Okja’s performative histrionics don’t mask its muddled message

Despite being clearly an auteur work, a result of Netflix letting Snowpiercer‘s Bong-Joon Ho off-leash, Okja feels weirdly like reverse-engineered weirdness. The bare storyline is actually pretty dry, so a lot of showy performative flourish gets added to try to make it pop, but it rarely does. Jake Gyllenhaal, in particular, goes way over the top as a version of Tracy Morgan’s Brian Fellows on even more cocaine, but even Tilda Swinton gets sucked into it, trying to add any life into a dull corporate family sideplot and only succeeding in the pretty riveting opener. At its heart, Okja is about a girl and her superpig, which makes for a decently charming opening twenty minutes, where super-pig Okja is established as a caring and smart presence. But the main creature turns into a plot device rather than a character after she’s taken to New York by a Swinton’s Monsanto stand-in, and the charm of the film goes with it. The addition of the Animal Liberation Front helps insofar as Paul Dano is a lot of fun as a ski-mask wearing freedom fighter, but the movie seems to use them to push against GMO-based superfarming without offering anything approaching a nuanced critique . I’ve got nothing against giving Monsanto bad press, but Okja‘s critiques are shallow straw-man arguments, where Swinton is bad because her attempt at sustainable farming is a lovable, delicious mutant, I suppose? Pass the salt.

mv5bytmzmwzhowytngzjny00zwvhlwi5ytctmmrmmja1njzjmtjjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzi3mdezmzm-_v1_sx1777_cr001777999_al_

C-

Okja (2017)
Directed by Bong-Joon Ho
Starring Seo-hyeon Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhaal
Rotten Tomatoes (86%)
On Netflix

Okja’s performative histrionics don’t mask its muddled message

Dunkirk is a beautiful, terrifying mess

I’m in love with the opening shot of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. After a pitch-black title card, we smash-cut immediately to six soldiers wandering abandoned streets in a daze, being showered by flyers that read “surrender and live”. Everything about it, from the sudden brightness to the air of desolation, is disorienting, but for a moment its oddly, eerily beautiful. Then the gunshots come, and terror with them. A lot of Dunkirk is beautifully filmed horror, but that disorientation finds its way into the narrative structure and tears it apart somewhat. It serves some purpose to the mood of the film, but does away with a most of the emotional investment and poignancy along the way.

One aspect is worth praising unreservedly right out of the gate: Hans Zimmer’s score drives this movie, and in many ways the video feels like it serves the music rather than the other way around. There are perhaps two quiet moments in the entire film, but otherwise, the score is constantly pounding, sometimes reduced to ambient drones and sometimes to a simple metronome, but always propelling the film forward.

The score is particularly important as a glue, since the film takes on a highly nonlinear structure. It’s divided into three overlaid pieces told over different timespaces; a week with a soldier trying to escape the beach, a day with a civilian ship attempting to rescue survivors, and an hour with an ace pilot defending the ships. The three stories intersect at pivotal moments, but in such a way that when the ship encounters the pilot, it’s intercut with scenes of the pilot twenty minutes into the future. This is a risky structure, and by far the most “auteur” aspect of the film. Nolan may not have made an arthouse war film a la The Thin Red Line, but its certainly more formally daring than Saving Private Ryan.

However, I don’t think the risk pays off. In the final cut, too many climactic scenes get cut up and spliced between the three narratives, and not always with a clear emotional throughline between the action. One particular scene on a shot-up vessel should be harrowing, but instead of focusing on it during the action, we’re constantly diverted to the pilot checking his fuel gauge again. It’s one thing to ask the audience to logically follow the events, but quite another to ask us to maintain emotional investment when the narrative refuses to linger. In some aspects, the structure feels like its covering the weaker elements of the film. In particular, the sea story centers in parts around a kid who tags along with the vessel, with embarassingly maudlin and mawkish results. Additionally, he pilot’s storyline has much less going on than the other two, and effectively vanishes from the film for a good chunk, as if Nolan ran out of things to do. As a standalone story, or a continuously told one, the pilot’s lonely birds-eye view could have been touching, but instead it drags. Things are a bit more steady on the beach, but it suffers a bit from the fact that all of the British soldiers look exactly the same, which made it sometimes more difficult to follow than it should have been.

But Dunkirk does have its moments. Nolan stages some beautiful shots; my favourite is perhaps a sinking ship filmed in the ship’s frame of reference, with its mast still straight while walls of water come at it from the side. And even with the excessive cutting, there are some incredibly tense scenes here, notably three which make drowning feel real and deeply terrifying. When it reaches those moments, Dunkirk is as good as the best war movies ever made. For the most part, its just kind of a mess.

C

mv5bymzlmdm0n2etyjvizs00ytaxltg0m2etmtdmzja1zte5nwm3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzc0oda1mjm-_v1_

Dunkirk (2017)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Note: In the theater I saw it in, one of the speakers started acting up a bit towards the end. I cannot stress enough how much of Dunkirk relies on sound, so this definitely affected my viewing experience. If you can’t see it in a big theater, at least make sure to see it somewhere with one heck of a subwoofer.

Dunkirk is a beautiful, terrifying mess

Baby Driver is a (mostly) expertly choreographed thrill ride

Director Edgar Wright’s bread and butter, ever since and including Spaced, has been in making genre parodies that don’t only embrace the genre, but flourish in it. Shaun of the Dead, for example, has a lot of fun with zombie clichés, but it works perfectly well as a zombie movie in itself, and has a lot more visual style than most of its straight-faced kin. Baby Driver, Wright’s newest, is similarly aware of the tropes of its genre and picks fun at them, and gets away with it because it, first and foremost, is a good heist thriller. Yet, there is no mistaking Baby Driver for a parody; this is a fun thrill ride almost all the way through, and any laughs to be had at the genre’s expense are purely incidental. Playing it straight maybe makes Baby Driver a less novel outing than Wright’s previous, but the energetic flow, charismatic performances, and dazzling automotive stunts make for a hell of a fun time.

As one might have gathered from Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Wright is one hell of a kinematic director, and the audiovisual vibe he creates throughout is what really sets Baby Driver apart. Baby (the driver) has tinnitus, and always listens to an iPod to drown out the ringing. This simple little plot device gets exercised throughout the entire film, which Wright directs a lot like a music video, with everything from elevators to automatic weapon fire synchronized to guitar solos and trumpet blares. It also makes for easy (but effective and sparingly used) moments of dramatic tension whenever the music cuts out. The mood is so entrancing that when the choreography gets interrupted, we’re just as disoriented as Baby.

The cast is also more than game to play with some archetypes. In particular, the crowd of crooks have an interesting dynamic that could fill up a much longer movie. Kevin Spacey’s ringleader Doc never really comes into focus, with a few consequential moments in the third act that seem to come out of convenience to the plot rather than naturally from the character. However, the dynamic between Ansel Elgort’s Baby, John Hamm’s Buddy, Eiza Gonzalez’s Darling, and Jamie Foxx’s Bats is tense, fraught, and goes in some truly unexpected directions. Foxx almost takes over the movie in a nasty way as a hotheaded stick-up artist, but it ends up being his contrast with Hamm’s more level-headed Buddy that provides the second half with much of its thrust, and both actors relish that chance to play the heel. Outside the crime, Baby romance a waitress played by Lily James, who really only exists as an avatar for escape, a romantic ideal to make Baby wish he was in a different kind of movie. James is charming enough to make it work, but the script is clearly only interested in her insofar as she (a little inexplicably) cares about Baby, dulling the central drive of the second act.

Baby Driver isn’t Wright’s masterpiece. It’s either ten minutes too long or twenty too short, and its central character is not quite as nuanced as I might like. The ending is also a bit haphazard, with a climax that gets a bit too ugly and a bit too chaotic, as a setpiece set against Brighton Rock gets away from Wright’s otherwise steady flow. But it’s a hell of a fun time for the most part, and the kind of popcorn movie that will be endlessly rewatchable on home video. In the post-streaming era, it’s maybe the Blu-Ray release I’m looking forward to most since Fury Road. That should speak volumes louder than any little quibbles.

bdcast640

B

Baby Driver (2017)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx
Rotten Tomatoes (94%)

Baby Driver is a (mostly) expertly choreographed thrill ride

Wonder Woman succeeds through its optimism and sense of awe

I haven’t been keeping up to date with the Zack Snyder-led DC universe films, but the criticism around their grim edginess and excessive cynicism is quite well known. Wonder Woman is in many ways a movie about evil, but using that evil to examine the limits and importance of optimism rather than stage a frown-off. Sure, stories about heroes being forced to contemplate the worthiness of humanity for their heroism have been done before. But in allowing that hero to be someone who has never encountered humanity before, Wonder Woman explores a sense of naivete about human nature but stops well short of condemning hope.

But that’s perhaps burying the lede. Wonder Woman had greater expectations and (unfairly) a greater duty to succeed than most of its ilk, which is maybe why it feels less formally risky than the best of its brethren. Wonder Woman has clearly benefited from the MCU films that came before it. It’s fish-out-of-water conceit, golden homeworld, and willingness to just go with the ancient gods angle feel very reminiscent of Thor, and its mixture of superhero conventions and a wartime setting are familiar from Captain America: The First Avenger. But Wonder Woman is a stronger film than either of those entries, particularly in how it uses the wartime setting to exaggerate both the silliness and the impact of superheroic feats. Seeing Diana walk around the streets of London in period garb carrying a sword and shield is maybe the funniest sight gag of the year, but when the bright blue, red, and gold outfit shows up on a battlefield, it’s a beacon of hope to lead the way. Also, its use of World War I rather than WWII is sly. Sure, there’s an evil German general (played by an American, naturally) to contend with, but the central thesis of there being hope for the global community is certainly an easier sell without the Nazi party in the picture.

The action scenes in Wonder Woman aren’t terribly visceral or exciting, filled with excessive slo-mo and playing a little loose with the exact level of power Diana has. At one moment, she can collapse a building with a tackle, and at another, she’s evenly matched with what’s effectively a man on PCP. But the framing of the scenes is worth highlighting. The female characters in other recent superhero movies, such as Catwoman and Black Widow, tend to be filmed as very technical fighters, relying on quick moves to gain the upper hand. Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince, on the other hand, is certainly choreographed as well trained, but what’s really stark is how director Patty Jenkins frames her as an object of power. As she fights a squadron of soldiers, she isn’t frightened for herself or relying on stealth. She takes charge and simply kicks ass. While the action isn’t tense, it’s the perfect way to handle an action scene with a nigh-invincible superhero. Diana is a figure of awe, and Jenkins makes us believe that.

By the end, Wonder Woman is far from immune to some plagues of most superhero movies. The movie may neglect the invisible jet, but the Golden Lasso of Truth is still plenty silly (played alternatively for effective laughs and ineffective drama). The finale is a mess of mostly impotent explosions with a color palette that consists of grey and rainy grey. Diana’s weaknesses are never clearly outlined, making it difficult to judge when we should worry for her. In place of that worry, we get American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his cadre of military outcasts, whose human vulnerability is emphasized instead. Pine essentially takes the role of competent superhero love interest, occupying more-or-less the same space as Haley Atwell’s Agent Carter in Captain America, but anchors the film as a link to reality and as one hell of a charismatic foil for Diana. Make no mistake though: this is Gal Gadot’s movie, and through Jenkin’s lens, she’s commands the screen. They have the difficult task of believably creating a figure of simultaneous power, wisdom, and naivete, and they make it look effortless. Wonder Woman doesn’t break the mold the same way is breaks (or at least cracks) the ceiling, but in a vacuum it’s still a solid entry into the upper-middle tier of superhero flicks.

B

mv5bmjq3mta0otk4ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmjayotyzmji-_v1_sy1000_cr0014991000_al_

Wonder Woman (2017)
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, and Robin Wright
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

Wonder Woman succeeds through its optimism and sense of awe

King Arthur is great fun when it forgets about legends

Is there anyone out there who was clamouring for a new King Arthur movie? With certain standards, like Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, there’s a real sense that there is a fanbase out there, and that those characters have stories in them to tell. King Arthur though? Sure, his story is the backbone to plenty of other stories, but the Knights of the Round Table themselves have never really popped onscreen (give or take a Holy Grail). Since no one is interested in seeing a King Arthur movie (a truth I will assume correct until proven wrong), it’s no surprise that Guy Ritchie had no interest in making one either. His King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword is really a sneaky way for him to make a familiarly Guy Ritchie Cockney crime lark, with some Arthurian legend in the margins to convince the studios to give him a budget. At least, that’s what it seems like, but far too often those margins grow and swallow the energy of the rest of the film.

After a ten-or-so minute intro on the backstory of kings and mages, King Arthur reaches its absolute peak: a wordless quick-cut montage that zooms through 20-odd years of history, showing us the maturing of Arthur on the streets and in the brothels of London (then Londinium) and the rise of the evil King Vortigern. It then catches us up with Arthur as he recounts an encounter with a Viking who assaulted a prostitute to the local leader of the guards, with a four-way narration between Arthur, his two mates, and the guard leader. Colorful names abound, from Goosefat Bill to the three Mikes (Flatnose Mike is the main topic of discussion), and energy pops off the screen, reminiscent of the best moments in Ritchie’s crime trifecta of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and RockNRolla. It’s all very much like the second coming of A Knights Tale, just a bit less anachronistic and a bit less noble.

For these moments, King Arthur looks like a winner, but it loses steam when it tries to say something about the “King” part. There are moments here and there after Arthur pulls the sword from the stone that hint at some originality and some joy, but with the exception of a montage of Arthur dealing with rodents of unusual size, they all relate to the city and its crooked side. An assassination attempt midway through the movie is a blast for the most part (best one-line character in the movie: “I’m a target, aren’t I?”), but falls flat when it moves from talk to action. Mostly, this has to do with the use of Excalibur, which puts Arthur in some kind of fighting super-mode. It’s about as much fun to watch as someone play a videogame on the easiest setting. Jude Law doesn’t get much to chew on as Vortigern, although thankfully the magical elements of his character have been played up in the trailer; he’s at his best growling from the throne, collar open like some kind of medieval Elvis impersonator. It’s obvious from this movie that Guy Ritchie could make a really fun period piece if he focused on his strengths. Epic storytelling just isn’t one of them.

C+

charlie-hunnam-king-arthur-legend-of-the-sword-movie-wallpaper-03-1280x784

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, and Jude Law
Rotten Tomatoes (26%)

King Arthur is great fun when it forgets about legends

Before I Fall is a melodramatic mess that I paid money to see for some reason

In the Paderborn cineplex, they often show movies as “Sneak Previews,” where the movie itself is a surprise. They start off with a variably animated emcee giving away popcorn to patrons willing to be a little silly; this led to a group of people enacting Dragonball Z poses while shouting in German serving as the opening act for Moonlight a while back. The key advantage, to myself, of these Sneak Previews is that, while the movie is unknown, there’s a big “OV” next to the listing if it’s going to be in English, and those two magical letters are attached more often to the mystery movies than the future showings. It’s a neat thought, but in reality, the choice of movie is dictated more by whatever non-blockbuster is coming out soon in Germany rather than the carefully considered selection of a cinephile. Sometimes, this leads to seeing Moonlight for a second time as a complete surprise; sometimes, this leads to seeing Before I Fall. I am assuredly not the audience for Before I Fall, as was clear pretty early on. But having that knowledge didn’t make sitting through Before I Fall any easier.

Before I Fall is essentially Mean Girls meets Groundhog Day, but played completely straight. Sam is part of a quartet of popular girls, while dating a hunky bro to whom she plans to lose her virginity on Valentine’s Day. She’s kinda mean to her mom, she doesn’t pay attention to her sister, she scoffs at the pining of Nice Guy Kent, and makes fun of loner Juliet. After a party night gets a bit too intense, Sam finds herself waking up to Valentine’s Day over and over again. Admittedly, not knowing what I was getting myself into, the time-loop came out of absolutely nowhere to me, since the previous thirty-odd minutes just seemed like an uninteresting slice in the life of a bunch of pretty insufferable high-school students. Getting to relive that over and over again doesn’t really add any depth to the situation; everything about everyone is pretty clear from the get-go to everyone except Sam. Instead, the audience gets to travel with Sam and share her deepest wish: that this will all just be done with already.

Nice things first: Sam herself is not an awful character, and Zoey Deutch gives an emotive performance, suggesting layers that the script doesn’t really earn. And there’s one scene in the second act where Sam has a laidback heart-to-heart with a gay classmate she made fun of that works weirdly well thanks to its chill, matter-of-fact honesty and willingness to laugh for once in the whole damn movie. The rest of this is mostly a melodramatic mess. While a high-school twist of the time-loop plot isn’t a horrendous idea, this whole thing only works when the people involved are having a little bit of fun with the silliness. Instead, the movie revels in melodrama and sentimentality, with some grade-school philosophy to complete the dish (Sisyphus and the Butterfly Effect both get name dropped, because of course they do). It also throws on a suicide plotline that is key to the final act, but is never less than extremely tacky and leads to a bafflingly shallow conclusion. Before I Fall may not be for me, but it’s target audience should be asking for a lot more than this.

D-

mv5boge5ywm1ogetzjjhns00njjlltgxywetmgqxndjiyzdiotu0xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynju4mjyzmjk-_v1_

Before I Fall (2017)
Directed by Ry Russo-Young
Starring Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, and Jennifer Beals
Rotten Tomatoes (66%)

Before I Fall is a melodramatic mess that I paid money to see for some reason

The Guardians of the Galaxy transcends the superhero genre yet again

Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed in 2014. It was something that introduced the more sci-fi elements, yes, but also something that broke the superhero fatigue, at least temporarily. Sure, there have been Marvel moments that feel unique: Thor 2‘s climactic subway chase taking on a Bug Bunny-esque madcap style, The Winter Soldier‘s surveillance paranoia. But Guardians of the Galaxy felt more like Star Wars than Iron Man 4, taking a ragtag crew and letting them hop around a universe that had no restraint in reality, or even preconceived mythology given their relative obscurity to figures like Thor. And everything clicked for it, from its well-tuned cast that benefited from just-pre-superstardom surprise turns from Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista, its colorfully constructed universe, its memorable quasi-irreverent soundtrack, and the instantly iconic Groot.

When the marketing cycle for Vol. 2 started, there was immediately reason for concern. Not because these elements were missing, but because the trailers seemed to lean into these elements incredibly hard. Liked Drax being obtuse? We’ll focus the first clip released of precisely that. That Baby Groot dance everyone loved at the end of the first? You bet he’s going to be everywhere in trailers being all adorable and stuff. Looking for ’80s hits? We’ll release the soundtrack in a bag of Dorito’s to make sure you hear them. Looking for references to Night Rider? Fuck it, we’ll have David Hasselhoff on the soundtrack. For something that was a breath of fresh air three years ago, everything looked pretty stale.

It’s no surprise that Vol. 2 delivers on these items, for good and for bad. What does come as a surprise is that, rather than build on the previous film to make a tighter experience, Vol. 2 is a much looser film, both stylistically and plot-wise, than maybe any other movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It very much feels like the Marvel execs put their complete faith in director James Gunn, as the DNA of his previous films Super and especially Slither is all over Vol. 2Vol. 2 is nearly a best-case scenario in giving a genre auteur a whole bunch of money and telling him to have fun, and as a result Vol. 2 wears influences from Star Wars (obviously) to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (hilariously inventing and immediately exploiting the rules of its universe) to The Thing (magnificently nearing body horror more than once). Taika Watiti’s Thor Ragnarok has a chance of pulling a similar trick soon, and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers clearly had his fingerprints all over it, but Vol. 2 is the rare MCU film that feels more like a creator’s vision than a brand obligation, even more so than its predecessor. In a way, it feels more like Darkman than Iron Man, which at this point is a very good thing.

As for the old characters, there it is a bit more mixed. Drax is probably the biggest victim of sequel fatigue, as the surprise of discovering that character’s quirks was a big part of the pleasure in the first. There are no new dimensions to Drax here, so the gags involving him simply aren’t as surprising. Baby Groot, on the other hand, is an absolute treasure. Sure, he’s adorable, and the kids in the audience loved him, but he’s often used as a vehicle for considerably darker humour than expected. As for the others, Gamora is generally a bit wasted, and Quill is a bit less of a wise-ass thanks to his position in the plot, but Michael Rooker’s Yondu is brought back to great effect, and Rocket Raccoon is still a lot of fun. On the new front, Kurt Russell’s Ego is a slithery presence, oozing that old-school cool in fitting with the 80s stylings. Considering the general failure of MCU villains to make any impression, Russell is top-tier. Even the secondary villains, a race of genetically engineered bourgeoisie, are a ton of fun and would have been interesting enough to carry their own movie if called upon to.

Plotwise, Vol. 2 is focused on family, especially the bond between fathers/father-figures and sons, but extending to sibling relationships and, of course, teams. While there’s plenty of boilerplate talk about the Guardians being one big family, the film overall nicely focuses on relationships between two people, putting together as many combos as possible and examining their familial stance. Sure, Quill/Gamora comes back up, and Quill/Ego is all over the trailers, but the film finds some depth in the bipartite relationships between Quill, Yondu, and Rocket Raccoon, even giving Yondu a father figure of his own, and further explores the Gamora/Nebula sisterhood to surprising effect. Yes, it does boil down to a dastardly plot eventually, but it avoids magicla MacGuffins like infinity stones or whatever and ties its developments into actual, believable character interactions.

But more than anything else, Vol. 2 is stock full of a few deliriously fun setpieces. The final battle goes on for about ten minutes longer than it should have, but the opening scene beautifully sets up a major battle only to have it occur out of focus in the background, while a fight involving Yondu, Rocket, and a horde of space pirates can only be described as a beautiful composed spree of violence. Throughout these sequences, Vol. 2 is willing to be completely cartoony, which weirdly makes it a standout among superhero movies. It takes risks, and is sure to dismissed as dumb by some, but it entertains in ways that are novel for a film of this budget and scale. It successfully transplants low-budget cult-horror visuals and ideas to the biggest budget scale there is, and is by a huge margin the best future midnight-movie in the MCU. Bring on Volume 3.

A-

mv5bmji5njg2ndmxof5bml5banbnxkftztgwoduxndczmti-_v1_sx1777_cr001777936_al_

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and Michael Rooker
Rotten Tomatoes (87%)

  • Line of the film that literally no one else laughed at: “We got a whole box of hands back there.”
The Guardians of the Galaxy transcends the superhero genre yet again