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.

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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

Too Late is defined too strongly by its (sometimes skillful) gimmicks

Too Late is halfway decent noir story anchored by a more than decent lead, but it lets itself get swallowed by its gimmicks. The movie is presented as a series of five twenty-odd minute one-take shots, with mixed results. The opening segment has some neat tricks behind it, including getting star John Hawkes from one end of town to another while maintaining action at a fixed point, and the reveals in the last are effective. But not all of the actors are up to the task, and the reliance on the one-take structure don’t do them any favours; many of the scenes in the second section, in particular, have a student-play vibe to them, despite the presence of known names like Robert Forster and Jeff Fahey (Dichen Lachman, however, acquits herself well as a twist on the no-nonsense stripper trope). The nonlinear structure also feels like an afterthought to add some unnecessary extra novelty. The sidebars the movie somehow finds time for don’t always work, such as a pair of minor drug dealers with no real purpose other than to pad out the takes and the film’s annoying insistence on using film itself as a source of dialogue far too often. If it lost its gimmicks and shed a bit of fat, Too Late has the bones of a good gumshoe flick, albeit one a bit too reliant on stuffing women in refrigerators.

C

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Too Late (2016)
Dir. Dennis Hauck
Starring John Hawkes, Crystal Reed, Dichen Lachman, and Natalie Zea
Rotten Tomatoes (70%)

Too Late is defined too strongly by its (sometimes skillful) gimmicks

Netflix’s Love is a complicated portrayal of one unlikable character, and an insipid portrayal of another

Netflix’s model of releasing all episodes at once is a major problem for many shows, which pad their lengths to seasons-long arcs with a movie’s worth of ideas yet lacking any episodic satisfaction. That same problem though can be a huge boon to hang-out shows, allowing us to get deeply invested in the characters without needing to worry about time constraints for narrative thrust and plenty of natural pauses. It worked well for Master of None, which I didn’t adore but liked a fair amount. It also works very well for half of Love, Judd Apatow, Leslie Arfin, and Paul Rust’s show that bears a significant resemblance to Apatow productions like Knocked Up. It allows the humor to flow while also letting the tragedy set in without an oversaturation of melodrama. Unfortunately, it crashes and burns for the other half, where one of the characters is just not that much fun to hang out with. It becomes an odd amalgamation of the hate-watch and the legitimate, which got me through the entire season but not without constant complaining.

Love concerns the star-crossed trajectories of (on paper) free-spirit Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and nerdy Gus (Paul Rust). Those on-paper descriptions falter pretty quickly, where Mickey’s free-spiritedness and Gus’ nebbishness are shown to be a front for deep-seated interpersonal issues and all-encompassing selfishness. Mickey’s character treats other people terribly, has no direction in life, and is a generally miserable presence; she’s also a complete character who is actively trying to understand and better herself, which makes her fascinating and sympathetic. Gus, on the other hand, is the least self-aware character in existence, another subversion of the Nice Guy trope who denies culpability in his wrongdoings and escapes relatively unscathed and uneducated. He’s an uninteresting and static character who we learn almost nothing about really over the course of the series, aside from it being continually confirmed that he’s a selfish prick with occasional moments of awkward charm who abuses any small amount of power handed to him. Gus is an interesting character, but not a particularly novel one, and definitely not a particularly sympathetic one.

His half of the show is the hate-watch, whereas Mickey’s is the legitimately fantastic show. She’s a subversion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which has been done before (500 Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine, Master of None to an extent) but rarely from the female perspective. When she abuses her roommate, trashes a party, or lies at an AA meeting, its certainly not portrayed favourably, but the humanity behind it is not lost. We consistently want better from and for Mickey because she wants better from and for herself. Jacobs is stellar in the role, and a bit of a revelation as a dramatic actress. Perhaps her greatest trick is convincing us that she would be interested in Gus, not because he actually is any better but because we know she has white-knighted the Nice Guy on the surface. There’s a weird reversal of the norms at work where Mickey is the one putting Gus on a pedestal, with the dark side of the Nice Guy trope playing as a complete surprise to her. It’s a testament to Jacobs and the Mickey character that this oversight plays as completely natural, and it almost makes the whole thing work.

But then Gus has to ruin the whole thing again. We’re sold on Mickey being into Gus, despite it falling into the Ugly Guy/Hot Girl trope, but Gus is also getting into threesomes with co-eds and spurring the attention of actresses, which stretches credulity. This trope runs a bit deeper even. Mickey’s roommate, Bertie (Claudia O’Doherty), is the best person who ever lived, and is sold as someone people like. But even Bertie, who really is The Best, winds up with a awkward, smiley man-child at the end of the season. Bertie gonna be Bertie I suppose, but it betrays the dark streak hinted in her character in episodes like “Party In The Hills”. The supporting cast as a whole help sell the show, particularly the always reliable Brett Gelman as Mickey’s boss, Iris Apatow as child actress Arya, Chris Witaske as Gus’ toaster-stupified friend, and Jordan Rock as self-aware minority best friend Kevin, but for a ten-episode season the bench doesn’t run especially deep.

I hated a lot of Love, but its hang-out vibe did work and Mickey and Bertie are fantastic (cut out Gus next season and I’m back in). It didn’t hurt to finish the season, but its counterpart Master of None is so clearly superior that its hard to recommend despite its positive qualities. This could be the kind of show that improves in its already-confirmed second season, so I’ll check it out again then depending on the reviews. As it stands, its a fun show to argue about but a bit of nuisance to actually watch.

C+

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Best Episodes: It Begins, The Date, The Table Read

Love: Season One (2016)
Created by Judd Apatow, Leslie Arfin, and Paul Rust
Starring Gillian Jacobs, Paul Rust, and Claudia O’Doherty
On Netflix

Netflix’s Love is a complicated portrayal of one unlikable character, and an insipid portrayal of another

Beasts of No Nation is a beautiful, impersonal horror story

Netflix scored two huge wins in Beasts of No Nation: Cary Joji Fukunaga and Idris Elba. Fukunaga brings the striking images that made the first season of True Detective to the film, and Idris Elba infuses an utterly unsympathetic character with a very real humanity. Fukunaga approaches the subject matter not with the care one might expect, rather taking an Apocalypse Now route and going for gonzo shots and rapidly changing color palettes. Its fantastic to look at, but any emotional effectiveness it has is the bare minimum that comes with the subject matter.

The film has essentially two characters given a chance at having a personality: Elba’s commandant and Abraham Attah’s child rebel soldier Agu. The film does excellent work at setting the political stage without ever approaching specificity; as it is filtered through the eyes of a child, the big-picture politics are rendered moot (as they may well be in reality anyhow). The chaos that allows a monster like the commandant to thrive is well motivated though, painting a world where anything approaching militaristic is by default evil. It’s sickeningly believable that young men and boys would be sold on the idea of rebellion, and Elba’s charisma and screen presence give it the perfect salesman. But its when commandant’s veneer of control is peeled away to reveal a pathetic creature that the movie becomes truly intriguing.

However, no other characters fulfill the same potential. Agu is stoic, which is fine, but his friend and confidant is a character named Strika whose sole character trait is that he’s even more stoic. This leaves much of the development to heavy-handed voiceovers, which approach some form of profundity occasionally but repeat themselves too often. Its a shame, because visually the battalion is a wonder, a version of the Lost Boys whose moral compass has been ripped away. Their clothing gives hints at their more comfortable past, is colourful in ways that suggest a child lives somewhere inside, and only makes it more terrifying when they do the awful things they do.

There’s a lot to really like about Beasts of No Nation, but there likely could have been a lot more. Ironically, the selling point of the fantastic cinematography would have been much better served by a cinema treatment rather than from your couch on Netflix. On a smaller screen, Beasts is too easy to distance yourself from.

B

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Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring Abraham Attah and Idris Elba
Rotten Tomatoes (91%)

Beasts of No Nation is a beautiful, impersonal horror story