Monday, July 3, 2017

OKJA


Set sometime in the near future where the food resources of humans are starting to dwindle, the Mirando Corporation sees a chance to make a hell a lot of money by selling processed meat from a genetically engineered super-pig. Seeing as how the majority of the population is strongly against artificially engineered food, Lucy Mirando, the CEO of the multi-national company, comes up with a ten year plan to essentially lie to the public and trick them into thinking that these super-pigs have been looked after and made in an organic fashion. She decides to send out the twenty six cutest piglets, one to each country where Mirando has a business presence, and given to farmers where they are to raise them for the next ten years. When matured to the right age, a contest for the cutest super-pig will be held, where Lucy Mirando hopes the public will fall in love with its looks without really looking into how they were made. Ten years passes via a fade to black, where we are then transported to the mountains of South Korea where Mija, a young teenage girl, is playing with her family pet, Okja, the aforementioned super-pig. Almost immediately, officials from the Mirando corporation appear in an attempt to bring the animal back to the USA, but Mija will do anything to get her best friend back, even if it means going to the US herself.

Okja” is my most anticipated film of 2017 and it is because of one man, the director Bong Joon-Ho. Bong is a genius director and has yet to make a bad film and when this film was officially announced it was described as a “monster” movie. The director quickly explained that while yes, there was a monster in the film, people should not be expecting another film like “The Host”, his brilliant monster horror film from 2006. Even after this statement, my expectations went into overdrive but I'm now actually wondering if I originally misunderstood the quote or if it was a case of poor translation because Okja is not a monster per se, but more a “creature”, and horror is the farthest thing from this film. Bong Joon-Ho has attempted to tell a Spielbergian tale about a girl and her pet but layering it within a story criticising the mass marketing of processed meats and food, as well as the way big businesses will exploit anything, particularly its customers in order to make a buck. So is the film successful in its attempts; lets look and see.

I am going to be upfront about this and state that at the end of the day, I was quite disappointed in “Okja”. There were some great elements to the film but there were, equally, a lot of awkward parts too and as a whole I just did not think that it gelled or worked properly. My favourite part of the film was the two characters of Mija and Okja. Even though one is man and the other is beast, you can feel the love between the two of them and it is so obvious how much they enjoy the time they spend with each other. It just feels so real, and that is where the heart of this film comes from. This is quite an achievement too, with Okja the super-pig being a CGI character. My feelings about CGI are well known now, but credit where credit is due because Okja has been done extraordinarily well. He always feels like a real animal, existing within and organic to the environment shown and the animators have done an amazing job of giving this animal such character. You can tell that he is a fun, cheeky and loving animal, that is also as lazy as it gets, but always loves his owner Mija. Whenever the film is focusing on these two characters, it is at its strongest, but alas there are a lot of characters in this film.

Mija and Okja end up coming into contact with a group of anarchists (terrorists?) who are intent on disrupting the Mirando corporation in any way possible, mainly because of their treatment and misuse of the animals they are breeding for product. This is an aspect of the film that I do not mind, and brings with it some of the heavier ideas of the film, but I am just not sure if these characters are given the necessary screen time to get the most out of these ideas and questions. Paul Dano plays the leader of this group and I thought he was really good, giving the character a real genuine sense of care for Mija and particularly Okja. He gives the man a sensitivity where you sense that he would rather do anything else but resort to violence, but seems content in the fact that it is the only way to get the corporations to listen. As I said, he is great, but the rest of his group barely get any screen time at all and are incredibly wasted, including Lily Collins who plays Red.

My biggest issue with “Okja” though is that I find that some of the characterisations are at odds with the tone of the film itself which causes a jarring affect at best, and at worse, derails the film entirely. The biggest offender here is Jake Gyllenhaal who gives a howler of a performance; it is terrible beyond belief and is one for the ages. He plays Johnny Wilcox, a celebrity known for his love of animals, and the Mirando corporation has hired him as the face of this enterprise. If a man known for his love of animals stamps his approval behind the super-pigs, surely so will the rest of the population. Except behind the cameras Johnny hates himself for selling out for the money because he knows what these animals are going through. Gyllenhaal plays the role in the most bizarre fashion in an attempt for laughs and falls flat on his face doing it. He is embarrassing every time he is on screen, but I am sure he hasn't been helped by his director here because even his costumes are ridiculous and turn you off his character from the get-go. The other person I have issues with is Tilda Swinton who plays the dual role of twins, Lucy and Nancy Mirando. The sisters couldn't be more different with Lucy being obsessed with image and perception, whilst Nancy believes anything is fair in business, anything to make a dollar and who cares what it looks like. Now I do not have an issue with Swinton's performance per se, it is just that she feels like she has come out of a completely different film. There is a flight of fancy in her portrayals that make it seem like she doesn't exist in the real world, almost like she is a caricature rather than a real character. This wouldn't have been a problem if all the characters of the film were essentially archetypes but they are not, both Mija and Okja and the gang all have an air of reality to them, whereas the Mirando's and Johnny Wilcox do not. Maybe Bong is trying to make the point that these type of people exist in their own world, and thus expose them as being ridiculous, and if that is the case, that's fine but I'm not sure he makes the point successfully. Also I just want to state that I think Tilda Swinton needs to be careful that she doesn't head down the same path as Johnny Depp, in relying on the weird looks and silly characters, as it seems to be something she has continued to do of late.

While I had quite a few issues with the film, not least of all that it all felt rather small and sleight, let me state that from a technical point of view, it is quite the success. It has been beautifully put together as you would expect from a film directed by Bong Joon-Ho. He was able to recruit master cinematographer Darius Khondji for the film and the whole thing looks gorgeous from start to finish. When I normally think of Khondji's work, I think about how great he is at using the dark and locations where there is a lack of light, but here he fills the world of “Okja” with a brightness and colour, particularly the early scenes set in the mountains. He makes the world look lush and inviting and gives it a sense of depth that makes you understand how such a giant animal could feel at home and safe in this place. Production design elements become more important in the scenes set in the US, and are well handled by Lee Ha-Jun and Kevin Thompson. The slaughterhouse set in particular gives are great feeling of doom and despair and recalls horrific images often sighted in regards to the Holocaust. I should also make mention that as usual, Bong Joon-Ho himself does an excellent job in his direction (at least with the technical elements, as I am still not sure about his decisions with some of the performances) and once again, he proves that his is very adept at making action scenes that are both thrilling and emotional, not to mention at times, very funny. The one behind the scene element that I really did not enjoy though was the films score. I do not know much about music to talk about it in any depth, but I just felt that the whole thing worked against the images as opposed to complimenting them. It was far too playful and silly when the tone of the film was not.

Overall, when a film is your most anticipated of any year, there is always the chance that it can become a disappointment due to the expectations that you put on it. Sadly this seems to be the case here with Bong Joon-Ho's latest film “Okja”. Unfortunately I felt that too many elements of the film worked against what the film was about, which created a jarring feeling to the whole thing. It also felt rather small and sleight and maybe this had to do with the fact that “Okja” was a film made for and premiering on “Netflix” instead of on the big screen. While I will not say that “Okja” is a bad film, because too many elements of it are so good, but I will say that it is a disappointing film and for me, as a whole, just didn't work well enough. Sadly it is also my least favourite film from director Bong Joon-Ho yet, but I still look forward to what ever he does next.


3 Stars.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL


Adele is a lonely teenage girl looking for a chance to escape; to break free from the norm and enjoy her life. That chance is awarded to her when she is forced by her mum to look after her ageing Aunt, who also happens to suffer from severe agoraphobia. While initially this seems anything like an opportunity to change her life, that all changes when Adele takes a trip to the supermarket and notices Beth. She is the kind of girl that makes people sit up and take notice, she has that “thing” and Adele is drawn to it. Later on in the week, at a diner, Adele actually gets to meet Beth and the two start to strike up a friendship. Having someone new in her life and finally getting some attention, Adele finds herself cutting corners on caring for her aunt, in an attempt to spend time with her friend. At first they are minor things, but they steadily increase to the point where it may have deadly consequences for them all.

I have mentioned before that being a fan of horror films, it comes with the caveat that you inevitably have to see a lot of crap before finding that gem that comes out of nowhere; that diamond in the rough and “Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl” is certainly one of those hidden gems. Whilst the above synopsis probably sounds nothing like a horror film, it is actually a fantastic Gothic horror that has been shot and designed to fit perfectly alongside the Gothic chillers of the 1970's. Funnily enough, over the past few months I had seen the poster for this film on the internet a few times and was immediately drawn to it. The throwback style of it made me think of “The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane”, however I just assumed that it would be the usual case of nice poster, crap film and didn't bother tracking it down for a viewing. However the other night I skimmed a review of the film where it mentioned that the film's style was reminiscent of the films by Osgood Perkins. Being the huge fan of “February” that I am (not to mention his following film “I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House”), that was all it took for me to stop reading and to finally watch “Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl”, and boy am I glad I did because I loved this film.

While I can understand the reference to Osgood Perkins, I believe that the film that director A. D. Calvo has created here, can proudly stand on its own. It is a slow burning chiller, that when you think about it later, has a lot more going on then what you may initially think. This is is film that is focused more on character, as opposed to plot, and looks at how when a new friend enters your life, how much it disrupts your world that came before it. Although Adele is not thrilled about living in an old house with an aunt she never sees, yet has to look after constantly, she still goes about the job with considerable care. She takes her time to make sure the right food is prepared and the medicine needed is given at the correct times. She cleans, and does the daily chores for her aunt. However once Adele meets Beth, and Beth takes an interest in her, Adele will do anything to spend time with her and have fun, that something has to give and unfortunately it is her aunt that suffers. While there is never any menace in her neglect, nor are the things she does very big (for instance, the first thing she does is borrow money with the intent of paying it back), sadly once she starts breaking the rules, she finds it less hard to continue breaking them. It becomes more and more easier each time, until she goes too far and ends up suffering the consequences for it all.

Adele is beautifully played by Erin Wilhelmi who gives the character the right amount of naivety, and although we can feel her loneliness, thankfully she never comes across as desperate or demanding of attention. When she meets Beth, Wilhelmi is able to evolve her character and give her a different aura as Adele is suddenly energised by her new outgoing friend. Finally, towards the end of the film, Adele goes through some mental trauma that Wilhelmi is very adept at performing. It is a very well rounded performance, and from a visual standpoint, as soon as she hit the screen I thought of Sissy Spacek from “3 Women” which may not be a coincidence as the two films share a similar atmosphere. The other main character, Beth, is played by Quinn Shepherd and to be honest, I wasn't as enamoured by her performance here. The film is set in the late 70's and for mine, she just came across far too modern and didn't seem to fit as well in this world. I will mention that there is a late reveal that explains a reason for this, but for mine, it still felt a little off. It is a complex role because she has to be bubbly and fun enough that you buy that Adele would be instantly attracted to her, but at the same time she has to come across as a little bit sinister, conniving and manipulative, and it all has to be done in a subtle fashion.

Ok, lets talk about the really fun stuff now. To make a really great Gothic horror film you need two key ingredients. The first being an amazing house, and the second being some form of mental breakdown and “Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl” has it all. The house is absolutely perfect. It is creepy as all heck with its old furnishings and little trinkets, not to mention that it has both a spooky attic and basement. The production design team deserve a big pat on the back here because what they have done here is nothing short of exemplary. One thing I love is when a house feels lived in, when it has textures and this has been perfectly realised here. The long corridors, the staircase, and most of all, the mirrors......just brilliant.

Mentioning the mirrors is a perfect way to segue into my discussion on the visual style of the film. A. D. Calvo and his cinematographer Ryan Parker have done a brilliant job of aping the style of those 70's Gothic chillers past. This is a seriously good looking film, and disguises the low budget I assume it had. What I love most is that while the style looks similar to those past films, it isn't jumping up and down to be noticed as a throwback. This is a style that just happens to suit this film perfectly. I mentioned the mirrors above and that is because a huge number of shots in the film are shot through mirrors, sometimes multiple mirrors, and reflections. I am a massive fan of mirror shots and they are just done so well here, and I particularly love shots where mirrors break up an image to create another more interesting image, which is done here a lot. While I am not sure that an old lady would really have this many mirrors in her house, from a visual standpoint it is pure bliss. In fact all the scenes that take place in the house drip atmosphere, full of suspense and doom which is pretty good considering nothing really scary takes place until late in the film, but the set up to it is exquisite. There are also a number of surreal images where both Adele's and her aunt's visage intersect or are superimposed on top of each other, reminiscent of similar moments in Ingmar Bergman's “Persona” or the aforementioned “3 Women” by Robert Altman.

Another huge factor in creating the mood or atmosphere is both the sound design and score. They appear to have been worked on in much greater detail than the norm for a low budget film, but this pays off superbly. The aunts ringing bell, the click of her light, the creak of her floor, the squeak of her rocking chair, the howling wind blowing outside, the pouring rain, not to mention the strange voices Adele hears from time to time; these all add up to create a spooky atmosphere whilst building suspense of what's to come. In regards to the score, the music is the kind of music that you would hear coming out of a child's music box. It is interesting that these innocent and playful sounds, actually have the reverse effect when added to the visuals of this film as they signal the omnipresence of a future doom.

So was there anything about “Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl” that I didn't like. Truthfully, not really. There is a moment in the film when Adele leaves the house to spend time at a lake house with Beth, and while I would not say that I disliked these scenes, I will admit that by being away from the house, the atmosphere of the film is lost briefly and it is my least favourite scene of the film. Interestingly this scene happens to be one of the most important, as it sets up everything for the finale, but I just do not think it is as impressive as the scenes that take place in the mansion.

Overall, I really loved “Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl”. It is always a joy to find a little horror film like this that just speaks to you. You will notice that in this review that I make no mention of the horror scenes nor the ending, but let me just say that they are definitely worth it and are very creepy. The ending is quite elliptical and my leave some people scratching their heads, but after thinking about it a bit, it becomes more obvious and as I said at the start, you realise the film has more going on with it, than you may initially have believed. I will make mention that paying attention to the brief dialogue from Adele's diary at the start of the film, helps understand it all immensely. The film is very slow paced, and not a lot of “action” happens until the end, so some people may be put off by it but it is also very short (without credits, it only runs 70 minutes) so I would definitely say that it is worth giving it a shot. Personally I adored “Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl”, and it has not left my mind since watching it and I can't wait to revisit it soon.


4 Stars.


Friday, June 16, 2017

THE WHISPERING STAR


2015 was a big year for director Sion Sono. By far his busiest year of his career so far, the man shot a total of six (that's right, six!) feature films before the year's end. While most of these films were geared towards the mainstream, such as his gangster epic “Shinjuku Swan” and his teenage psychic comedy “The Virgin Psychics”, Sono also found the time to make a low budget sci-fi film entitled “The Whispering Star”. A passion project that he wrote almost twenty years prior, Sono finally decided that now was the time to shoot this film as he would be able to utilise the “no-go” zones of Fukushima (the town destroyed during the March 11, 2011 tsunami), to double as the desolate landscapes of an apocalyptic world where humans are on the brink of extinction.

The story is as low key as you are going to find in a Sion Sono film as it is set in the future where, due to our own faults and carelessness, humans are almost extinct. What is left of the human race is spread out across the galaxy on numerous planets, essentially just living day by day until they finally die. Whilst the invention of immediate teleportation delivery does exist in this reality, and is readily used by most, there are still a few humans that prefer to have their packages hand delivered. To provide this service, female androids are sent across the galaxy in spaceships with the purpose to deliver these packages. The film follows one such android, named Yoko Suzuki (actually all the delivery androids are named this. Our one is number 722), as she is ten years into her delivery run through space, with about eighty odd packages still to deliver. Days, months or even years can pass between deliveries and to pass the time, we witness Yoko doing menial tasks such as cleaning, listening to her past recordings or just the simple process of making a cup of tea. She is all alone with the exception of her computerised pilot flying the ship, that looks like a 1940's tube radio, who may also be on the fritz due to the boredom of their long journey together. After a (long) while, Yoko starts to become curious of the packages that she is delivering and through examining what's inside them and contemplating why they mean so much to the recipients, she starts to become aware of just what it means to be human.

This really is an atypical film from Sion Sono, as it is such a quiet little drama, to the point that you could almost argue that nothing happens throughout the whole film. While this is not actually true, the drama of the film is so minimalist, and the pace so slow, that I can not see “The Whispering Star” ever finding a large audience. Do not get me wrong, this is not a bad film, it is just an incredibly minor one. In fact there is a lot of good within it, not least of all its stunning black and white photography from cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto. It is obvious that the film was shot on a very low budget but I think to combat that Sono and Yamamoto have decided to make the shots as beautiful and classical as possible. I also loved the “home-made” quality of the effects and the ship itself. The fact that the onboard computer is an old radio is brilliant and I got a kick out of seeing that Yoko was powered by AA batteries. Also the old style kitchen, taps and cupboards, not to mention that the ship looks like an old cottage with some engines attached to it; it gave the film its own little identity.

 Yoko Suzuki is played by the director's muse and wife, Megumi Kagurazaka, and does so in such a quiet and subtle manner. In fact to prove this is unlike any of the director's previous film, Kagurazaka actually underplays the role to nice effect. Her presence gives the film a calm atmosphere, which actually makes it easier to go with the film and its snails pace. I must admit though, I wasn't exactly sure what Sono was trying to say with this film. There were moments or ideas that I liked such as the fact that by having a teleportation device, it made the world feel flat. To me this is how I feel about the internet these days and how easily available things are to us, to the point it feels like you can touch it immediately. The waiting for something or the searching for something, the anticipation, is often more exciting than the receiving itself and this is being taken away from us more and more each day. I also liked the notion that the act of receiving a package is like conformation that there is someone out there thinking of that person, and it is this notion that I think attracts the android.

Other than these points, I found little to invest in with this film. The film moves too slowly, with not enough “action” to sustain it's 100 minute running time. I didn't understand why everyone whispered in the film, and there where things that I just didn't think worked well at all. While I appreciated the fact that for the most part there was no score, there is a moment in the film when the images suddenly become colour and music just swells; it is obviously a big moment for Sono but I could find no point at all for it. It seemed so odd and just didn't work. Also while using the devastation of Fukushima as a post-apocalyptic landscape may have sounded like a good idea, to me, I always felt like I was in Japan, not some strange part of the galaxy. Constant Japanese signs and a window advertising Visa just ruined the illusion for me. The biggest thing that didn't work for me though was the use of time in the film. There are constant title cards interrupting the images with the days of the week on them. I guess this is to symbolise that time moves differently in space, but when a week goes past while Yoko makes herself tea, it then feels odd when we go through a whole large scene with her and we find out only a day has past. Then out of the blue, a title card will come up stating “One Year Later”........I found it frustrating and thought it added little to the film and would have been better off not in the film.

While I certainly respect that Sion Sono made this little film, especially at the height of his popularity, and there are elements of it that I liked, I wouldn't say that this was a film I enjoyed. That said, I am glad that I saw “The Whispering Star”, and a different side to Sono's work. Restraint is the name of the game here, but I'm just not sure those who enjoy the excesses of Sono's usual style will find much to like here, in fact I think that it may struggle to find an audience at all.


2.5 Stars.