“Okja” is a scathing commentary of the food industry and an outrageous, cartoonish thrill ride full of hyper kinetic action and colorful social satire.

Okja PosterSatire, not drama, has been the primary way to provoke change and discussion in the 21st Century. So if you want to get a huge population to think twice about where their food comes from and maybe even think about going vegan, don’t show them a depressing torture reel; show them a farce. To paraphrase of Tilda Swinton in the opening scenes of “Okja,” Bong Joon Ho’s film isn’t just monstrous, disturbing, eye opening and surreal. “Most importantly, it needs to taste fucking good!”

“Okja” scathingly critiques the food industry and the perils of a corporate culture that exploits food consumption. But it does so in the guise of an outrageous, cartoonish thrill ride full of hyper kinetic action and colorful social satire. The premise is absurdly fascinating, the characters are extreme caricatures, and the film moves at a blistering pace. Continue reading “Okja”

Swiss Army Man

swiss-army-man-posterIf you’re feeling down, if everything seems to be at its lowest, don’t worry. Life isn’t so bad. After all, we have farts! Farts are magical. They spray from our butts, they smell and make a funny sound. How wonderful is that? Why don’t we recognize this every day of our lives and use farts to discover all the other amazing things human beings are capable of. Shout to the heavens! We have farts!

If that sounds horribly juvenile and pedestrian masquerading as something profound, it is, and so is “Swiss Army Man,” an initially creative, quirky and screwball indie with a frenetic, liberating spirit that ultimately comes across as infantile and confused. First time feature directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (billed as The Daniels) want you to celebrate farts, and cheese puffs, and boobs, and magical boners. And there’s nothing wrong with these things (technically). But when they’re used in service of a message that’s basically a rom-com, a manic pixie dream girl fantasy that treats asking out a girl like a miracle, then you have a problem.

Good or bad, “Swiss Army Man” will live in Sundance infamy as the deeply polarizing Daniel Radcliffe-farting corpse movie. In it, Paul Dano plays a man named Hank stranded on a desert island (an island that even looks something like two butt cheeks protruding from the ocean) who finds Radcliffe’s corpse, or Manny, as he comes to call him, just as he’s about to hang himself and commit suicide. Instead he’s spared, and all before the film’s title card, Hank mounts Manny and rides his farting body across the ocean like a jet ski. All the while, a chorus of percussive voices sounding like part of the most twee Arcade Fire cover band ever make the moment an inspiring anthem. Continue reading “Swiss Army Man”


YouthPosterNo filmmaker is more of a modern day Fellini than Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino. His films are opulent wonders, but while his extravagant visual style has for some become a sensory overload, it was Sorrentino reckoning with that same opulence in his last film, the Oscar winning foreign language film “The Great Beauty”, that made that film’s fantasy a welcome escape.

With “Youth”, the colorful set dressing places us in a dream state. Like his previous English language film “This Must Be The Place”, “Youth” is a movie about aging artists in their twilight years, and it grapples with ideas of memory and love across lucid dreams and nightmares, as well as the more practical reality of old age. It’s enchantingly lush, abstract and fascinatingly stylized, but the self-indulgent cinematic flourishes aren’t as central to the narrative as Sorrentino made possible with “The Great Beauty.”

The film is set in a luxuriously fantastical hotel and spa in the Swiss Alps, where the legendary English composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and American film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) holiday over the summer. Fred is approached by an emissary to the Queen, who would like for him to come out of retirement and conduct a performance of his “Simple Songs,” arrangements that made him famous but that he considers trifling. But his reasons for his retirement and his apathy are personal, and Caine plays Fred as guarded, a little jaded, but still in good spirits as he waits out his life. Mick has recruited some young, hipster screenwriters to pen his last film and swan song, which he calls “Life’s Last Day.” But Fred and Mick together rarely talk work or feelings, instead one-upping the other on how few drops they got out going to the bathroom that morning, or reminiscing about an old flame they both had a crush on.

Fred and Mick’s conversations about pissing are amusing, but not without merit. These daily tasks, along with the entirety of their life’s work, take tremendous effort, yet produce an often modest result, Fred says. At his age, Fred can still conduct with grace, leading an orchestra of cows in nature in a beautiful aria, but what is the point of creating memories if we know we’ll lose them?

Fred is burdened by the loss of his wife Melanie, and his daughter and assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz) tries to encourage him to leave this hotel and at least leave flowers for the first time in 10 years. But no one is leaving this place. And how could you, when everything is so gorgeous?

Young and old, supporting characters color the decorum of this hotel, and “Youth” becomes less a movie driven by its plot and more by its contemplative assessments of character. There’s Jimmy Tree, a brooding artist of Christian Bale’s caliber with Johnny Depp’s oddities and facial hair, and yet played by Paul Dano. Like Fred, Jimmy played a robot in a mindless entertainment and has his other artistic achievements virtually erased among the people who recognize him. Another is a Spanish football star with a giant tattoo on his back that has made him into something of a messiah figure. He now has a giant gut, but can do wonders with a tennis ball. One sophisticated couple never speaks a word at dinner, each of them seething at what this marriage has become. And even Miss Universe makes an appearance, becoming a literal bathing beauty to further pull us into this dream world.

Sadly these characters are just coloring, with Sorrentino perhaps showing too unhealthy of a fixation on the female, and sometimes male, body, and it takes Jane Fonda channeling an ultimate diva to yank us back to reality. “Youth” is at its best when Caine, Keitel, Weisz and Dano are all being bluntly honest with one another. The four, along with Fonda in her scene stealing moment, are all as good as they’ve been in years. They act their age; they have chemistry and a personable quality that grounds them in this free-floating film.

It can’t be said enough how gorgeous and elegant “Youth” looks. “The Great Beauty” had a shot that literally tipped the camera on its head, and “Youth” begins in a similar fashion. Sorrentino’s opening shot places us on a revolving stage, always disorienting his audience and placing us in a reverie without knowing why. And another seems almost impossible, with the camera rising out of a pool and then seamlessly floating overhead to the soccer star sunbathing.

But unlike “The Great Beauty”, the majesty of “Youth” is in the simpler story at its center, and the dreamy mise-en-scene is at best lovely but at worst distracting. Jane Fonda’s diva actress sums it up best: “Life goes on, even without all that cinema bullshit.”

3 stars

Love & Mercy

John Cusack and Paul Dano both play Brian Wilson in this biopic on the life of the Beach Boys singer.

LoveandMercyPosterAs a biopic, “Love & Mercy,” the story on the life of Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson, is a bit unusual. It passes over their surf pop rise to stardom in the early ‘60s in just the credits sequence. It jumps forward and backward in time to when Brian was both a young and middle-aged man on a whim. At times Bill Pohlad’s film is as deeply spiritual and scatterbrained as its subject.

But upon recording “Pet Sounds,” Brian Wilson’s unusual, yet signature, masterpiece album with The Beach Boys, he explained to one of the musicians who thought the music didn’t work, “It works in my head.”

“Love & Mercy” follows Brian as a young man played by Paul Dano during the sessions for “Pet Sounds” and the unreleased “Smile” in 1966, then again in the ‘80s, now played by John Cusack. As an older man, Wilson met Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) while under the supervision of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Awkward, soft-spoken and timid, Cusack walks a fine line between making Wilson creepy, damaged, flat out weird or all three. Regardless, he asks Melinda out on a date after revealing his identity and in a scary scene at a barbecue makes clear to her just how terrified he is of his caretaker.

Dr. Landy explains to Melinda that Brian is a paranoid schizophrenic, and asks that if they are to become romantically involved they need to establish ground rules such that he can retain control over how Brian is cared for and behaves. What’s daring for a biopic, but not uncommon, is that in these moments we see everything from Melinda’s perspective. Her detached position challenges our notion that Brian is really the genius we know him to be, separating us from the musical history and conflict portrayed in the earlier point in his life.

And yet Dano perhaps shines the most, performing incredibly lifelike recreations of Brian’s meticulous creative process. The faded, docu-realistic camera work inside the studio shows us the gradual methodology of his genius at work. They’re fun, lighthearted scenes as dogs bark on the sound stage and Brian picks at the inside of a piano with bobby pins, but we never get the full picture or adoration for Brian’s music. Pohlad always calls attention to the failures and the mental turmoil that masked just how significant his work was. Pohlad gets a big gasp out of news that Brian’s father sold the band’s song rights for profit, or when Brian loses his mind to the noise of silverware clinking on plates. Dano sells Brian’s madness from just the neck up in a terrific scene where he’s flailing from the deep end of a pool while the band tries to hold a serious meeting.

The melodrama however comes to an unfortunate head when “Love & Mercy’s” climax aims to take us on a busy mind trip to justify Brian’s sickness. And though the ending title card confesses Brian was never as damaged as he seemed, the movie at times makes Brian out to be a mad genius who also created one of the best albums of all time in the process.

One of Wilson’s band mates however has a good description for some of the singles on “Pet Sounds”. “Even the happy songs are sad.” “Love & Mercy” is a hopeful film, dearly respectful of his subject and ultimately a crowd-pleaser, but it has a lot of hurt and honesty behind its words and melodies.

3 ½ stars


“Prisoners” floors you by depicting the unclear nature of evil.

There’s a woman in Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” who lost her son 26 years prior to this film’s events. She shows Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) the one tape she watches of her missing son each morning and dejectedly declares, “No one took him. Nothing happened. He’s just gone.”

Detective thrillers and crime procedurals have conditioned us into always expecting an answer and motivation behind the terrible things that happen in the world. We’re left unsatisfied when we don’t get the answer we were looking for, if the puzzle pieces don’t paint a complete portrait or if the ending isn’t nice and tidy.

Rarely in life is this ever the case, and like David Fincher’s cryptic “Zodiac,” “Prisoners” attains intense thrills and gravitas through scattered clues that seem to be everywhere and answers that are nowhere. It’s a studio film that minimizes on the action set pieces, the family melodrama and the pretentious psychology to show that evil is not only omnipresent, but it’s the real mystery.

The two young daughters of the Dover family and the Birch family go missing much like that first boy 26 years earlier; they just disappear. On Thanksgiving Day the two girls go across the street, we get a close-up of a barren tree outside their suburban home, and they’re gone.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) suspects the timid loner Alex Jones (Paul Dano) swiped his daughter. With flat, stringy hair, thick glasses belonging to another decade and a junker RV, he certainly fits the description, but when Detective Loki is brought in to interrogate, Alex is clean and seems incapable of anything so sinister. When Alex is let go without charge, Keller intervenes and abducts Alex himself, demanding the answer he knows must be there.   Continue reading “Prisoners”

Ruby Sparks

Great fiction is almost always as good as its most interesting character. Zoe Kazan has written for herself a wonderfully infectious sprite in this film’s title character, Ruby Sparks. Her bright red hair beams off the screen, she’s charming as hell and we don’t seem to mind that’s she blatantly a mystical, hipster dream girl.

But the big problem with “Ruby Sparks” is that the film is really about Ruby’s fictional creator, Calvin (Paul Dano), and not her.

Calvin is the modern equivalent of J.D. Salinger, a visionary who wrote the next great American novel at 19, now plagued with writer’s block trying to envision the next big idea. Calvin’s surrounded by pretentious, faux-intellectuals and his shallow, sex-craved brother Harry (Chris Messina), so you can see why Calvin would feel like a hack if these were the people who admired him.

In a desperate fervor to understand himself, Calvin puts into words the girl of his dreams. In his imagination, she’s constantly backlit with God-like sunlight, and his vision of her is an amalgam of romantic quirks. She’s from Dayton, Ohio, doesn’t know how to drive, is an amateur painter, and so on. Ruby is perfect in all her imperfections. Continue reading “Ruby Sparks”

Meek’s Cutoff

I’d be lying if I said this movie was a Western.

“Meek’s Cutoff” is an indie drama that explores the pain of boredom. It is set on the Oregon Trail in the 1860s typically associated with Westerns, but it’s not that.

And while it can still be gripping, pointed and poignant character drama, there’s a frustrating feeling about illustrating the pain of boredom that feels more like the pain of pain or the boredom of boredom.

The three couples wandering the Oregon Trail is director Kelly Reichardt’s way of showing how any group of people going for weeks without water, without anything to do and without a sense of certainty as to anything can begin to weigh heavily on everyone. It’s not so much about the characters or the setting but about the burden it evokes.

In that way, you will feel a weight on your shoulders watching “Meek’s Cutoff.” The film is deliberately slow, with the opening shots themselves beginning the trend of a film that is quiet, slow, drawn out, distant and quaint. When we hear dialogue, it is often not of consequence but more atmosphere filling the void. Continue reading “Meek’s Cutoff”

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece didn’t win the Oscar but is one of the best films of the last decade.

We get the idea that Daniel Plainview has been working his entire life to get to the thrilling conclusion of “There Will Be Blood.” And we also get the idea that Daniel Day-Lewis has been searching his entire career for a role such as this. And all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have prepared him for this masterpiece.

Nothing prepared me for this amazing, harrowing, difficult film about greed and the people consumed by it. The opening shot is of a mountain range in the desert, and the chilling orchestral crescendo to accompany it makes the moment reminiscent of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In a mine shaft behind these mountains is Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), working all by himself looking for precious stones. It’s 1898, but to get as deep as he is, he must have been working a long time. After an explosion inside the shaft, Daniel falls and breaks his leg, but he manages to pull himself out of the shaft and drag himself miles over the mountains. The first place he goes is to sell his diamonds.

By 1902, he’s beginning his own company, mining deeper in the same spot. In it he finds oil, and the Daniel Plainview we will follow throughout the rest of the film finally comes to light. A coworker with a baby boy is killed as they mine, and Daniel takes the boy, raises him as his own and uses him on his sales pitches. Continue reading “There Will Be Blood”