Friday, 30 June 2017

Okja (2017)

This was the first of the two Netflix films to be shown at Cannes and the one that initiated the uproar about streaming services vs. 'real' movies. Here in Britain it has now in fact been released theatrically (to by and large very good notices) as well as being available via Netflix, which is how I viewed it a few days ago.

The director Joon-ho Bong has made some extremely intriguing Korean films including the policier "Memories of Murder" (2003), the superior creature-feature "The Host" (2006), and head-scratcher "Mother" (2009). He's not exactly prolific and I've not yet seen his previous English-language movie "Snowpiercer" (2013), although that too sounds interesting, despite apparently having been mutilated by Harvey Scissorhands. All of his films seem to strive for a pointed subtext beneath their surface entertainment value. "Okja" continues this trend, since while it is certainly an ingenious concoction, there are some serious underlying messages.

Let me say at the start that (unlike some critics) I would not describe this film as his masterpiece. It is certainly entertaining, but it loses pace and sags in the middle, and there are some horrendous bits of acting among the Korean and English-speaking cast. Tilda Swinton who is beginning to seem ubiquitous nowadays fecklessly plays twins, one of whom -- supposedly the good sister -- runs the family's Mirando Corporation. In an attempt to solve the world food crisis, she has placed 26 genetically-modified piglets with different farmers throughout the world to test which will grow the biggest, fattest, and most importantly the tastiest. One of these piggies has been raised in Korea by Seo-Hyun Ahn's grandpa, and little Mija treats Okja as her own beloved and irreplaceable pet. So when has-been TV personality Jake Gyllenhaal (an absolutely embarrassing turn) visits their mountain-top farm, declares Okja the top specimen, and prepares to whisk her (Okja is a female too) off to New York, Mija is distraught. What we have here is the classic story of a boy and his dog translated into the tale of a fearless young girl and her mutant pet.

The CGI Okja is brilliantly conceived and fits into all of the action scenes seamlessly. From the rear she looks like a hippo -- and is even bigger -- with the head of a bull terrier, crowned by floppy friendly ears -- there's not much pig-like about her and she's like nothing we've seen before. Mija follows them to Seoul to try to free her pal, letting her loose in an underground shopping arcade where the creature becomes the proverbial bull in a china shop. Mija is befriended by Paul Dano and his motley Animal Liberation Front chums -- the most polite bunch of eco-terrorists you could hope to meet -- who want Mija to allow the animal to go to the States, complete with a hidden camera, to record the Mirando Corp's underhand cruelties. When their Korean interpreter asks the girl to co-operate she replies that she just wants to go back to her mountain with Okja, so of course he tells Dano that she agrees! 

Finding herself Stateside Mija continues to try to spring her pet from ending up in the slaughterhouse which is the second and now in charge more evil Swinton's intention, and only a bit of bribery at the denouement saves Okja from this awful fate. However I was disappointed that when Mija managed to free her pal that she did not then release the myriad GM-animals waiting in turn in the stockyard to be killed. Now that would have been a scene well-worth seeing with hundreds of these creatures stampeding!

So the only happy ending is the pair back on their mountain, together with a single piglet that they managed to smuggle out (? a male to mate with Okja ?) and we are left with the overriding message that 'Meat is Murder', amusingly told.    

Friday, 23 June 2017

Childhood of a Leader (2015)

I was actually quite keen to see this directorial debut from the charismatic actor Brady Corbet, ("Mysterious Skin", "Funny Games", "Melancholia" which won the DeLaurentiis Award and the Best Director gong at the Venice Film Festival when Corbet was still in his mid-twenties. Another Orson Welles I wondered. No way! The film is a heavily flawed, pretentious slog, put together by someone who has bitten off far more than he can chew.

The picture begins with an overture from composer Scott Walker, former lead singer of the Walker Brothers, and his ear-jangling score remains intrusive throughout. Corbet's film is further hindered by the largely murky cinematography, with its often dark and barely visible interiors and static shots held for no good reason. Then there is the script itself with the director credited as co-writer. The title comes from a short story by Jean Paul Sartre -- who is not credited --arguing that childhood identity and sexuality are factors in producing the eventual adult. The movie is divided into three chapters outlining the three 'tantrums' of child actor Tom Sweet's Prescott over a relatively short period of time, before moving many years forward for an ending that takes the viewer by surprise.

The story begins in 1918 when American envoy Liam Cunningham (a "Game of Thrones" regular) and his fragrant wife Berenice Bejo (in a role originally intended for Juliette Binoche) move into a French chateau with their young son, as Father heads the talks leading to the Treaty of Versailles. The family consider themselves 'citizens of the world', proud and invincible. Prescott is something of a handful, generally ignored by his busy father and distracted mother, whose care is left in the hands of a local teacher and the household servants, especially the matronly and doting Yolande Moreau (a great favourite of mine). The teacher whose job is to teach the child French, despite his mother being fluent in the language, is played by Stacy Martin, star of von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" films. She takes her work seriously, even if the camera does not, lovingly lingering on the nipple visible under her see-through blouse (highly unlikely for 1918.) The only other character given brief screen time is family friend Charles, a nothing role for  Robert Pattinson -- no treats here for his 'Twilight' groupies.

Prescott's first manifestation of bad behaviour is to throw rocks at the parishioners of the local church, soon followed by his deciding that he no longer needs his teacher (after grabbing her breast), by his refusing to dress or leave his locked room, and finally by declaring his hatred for God and prayers at a high-powered dinner. Mother can only respond by firing whichever staff displays any sympathy for the child and Father can only respond with corporal violence. Perhaps his parents should have considered cropping his flowing locks, since he is constantly taken as the daughter of the house by the diplomatic guests.

Prescott's bad behaviour takes up the bulk of this draggy film, but the next thing we know is that the unsympathetic child has morphed into a Mussolini-like dictator (also played by a nearly unrecognizable Pattinson for some reason). We are meant to think that everything we have seen previously is a fable on the rise of fascism. The director's message is that one's childhood makes one's adulthood a fait accompli. However it is hard to fathom how a rich, obnoxious, spoiled brat can develop into a revered and god-like figurehead. It just does not scan in any believable way and Corbet's parable does not manage to credibly hit home.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Netflix and Adam Sandler

There was an almighty hoo-hah at the recent Cannes Festival over two Netflix-financed films being allowed into competition. While there is a valid argument that only movies granted cinema release should be considered for the top gongs -- whether in France or elsewhere -- this is ignoring current trends. Streaming services are prepared to finance various projects which the major studios reject as 'non-commercial' and a number of interesting movies, few given even a token cinema release, have managed to see the light of day, like the recent Oscar-winner "Moonlight", financed by Amazon. For this we should be grateful.

I have a lot of time for Netflix, not so much for their original series -- I've watched neither "Orange is the New Black" nor "House of Cards" (I'm too fond of the original), but for making available a long list of recent releases which have not yet surfaced on either satellite or terrestrial channels. I've watched several dozen such films over the last year including "Force Majeure", "Brooklyn", "Still Alice", and "Hunt for the Wilderpeople", to name but a few not yet available elsewhere, with many more saved to view. And I've enjoyed three of their original series: "Stranger Things", "OA" (although I found it over-hyped), and "The Santa Clarita Diet" (a hoot).

However it was their backing of the most recent Adam Sandler movie "The Meyerwitz Stories" that raised the Cannes' eyebrows. Adam Sandler is the polar opposite of the serious cineaste's idea of a leading man, despite his huge popular success over the last few decades. Personally I never much liked any of his films, with the exception of 2002's "Punch-drunk Love" where he was in serious mode, but I can understand his mass appeal. While his popularity may well be on the wane, it is fascinating to note that his last four films have all been made for Netflix, who have a world-wide audience in the multi-millions, ensuring that they will be seen by many more people than most cinema releases.

Thus it was, a few days back, wanting some light relief from a recent run of arty grim-fest films, that we watched Sandler's "The Ridiculous Six" (2015). This proved silly, goofy, mindless fun. Here he plays remarkably against type as a white man raised by Native Americans after his mother is killed, who has morphed into a nimble, ninja-like, fast-moving tracker -- totally unbelievable of course, but this is a farce after all. When he is contacted by his long-lost father, Nick Nolte, and sees him abducted by a fierce lot of outlaws led by Danny Trejo, he resolves to find the $50000 that will save his daddy's ass. Along the way he encounters five previously unknown half-siblings from Nolte's various liaisons, and the motley crew become the non-Magnificent bunch of the title.

The five are made up of Sandler's pet actor Rob Schneider (Happy Madison Productions usually finds work for this oft-annoying 'comic') playing a Mexican with a donkey sidekick, Terry Crews (an ex-footballer in films since 2000) -- black as the ace of spades who 'reveals' to his new brothers that he's not actually white, a nearly unrecognizable Taylor Lautner playing a village idiot, Jorge Garcia (the fat guy from "Lost") playing an incomprehensible mumbling moonshiner, and Luke Wilson as the erstwhile bodyguard who did not prevent Abe Lincoln's assassination. They're a watchable bunch of would-be losers who sort of triumph in the end, even after discovering that daddy Nolte is really an unredeemable baddie.

The list of recognizable faces doesn't stop there. There's roles and cameos for the likes of Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro as the inventor of baseball, Jon Lovitz, David Spade, Vanilla Ice as Mark Twain (!), and many more, including Will Forte as the leader of the fearsome (not) Left-eye Gang, whom Steve Zahn must poke out his own right eye to join. The action is non-stop slapstick but all in good humour. While the movie may be a tad too long to accommodate all of co-writer Sandler's would be jokes -- the first-ever baseball game with Turturro could easily have been scrapped -- it's a pleasant enough romp that possibly would have flopped at movie-houses, but which should give less discriminate viewers a few welcome chuckles. Many reviewers on IMDb rate this flick as an all-time low for Sandler, but I found it a welcome change of pace from my usual viewing and now look forward to 'Meyerwitz'.  

Friday, 9 June 2017

Last Cab to Darwin (2015)

I'm sure I've said previously that I'm none too keen on Australian movies -- mainly because I have a hard time understanding the accent. However when there is a subtitle option, I am happy to give them a go and I'm certainly glad that I did so to view the above film. It's a purportedly simple story of a seventyish man who has learned that he has incurable stomach cancer and a scant six month to live.

Michael Caton, a veteran Aussie character actor on the big and small screen, plays Rex, the local taxi-driver in Broken Hill, New South Wales. His has been a simple and unrewarding life with its daily slog, his love-hate relationship with the aboriginal woman, Polly, who lives across the way, and his nightly pint(s) with his drinking cronies. He is reluctant to confide his plight to any of them, but when he learns that euthanasia is about to be legalised up in Darwin, he takes off in his cab to make the 2000 kilometre journey. He doesn't want to end his days in a hospital and is too afraid to take his own life. Doctor Farmer's (Jackie Weaver's) heralded euthanasia machine looks to be the answer and he announces that he is on his way. He can not bring himself to say goodbye to anyone, but speeds off, having left his mutt and his house in Polly's care.

Dr Farmer tells him to keep in touch during the trip and to stay hydrated -- so he promptly purchases a six-pack. There are ups and downs along the way, including being robbed by Michael Coles Smith's Tilly, a would-be aboriginal football star, who soon becomes Rex's helpmate and companion. In the back of beyond they are joined by Emma Hamilton's Julia, an English ex-pat nurse working as a barmaid, who quits her job after initially fancying Tilly (despite his being a 'blackfella') and who subsequently helps look after Rex when he takes a turn for the worse. Not having heard from the taxi driver, the good doctor has alerted the publicity machine and soon the whole country is aware of his epic journey.

When the threesome eventually reach Darwin, they learn that Farmer's famed machine is not yet ready for use and that not only is she waiting for final government approval, but that Rex must first be examined by a psychiatrist and an oncologist. He passes the psych exam with flying colours (sample question: "Do you have a pet?" "Yes a dog." "What's his name?" "Dog, since 'Rex' was taken!") But he's far from thrilled with the delay since his remaining days are fast retreating and another bad turn has landed him in a dreaded hospital. Julie helps him escape and back at Farmer's surgery she hooks him up to the machine, where death would come when he punches three 'yeses' into a computer. However, with seconds to spare, he pulls the needle from his arm. He know what he needs to do. He makes the return journey to Broken Hill to put things right with Polly (a tetchy but charismatic Ningali Lawford) whom he has loved for years. He may be on his last legs, but he has finally worked out what really matters in life.

This road journey movie gives one a real feel for the varied outback scenery and is not afraid to touch upon the ingrained white prejudices on frequent display. Weaver might be the only well-known name in the cast after her Oscar nomination, but she is the least impressive of the main players. Lawford, Smith and Hamilton all do ace work, but it is Caton who manages to emotionally involve the viewer in the fate of a man who has lived an ordinary life, accepting what may be may be, until our tears swell by the film's end.

Friday, 2 June 2017

The Red Turtle (2016)

It was a sad yet joyous day when the animation genius Hayao Miyazaki released his last feature film "The Wind Rises" (2013).  As the face of Studio Ghibli he was responsible for producing some of the most remarkable hand-drawn animations of recent years and his creative input is sorely missed. The studio's two subsequent releases "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" and "When Marnie was There" honour his creative spirit but are slightly less richly drawn and less imaginative than Miyazaki at his peak.

And now there is "The Red Turtle" the first non-Japanese film produced by the studio. The story goes that Miyazaki was enchanted by minimalist animator Michael Dudok De Wit's Oscar-winning "Father and Daughter" (2000) and initially asked for the rights to release it. Subsequently he asked the Dutchman to make a film under the Ghibli banner. De Wit was both surprised and flattered by this request, but now some years later we have the above movie -- a film very much removed from the typical Ghibli product but artful and ultimately moving in its own right.

The film pits one man (and for one man read all men) against the forces of nature as our shipwrecked hero fights the waves and eventually washes up on a deserted tropical island. He explores his new environment, finding food and water, and narrowly escapes its entrenched perils. For the first third of the movie he makes every effort to escape, honing the island's bamboo forests into makeshift rafts. However each time that he launches his flimsy craft, escape is undermined by a fearsome red turtle, who breaks the raft into splinters, forcing the man to swim back to his desolate island. Finally in his frustration he drags the turtle back to shore and upturns the creature, harkening its demise.

He begins to regret this rash action and helplessly tries to revive the animal, but to no avail. But soon, in a bit of magic realism, it begins to morph into a red-headed woman, who eventually overcomes her suspicions to become his helpmate. The red turtle of the title has sent him a way to find a meaningful way of life -- and soon there is a son. (I must confess that I wondered why there was only a single offspring, but never mind). This family unit finds an idyllic way of life until a fearsome tsunami rips the island apart and threatens their solidarity. They begin to rebuild their relationship to nature, until the son succumbs to adolescent yearnings for something more and swims off into the sea with some friendly turtles (his relatives?). The years pass and when the grey-haired man eventually dies his grey-haired partner turns back into the titular turtle and re-joins the sea. This leaves the viewer to wonder if this was all a fever-dream on the part of the marooned man, but regardless, the depth of feeling between the man and his animal-bride and their hostile environment is effortlessly moving.

The animation style is De Wit's trademark simple with the humans rendered in sub-Tintin style, but the waves and the woods and the endless sky are ravishingly and lushly portrayed. There are even some occasional humorous sand crabs for light relief. Most daring of all, there is no spoken dialogue, just the sounds of the island, sighs, deep breaths and the occasional scream. This delicate movie is a far cry from the usual joke-laden 3D animations aimed at kiddies and has little in common with live-action films like "Castaway" or "All is Lost"; it is rather more laid-back and contemplative of man's place in the world. De Wit will never be the new Miyazaki -- nor I think would he choose to be -- but he has given us a beguiling look at survival, love and loss.