it does try to make its two leads something more than just generic horror characters. This isn’t a movie that will ever be seen as a classic, but it does have some neat effects and costume design. For fans of the genre, I’d say give it a try.

Final Grade: C

So there’s the first three films in the Return of the Living Dead series and the only ones to be released in theaters. When I return with this series review, we’ll be heading back to the wonderful, yet often startlingly absurd world of direct to DVD.

Baby Driver – Review

8 Jul

It seems like I’ve been having great luck with movies recently, and the trend just keeps on going. I’ve been really looking forward to Baby Driver since I first saw the trailer for it. Writer and director Edgar Wright is best known for his Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy which consists of Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz, and The World’s End, all starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. He was also the director of Simon Pegg’s and Jessica Stevenson’s cult tv show Spaced. This looked like a bit of a departure from what he normally does, but it also looked like it still had that frenetic yet controlled style he employs. Let’s just say Baby Driver takes everything great about Wright’s work and enhances it to whole new levels to create one of the greatest action films you’ll see all year.

Despite getting into an accident as a child, losing both his parents, and suffering from a permanent “hum in the drum” as a result, Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the best escape driver in the entire underworld. Doc (Kevin Spacey), a major thief in the criminal underworld, is lucky to have him on as a permanent member of the team, despite other employees finding his constant state of listening to music and lack of any kind of vocal interaction unnerving. After one particular job goes wrong, Baby finds some comfort in an unassuming waitress named Debora (Lily James). Their relationship seems to be growing fast, but Baby is soon coerced back into the business by Doc and forced onto a crew consisting of his long time partners Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his wifeDarling (Eiza González), but also the sadistic Bats (Jamie Foxx), who threatens everything Baby stands for just for the hell of it. With this job closing in, Baby starts making plans to betray the team and make his escape with Debora, but it won’t be easy to escape the eyes of his brothers in arms and he’ll have to fight them with everything he’s got to truly escape.

Baby Driver is a lot of things. It’s a drama, it’s a dark comedy, it’s a gangster flick, it’s a heist movie, but more than anything else it’s an action film. This movie has more energy than any action movie I’ve seen in a long time and you can tell that everything that Edgar Wright is as an artist and a film maker went in to making this movie as great as it possibly can be. The car chases and various escape sequences are exhilarating, and the fact that the stunt work and various crashes and last ditch escapes were done in camera and not using computer generated effects makes the whole experience all the more worthwhile. The first car chase had me hooked, but the ride was far from being over and it just got more exciting from there. This is a good time to bring the editing up. If this film doesn’t get recognized for its editing at the Oscars, then I really don’t know what I’ll do. Wright puts this entire film to Baby’s various soundtracks, and when I say that every scene moves in time with the music, it’s no exaggeration. The best way to describe this film would be to use the word “precision.” We’ve all had that conversation about what song would work in what kind of scene. Well Edgar Wright and his team took that idea to the limit and created a whole new way to watch a movie.

With movies like Baby Driver that immediately combust with such high energy, it’s usually inevitable that the middle of the movie will slow down to an almost unbearable crawl for characters and other kinds of motivations to be built on. Somehow, someway, Edgar Wright found the perfect formula to expedite this whole process while still making it easy to care about the characters. Jamie Foxx’s character is introduced somewhere around the end of the first act and beginning of the second act which doesn’t slow the movie down even a little bit. In fact, Foxx is so excellent in his performance of Bats that the movie found another burst of energy with his arrival. Time is also given to Ansel Elgort and Lily James and their budding romance. This is where the movie stumbles ever so slightly. The tough guy talk didn’t need to carry over from the crime scenes to the romance scenes. It just didn’t fit very well and the attitude was just a little bit to much in these moments. If it was toned down a little more I think these scenes would have hit the mark a little bit better. When the third act begins, however, all mistakes are forgotten and my eyes were glued to the screen while the action never ceased to let up.

I feel like there’s something of a stigma around action movies that say films in this genre can rarely be called works of art. Much like horror films as of late, there’s been a cool trend of more artistic action films, and Baby Driver falls firmly into that place. Wright and his team know how to make a film look great and sound great while also thrilling audiences with off the wall action sequences and entertaining characters. When the lights came up in the theater, it was almost hard to finds words to properly elucidate the originality and technique of the film I just watched. Edgar Wright isn’t just a good film maker. He’s clearly an excellent one and an auteur in his own right. I’ve been taught by many people that film is a visual art, where the story should be shown more than it should be told. This movie takes it another step and uses music to help tell its story in a way I haven’t seen in a movie before. When music isn’t playing, it felt weird. This was a risky thing to do. It would be very easy to mess up a movie where music is constantly playing, but this one pulled it off with such finesse.

In case I haven’t made my point perfectly clear already, Baby Driver was fantastic and easily is and will remain one of the best movies of the year. It’s action is shot beautifully with excellent stunt work and precision driving, the soundtrack knocks the second Guardians movie into next week, and the editing is some of the best I’ve seen in years. This takes action films somewhere new and unique, even though the story is less than totally unheard of. I can’t say this film is style over substance, because the two work tandem so well. It would be a sin to miss this movie, so get to it as soon as you can.

Final Grade: A+

Okja – Review

1 Jul

Bong Joon-ho has really made a name for himself as one of the most internationally acclaimed filmmakers to come out of South Korea. His films like Memories of MurderMother, and The Host were hits in South Korea, and Snowpiercer brought his talents to the west and into the English language. He has this excellent ability to create moments of humor out of very serious situation and his style is something all his own. His latest film, Okja, is a Netflix exclusive which also continues Netflix’s trend of creating quality entertainment. This film, while having very cute and funny moments, is a condemnation of the dealings of big business in the animal industry and shines a harsh light on the manufacturing of GMOs.

Okja is a genetically modified super pig who has been being raised in a rural South Korean village by a young girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather Heebong (Byun Hee-bong) for the past 10 years. Okja was first created by the Mirando corporation, run by the then new CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), to be the next best meat in the entire industry. Now that Okja is fully grown, Mirando sends its spokesperson, Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), to get Okja and bring her back to Seoul and eventually New York City. Mija’s not about to let them take Okja away from her, so she runs off to Seoul to stop Mirando and runs into the ALF, or the Animal Liberation Front, a small group run by animal activist Jay (Paul Dano). With time for Okja running out, Mija has to reluctantly team up with Jay and the ALF to expose the major wrongdoings and cruelty of Mirando and save Okja in the process.

The first thing that needs to be discussed is the whole message this movie is giving. Bong Joon-ho is known for his environmentalism and his environmentally conscious films. Okja continues this tradition with an even louder voice than ever before. The first thing he tackles is GMOs and how it can be an absolutely absurd practice to genetically enhance animals and have people ok with that, even when it’s used for something more shady than health reasons. His other stance that he takes is the two faces of major companies, no matter which industry they are a part of. In this film, Lucy Mirando and Dr. Wilcox make it impossible not to like the Mirando Corporation, but once you see past the surface you know what they are really about. This is a time when companies are backed by armadas of lawyers and P.R. teams who exist just to issue cleverly worded apologies to make everything right again. While I can back these stances and I’m glad to see them presented in a movie, Okja sometimes is a bit to heavy handed with the message to the point of sounding preachy. Other scenes have that subversive wit this film maker is known for and it more than makes up for the more overly explicit moments.

There are a few minor faults with the movie that did get a little distracting as I was watching it. Towards the end of the movie when things were really going down and the climax of the film was fast approaching, I sort of started to lose track of what the villains of the film were really up to. I feel like most of this happens because their motivations get muddled and the writing makes it so they run the gamut of evil to make them seem like the villains they truly are. They do something to Okja that is very serious and quite important, but then they go and try to do something else that completely counteracts what they originally did. It’s something of a plot hole where I feel like I could be missing something, but it just seems like intentions got muddled somewhere in the screenplay. The story is also a little slow on the uptake. A lot of time is spent introducing Mija and Okja, which is important to build the relationship, but there’s something in particular that happens in the very beginning that just seems out of place. It distracted me from where the story was heading and could be cut out of the movie all together. These are relatively minor complaints, but obvious enough that made them worth stating.

I really need to take a moment to mention how excellent Ahn Seo-hyun is in this film. Her performance of Mija is really excellent and it’s rare to see an actor this young give such an honest performance. This goes along with the fact that her best friend in the movie is a CGI super pig. She does very well at acting around something that isn’t even there and I was really impressed. Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal are both hilarious in this movie and Paul Dano gives the exact kind of performance you would expect Dano to give. I do want to touch on Okja herself. At times the CGI got a little bit cartoonish, but there were other times, especially in close up, when the CGI looked great. As a whole I was definitely a fan of the design of Okja. When I saw the first promotional picture released, I thought the design looked kind of stupid, but seeing it in action completely changed my mind. Speaking of visuals, it’s hard for me to remember just how well shot Bong Joon-ho’s films are since I always relate him to writing and character. The camerawork in Okja is sweeping and exciting and adds a whole new layer of entertainment to the film.

Okja is certainly a welcome addition to Bong Joon-ho’s filmography and is a reminder that Netflix is really killing it with their original content. I can’t say that this film ranks up there with Bong’s earlier films like The Host but it does have a strong message, some excellent characters and actors, and a CGI super pig that is surprisingly lovable. Okja is both a strong drama and a light hearted comedy that blends to create a very entertaining film despite some minor issues with motivation and pacing. I say, if you have Netflix, this is a new addition that should definitely be seen and works well to also introduce any newcomer to Bong Joon-ho’s unique style.

Final Grade: B+

Midnight Special – Review

1 Jul

Science fiction is probably my favorite genre of film and literature because it can form such a huge spectrum of stories to be told. Recently, there’s been a huge influx of space films like the resurgences of Star Trek and Star Wars, but also completely original ideas like Christopher Nolan’s excellent work with Interstellar. If not space, the market seems flooded with science fiction via superhero films. What I don’t see a lot of are smaller films that still have a grand story to tell without all the bells and whistles of major Hollywood productions. This is partially why I was so interested with Jeff Nichols’ film Midnight Special, along with the fact that it stars my favorite actor, Michael Shannon. With my expectations raised pretty high, I’m thrilled to say that Midnight Special did not disappoint.

On a seemingly quiet night, and AMBER alert is issued for an 8 year old boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). It’s revealed that he’s safe and sound in a motel with his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s close friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). As the trio hit the road during the darkest hours of the night, the FBI raid a religious cult’s farmland to interrogate its founder, Pastor Calvin (Sam Shepard), who raised Alton since Roy and his wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), left the compound. The main interrogator is NSA communication analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) who is more interested with how Calvin was able to get highly classified satellite communications through Alton. It’s soon revealed through Roy’s travels with Alton with the FBI and members of the cult hot on their tails that Alton may not be of this world, and while his origins are unknown to all parties involved, it’s evident that he’s about to reveal something that will change the world forever.

Let me just say, the way this story is told is fantastic. The structure that this narrative falls into is really the only way this story can be told. The film begins in medias res with Roy, Lucas, and Alton on the run and we as the audience don’t know why. This first part of the movie is so riveting because I really hadn’t the slightest idea of what everything meant. Was Alton an alien or some sort of experiment gone wrong? What was the deal with the religious cult? How powerful is Alton and what are his weaknesses. Nichols knows that with a story like this, there’s going to be some major questions and he uses that to the film’s advantage and creates this mysterious thread that totally morphs into a web. The atmosphere of science fiction blends well with the rural roads our travelers call home during the night, and the mystery of what is actually going on had me hooked from beginning to end.

My last review was of J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, and I really liked that movie except for a problem with certain characters and their relevancy to the story. As much as I really liked Midnight Special, I feel like this film is a bigger offender of the same problem. Early in the movie we get introduced to the religious cult Alton comes from and its charismatic leader, Pastor Calvin. I really liked this element of the story in the way that it seemed to be blending science fiction and religion. It’s a theme that’s seen pretty frequently in the genre, but it felt really down to earth in this film. Unfortunately, this cult doesn’t really amount to much and the only impact they have on the story lasts a few scenes, one of them being quite intense. Still, I would have liked to see a lot more from the cult and especially from Sam Shepard’s character, Calvin, because he was really selling that role well.

Like I said, Midnight Special is science fiction brought down to earth. It’s something I felt like could be happening at this very moment, and I even thought about if I’ve ever driven past someone on a dark highway going through some extraordinary even like this, and I would never know. With these huge science fiction films taking us to different worlds and galaxies, it was refreshing to see a movie that just spans a couple of states with a story that deals with real people. While this movie isn’t action packed, it still has plenty of really unique special effects that I will forever associate with this film and some larger than life ideas that I feel pay off very well.

Midnight Special is truly just a wonderful story and I have to give Jeff Nichols credit for once again leading me down a road where I couldn’t have guessed the destination. This film works as science fiction, family drama, and as a mystery that’s wrapped in a very well shot and paced film. The only gripes I have come from some characters that feel underused or just completely forgotten. Still, this is some excellent science fiction that deserves more praise than it gets.

Final Grade: A