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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+

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Doctor Strange – Review

6 Nov

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown and expanded so much more than I ever expected since the days of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. After showcasing those more mainstream heroes, including Captain America and Thor, it was time for Marvel and Disney to add something new to the mix and bring in some lesser known heroes. Ant Man was the first to really go somewhere strange, and the inclusion of Black Panther in Civil War was just awesome. Now, with Doctor Strange, we’re going down a wormhole that I never expected to see in an MCU movie. This is probably the most unique film in the entire franchise, and is most definitely one of my new favorites. Who woulda thunk it?

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Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an accomplished, world renowned neurosurgeon who may operate on other people, but it only working for himself and his own inflated ego. After a devastating car accident leaves him with permanent nerve damage in his hands, Strange tries every medical technique he can find until he hears about this mystical clan in Kathmandu that helped a paraplegic walk again. Upon arriving at the secret training ground, Kamar-Taj, Strange is shown the secrets of multidimensional existence by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and is appointed a teacher, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Though reluctant at first, Strange becomes a star pupil and soon has to put everything he’s learned to the test when the treacherous magician Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) returns to unleash dark lord Dormammu and the Dark Dimension onto the earth.

I knew next to nothing about this character before going into this movie, so my expectations were a little weird. I was expecting something entertaining and disposable like Ant Man, but I got something so much more. This is more than just a comic book action film. While it works as an adaptation of a Marvel comic that builds on a universe that keeps on growing, it’s also a really impressive and mid bending fantasy. Listening to the characters talk about muliverses and mirror dimensions along with the lingering presence of the Dark Dimension and Dormammu just sounded so cool. It made even the extended scenes of dialogue feel just as exciting as the scenes with magic. The world that the screenwriters crafted with Doctor Strange is so fantastical, it’s impossible to complain at all about the lack of imagination put into superhero movies.

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So while the dialogue is all really cool, it wouldn’t be worth it if all the magic and special effects on display couldn’t match what they are all talking about. This is where Doctor Strange shines the brightest. This film has some of the best special effects I’ve seen all year. There was one point in the movie where Strange, Mordo, and Kaecilius are fighting and running through a city that is completely folding in on itself and coming apart like a kaleidoscope. Some of that scene was shown in the trailers, but it’s so much crazier than the trailers ever made it out to be. It was like Inception on steroids and LSD. The climax of the movie also plays out much differently than in most movies like this. It fits in very well with the rest of the movie and will certainly not disappoint.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as a Bostonian in Black Mass was a little awkward to say the least, so I was a bit concerned with how he’d handle the accent for Stephen Strange. My concerns were unwarranted since it’s clear he is the best choice for this character. He’s funny, arrogant, and sympathetic at the same time which makes this a fully realized character that is brought to life by a great performance by Cumberbatch. Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor also give very good performances, but I have to give an extra special shout out to Mads Mikkelson as Kaecilius. While his character didn’t have nearly as much screen time as I may have wanted, he stole every scene he was in and is one of the more memorable villains in the recent MCU.

 

Doctor Strange has so much imagination, action, fantasy, and humor crammed into it that it sometimes feel like it might burst from the awesomeness. The actors all do a splendid job with the roles and the special effects are going to make you feel like a kid on Christmas. This is definitely one of the better movies in the MCU, and while it may not be the best, it’s definitely one of my new favorites in the franchise.

Final Grade: A

Hail, Caesar! – Review

11 Feb

The Coen Brothers have one of the most unique voices in film and have often times taken every convention used to make a film and show you how useless they really are. Case and point can be seen in the lack of simple narrative flow and a true chaotic progression in No Country for Old Men, a movie that redefined how movies can be made. I love seeing these guys go crazy with their movies, and I’ve never been truly disappointed by something they’ve done. Thankfully, the same goes for Hail, Caesar!. This is definitely a polarizing movie that the Coen Brothers made for a certain demographic of film goers, and if you fall into that demographic, it will be hard to be disappointed.

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Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) works as the head of Capitol Pictures, and also works as a “fixer,” which means that he puts an extra special interest in keeping his actors and studio in line even if that means bending the law a little bit in his favor. On one average day at the studio, Mannix’s biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is drugged and kidnapped from the set of Capitol Picture’s next epic film, Hail, Caesar!, a film that is also under a strict deadline in terms of its shooting schedule. Now, not only does Mannix have to secure the ransom that is being demanded for the return of Whitlock, but he also has to deal with unruly actors like Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) while juggling demanding directors and twin tabloid writers (both played by Tilda Swinton). Just another day in Hollywood.

I laughed during this movie. In fact, I laughed a lot during this movie. In my opinion, it’s absolutely hilarious. Anyone who is a fan or has knowledge of post-war Hollywood will get a kick out of all of the inside jokes and references that are sprinkled throughout the film, but will also enjoy the backdrop and atmosphere that Hollywood was in at this time. It was a strange transitional period where everyone was under some sort of watchful eye. Hail, Caesar! captures that perfectly in the most over the top and satirical of ways. The Coen Brothers have successfully lampooned major things that I’ve read about in film history textbooks and have hilariously showed us how ridiculous Hollywood’s worst nightmares were during this time.

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The story, or lack there of, in Hail, Caesar! was a bit jarring at first, but once I got into the groove of the movie, things started falling into place. The movie was advertised as Clooney’s character getting abducted and Brolin’s character having to find him. That’s only one aspect of the movie and not exactly what the movie is about. It’s simpler to look at this film as a series of vignettes that eventually come together to tell a story about Eddie Mannix’s crazy life as a Hollywood fixer. What the Coen Brothers seem more interested in, however, is showing the lifestyle of the time and how crazy the studio system could actually be. The story kind of comes second to the characters and the era.

The only thing that I could say is wrong with the movie is that it does leave a lot of people in the dark, and that’s never a fun thing. There’s a lot of jokes and references you might miss out on unless you have a good understanding of how Hollywood operated at the time and some of the more outlandish things that were taken very seriously. This isn’t the first time the Coen Brothers have made a movie about early Hollywood that made a lot of in jokes. Barton Fink was full of references to the time period, but there was also a lot more that didn’t have to do with Hollywood that other people could get a kick out of. Hail, Caesar!, however, demands a bit more understanding of history.

Hail, Caesar! may be polarizing and cater to a certain demographic of film goers, but this is my personal opinion on the movie and I think it’s pretty brilliant. It certainly doesn’t stand up to other Coen Brothers comedies like The Big Lebowski and Fargo, but it is far from falling into the pits with The Ladykillers and Intolerable CrueltyHail, Caesar! falls nicely in place with Burn After Reading in the mid echelons of the Coen Brothers’ filmography. If you know this history and you have a love for post-war Hollywood, this is a movie made just for you.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Review

20 Mar

Personally, I believe that Wes Anderson is a genius when it comes to film, although I’m sure many would disagree with me. The way he writes, builds characters, and composes shots are just some of the most brilliant examples of film making as an art that I have ever seen. From Bottle Rocket to Moonrise Kingdom, there has not been one film of Anderson’s that I have disliked. Now there’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film that shows Anderson’s growth as a film maker and can and will be labeled as his masterpiece.

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In the fictional European region of Zubrowka lies the Grand Budapest Hotel that is run by the oddball concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), who spends most of his free time giving sermons to the employees during dinner and sleeping with the old women who come to the hotel, with a special relationship that forms with Madame D. (Tilda Swinton in some ridiculous makeup). When Madame D. turns up dead, Gustave enlists the help of his new friend and lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) to go to her estate to hear her will. When it is revealed that an extraordinarily valuable painting is left to him, her son Dmitri (Adrian Brody) and his assassin friend J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) start a quest to reclaim the painting, while Gustave and Zero have to work to clear the concierge’s name after he is accused of Madame D.’s murder.

This was one of the most difficult summaries I’ve had to write because so many characters do so many things over the course of the film. This films shows Anderson stepping completely outside his comfort zone and making a much bigger story, all while keeping his trademark visual style. One of the most interesting aspects of The Grand Budapest Hotel are the constant allusions and allegories to the start of Nazism and the early invasions that sparked World War II. Wes Anderson does this in such a way that is humorous in his own quirky way. The Nazis aren’t Nazis (aptly being called the “Zig Zag Party”), but we all know who they really represent.

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The cast in this movie could be described as remarkable, but that would truly be an understatement. Ralph Fiennes shows true comedic timing that was only briefly seen in his small, villainous role in In Bruges. Now he gets to show it off in it’s full potential. Newcomer Tony Revolori seems to have been made to be in a Wes Anderson film, and I’m excited to see where his career goes. Brody and Dafoe are comically evil and provide some of the funniest scenes in the movie. I could go on and on about this cast, but there isn’t enough time to talk about everyone. Jude Law, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel and others all bring their A-game here, and while their roles may be small, they use whatever screen time they have to help make The Grand Budapest Hotel as memorable as it is.

How could I not mention how beautiful this movie looks. Every one of Anderson’s movies surprise me somehow. The awesome viewpoint of seeing every room of the boat in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou to his stop motion landscapes in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson has one of the best eyes in modern day film making, and is part of why he really is a genius. The Grand Budapest Hotel shows some of the best examples of his obsessive mise-en-scène. The perfect camera swivels and the blocking of its various different characters in relation to each other makes this one of the most picturesque films I’ve ever seen. Some shots look like they could have come out of a post card or a painting.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is nothing short of a masterpiece, and pretty much the ultimate Wes Anderson movie in terms of dialogue, character, themes, and visuals. I hope in the deepest parts of my hearts that this movie will still be remembered long enough for nods at next year’s Academy Awards. This is a beautiful movie that is well worth a trip to the theaters. I’d say two trips to the theaters. Maybe eight…

Moonrise Kingdom – Review

30 Oct

Wes Anderson is one of those film makers that I trust will always make a good movie. His style inspires my own style of writing. I didn’t get a chance to see Moonrise Kingdom in theaters, but I have to say that it was worth the wait. This is the best movie he has made since The Royal Tenenbaums, and one that will stay with you for a long time.

 

In the summer of 1965, the small New England island of New Penzance is thrown through a loop when two young children in love Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), run away together. Now it’s up to the eccentric townsfolk to find them before the worst storm to ever hit New Penzance hits. Sam and Suzy give them a run for their money showing the adults that love, no matter how young, is still strong.

This is kind of a bad summary because this isn’t a very easy move to explain in just a few sentences. There’s the main plot with the two children running away, but the story of everyone on the island is just as interesting. Each and every character has their own sets of personal problems that make them eccentric and unforgettable. For a Wes Anderson movie, I had very little trouble connecting with these characters and feeling the dysfunction.

 

Part of me being able to connect with the characters has a lot to do with the performances. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand have the exact brand of awkward chemistry that is needed for a couple growing further and further apart. Bruce Willis and Edward Norton are the scene stealers as the two authority figures who just don’t have the ability to keep everything under control. Finally, in a small but worthwhile role, Jason Schwartzman rounds up the laughs as a Khaki Scout who knows exactly how the system works. It’s a motley of characters that mesh very well. Even Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward do a fine job, if not a bit too deadpan.

And of course, there’s no way I can talk about any Wes Anderson movie and not talk about the impeccable composition of the shots. Every shot is so symmetrical. Even if a character is placed at the left side of the screen, the use of empty space is experimented with so well that nothing seems uneven. Along with the composition are the colors and costume design. This all fits into the idiosyncratic style of Wes Anderson that makes all of his movies special.

 

I’m not quite sure if I can call Moonrise Kingdom Wes Anderson’s best movie, but it definitely ranks in the top tier. It’s a surprisingly hopeful movie amongst all the melancholy, which is a bit of a change for this director. It’s a great conglomeration of characters, stories, and messages that are both funny and tragic. I don’t just like Moonrise Kingdom, I love Moonrise Kingdom.