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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+

Prisoners – Review

6 Jan

I can’t speak from experience, but I’m pretty sure that the thought of having your child or children abducted is every parent’s worse nightmare. It’s something traumatic enough to really mess with a person’s mind and body in such a way that they may resort to actions that they never would have thought possible. From this idea comes Prisoners, a morally heavy film that really shows that in extreme situations, morals lines may shake or disappear all together, but wouldn’t all of  us do anything to protect our children?

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Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a deeply religious man with a loving wife (Maria Bello), a son, and a young daughter. On Thanksgiving, Keller and his family spend time with their neighborhood friends Franklin (Terrance Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis), who also have two daughters of their own. After dinner Dover’s daughter and one of Franklin’s daughters go missing when they go outside to play. The police are called and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is claimed never to have lost a case, is assigned to find their daughters. When a suspect is found in the man-child Alex Jones (Paul Dano), there appears to be hope, but there isn’t enough evidence against him and his Aunt (Melissa Leo) is determined that there is no way he could have done such a thing. As Detective Loki has to battle to stay within the realm of the law during his investigation, Keller decides to take matters into his own hands.

Emotionally, this is a very heavy movie. Right in the first fifteen minutes I felt an unbelievable dread. Not only is the subject matter heavy, but the look of everything is so gray and uninviting throughout the whole movie. It always seems to be raining. On top of how horrible this movie makes you feel, the run time of two and a half hours doesn’t make things any easier. But seriously, this movie is loooooooong. I’d say it’s a little bit longer than it needs to be. I could see it clocking in at a little over two hours, but two and a half going on three is kind of pushing it. There’s a surprising amount of things that happen in Prisoners which led the story to place I didn’t think it was going to go. This is cool and all, but a little but of trimming would do the movie a lot of good.

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The real draw of this movie is the performances. Just look at the cast. It’s unbelievable. Hugh Jackman gives an Oscar worthy performance as Keller and makes us sympathize, yet cringe at what he is doing and going through. Maria Bello and Viola Davis are both great, yet different, as the two grieving mother with Bello giving a more fragile performance than the strong willed Viola. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a very grounded performance as Detective Loki is what I may argue is his best performance and Terrance Howard, though not onscreen too often, gives a very quiet but tragic performance. Finally, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo are both excellent as always as they seem to have completely morphed into the characters they are playing.

Finally, I need to give a special nod to the cinematographer, Roger Deakins, who really gives his all with the dramatic lighting that is seen in Prisoners. A lot of what is seen seems pretty natural, as it should, and the exteriors all have a gray look, but there are times where the drama picks up that the lighting looks fantastic. There’s great exposures for silhouettes and very hard, foreboding lighting that really shows the gravity of a scene. Deakins has also been the cinematographer for a lot of the Coen Brothers movies like No Country For Old Men and The Big Lebowski and also did beautiful work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I would check any of his movies works on.

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Prisoners is a very powerful and draining movie whose only hinderance is a run time that goes on a little bit too long. The content is very difficult, and to have to sit through that for such a long time may put some people off and that’s totally understandable. Still, this is a fantastic movie with some fantastic performers giving everything they have to their roles. This is not a movie that should be missed.

Source Code – Review

5 Oct

As a person who spends a fair share of his waking hours on trains, Source Code wasn’t exactly my dream premise when in come to comfortability, but other than how I felt in relation to reality I was wholly impressed. I didn’t know what to think going into this movie. I heard a lot of good things, but I wasn’t totally convinced. I had to dive in and see for myself that Source Code is a fantastic science fiction mystery and genuine human drama.

 

Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train in Chicago without any explanation on how he got there. The mystery thickens when he keeps getting called “Sean” by the woman sitting across from him (Michelle Monaghan). The train explodes and he is brought back to a dark capsule and talked to by Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who explains that the train is a “source code” made up of the last eight minutes of Sean’s life, and that Stevens must navigate this source code and find out who bombed the train so that he can be stopped in the real world from bombing the city of Chicago with a dirty bomb.

The plot and how deep it goes down the rabbit hole is enough to make your head spin. It brings back the confusing memories of Inception, The Matrix, and even Groundhog Day. The layer of pure drama that was completely unexpected puts this movie on a much higher level than I was expecting it to be. I wasn’t just interested in unravelling the mystery of the bomber and the source code, but I was also interested in the human side and the emotional response that Colter Stevens is feeling because of this experience.

 

You might think that watching the same thing over and over again would get boring. Not so. Just like the protagonist, I tried to pick out little idiosyncrasies or clues to point me to the bomber. Also, it’s interesting to see how the way the conflict is approached has a very large effect on the events leading to the inevitable outcome. Stevens tries all sorts of tactics from violent to more stealthily. There’s also a heightened feeling of suspense since he has to complete his mission in only eight minutes.

Writer Ben Ripley and director Duncan Jones have crafted an outstanding story that, like I said, will make your head spin. The imagination behind this is brilliant, even if there are some elements of the plot that seem way too unlikely. I don’t want to talk too much about the ending out of fear of giving it away, but there is something about it that doesn’t sit right with me even though I was happy with it. In my opinion it doesn’t fit right with the story and everything explained in it, but it’s how I wanted it to end so I can’t say if I love the ending or not.

 

Films that challenge an audience to think are desperately needed in a time when movies baby the audience and hold their hands to get the safely to the conclusion so absolutely no discussion is necessary and they can get back to their lives. Source Code challenges the viewer to think about what makes up the source code and the morality behind it, and how this morality relates to real world events. It’s a surprisingly deep film that has an intriguing story, excellent performances, and mind blowing layers. Don’t miss out on Source Code.