You Should Be Watching: ‘Okja’ (for The Buffalo News)

For my latest Buffalo News “You should be watching” column,” I looked at “Okja.” This Netflix release is one of 2017’s best films.

Head over to Netflix where you’ll find the listing for “Okja,” a new Netflix original film. Pictured is the title creature, a large, cuddly animal resembling a cross between a walrus, a hippo and an obese dog. Make no mistake, though, Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” is not a film for children. Instead it’s a brilliant, harsh, emotionally overwhelming story of corporate greed, animal abuse, and, to a lesser extent, the bonds of friendship. It’s one of the finest films of 2017.

Title: “Okja”

Year it debuted: 2017

Where it can be seen: Netflix

Who’s in it: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lily Collins

Running time: 120 minutes

Brief plot description: The powerful Mirando Corporation led by CEO Nancy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announces a worldwide contest in which hand-picked farmers will raise a newly bred superpig. One of these farmers lives in South Korea with his granddaughter, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun). She has formed a special bond with their superpig, Okja. However, it is now time for Mirando and TV zoologist Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) to bring the animal to New York City. With the help of the animal rights group Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Mija attempts to save Okja from a grim fate.

Why it’s worth watching: “Okja” is an important release for Netflix. It is directed by a major-league filmmaker, the man behind cult classics “The Host” and “Snowpiercer.” It features a heavyweight cast. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. And finally, “Okja” is the first Netflix narrative feature that could garner some Oscar interest, particularly for its effects work. The film is a deliriously inventive swing for the fences that uses CGI to bring to life a believable, lovable beast.

While the friendship angle is moving, “Okja” is even more effective as a sharp critique of multinational big-business cruelty. There are a number of brutal, difficult-to-watch moments, mainly a scene in which a wild and wacky Gyllenhaal tortures Okja. At times, the actor seems to be channeling Charles Nelson Reilly – and that’s as strange as it sounds. While certainly over the top, it works, and so do the stunning action set pieces. One, an attempted rescue of Okja by ALF leaders (including Paul Dano and Lily Collins), ranks among Bong Joon-ho’s most memorable. “Okja” might be his most original film. Plus, it’s a Netflix must-watch. But be prepared for some heartbreaking moments. And keep the kiddos away.

Here’s why you should be watching ‘Stranger Things’ on Netflix

Stranger Things

I was thrilled to write about the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things” for the Buffalo News “You Should Be Watching” column.

“Stranger Things” saved summer. Seriously. Big-screen blockbusters are sputtering, “Game of Thrones” is done for the year, and real life is real scary. Thank goodness, then, for the fictional scares of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” an enthralling story of four friends, one monster, a mother on a quest to save her son, and a little girl named Eleven with special powers.

Title: “Stranger Things”

Year it began: 2016

Where it can be seen: Netflix

Who’s in it: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Matthew Modine

Typical episode length: 55 minutes or less

Number of episodes to date: 8

Brief plot description: A young boy disappears in a small Indiana town in 1983, and his three best friends, mother, older brother and the local police chief are determined to find him. But the appearance of a mysterious girl with extraordinary abilities means the quest will be more complex than anyone could have imagined.

Why it’s worth watching: From its title font – in the style of Stephen King paperbacks like “Needful Things” – to its Spielberg-esque focus on the friendship of “Dungeons and Dragons”-obsessed adolescent boys, there has rarely been a show as upfront about its influences as “Stranger Things.” But the series is more than just a 1980s pastiche thanks to its believable characters and the actors who inhabit those roles. Writer-directors Matt and Ross Duffer have assembled a cast of stellar veterans – a never-better Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine in bad-guy mode – and likable kids and teenagers. (The standout is young Millie Bobby Brown, whose performance as the powerful, wounded Eleven is heartbreaking.) The story of missing 12-year-old Will Byers culminates in a satisfying but nicely open-ended conclusion in Episode Eight. The ending, of course, has already led to prognosticating on the second season. Yes, the show is already overanalyzed … and it just premiered on July 15. But that, too, is part of the fun. Not since “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files” has there been a sci-fi (ish) series that truly warrants this level of theorizing and analysis. (If there’s an “Eleven” … Is there a “One,” “Two,” etc.? Can Matthew Modine’s hair get any whiter?) “Stranger Things” is an addictive joy, and I dare you to stop after one episode.

“Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones” are Over, So Start Streaming Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake”

top of the lake

We are in the midst of a television renaissance — just about everyone agrees, including Bernardo Bertolucci. Yet I must admit, I’m not watching very much of it. Believe me, I am dying to watch “Homeland,” “Breaking Bad,” “Sons of Anarchy,” etc., but I am not overflowing with time for all of these, and when I do have time, I try to catch up with some movies.

However, I did watch the recently concluded seasons of “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men,” and was riveted by both. “Games” remains the most consistently surprising and involving drama on TV, while “Mad Men” did something pretty extraordinary over the last few months. I maintain that the first batch of episodes of the season were among the worst in the show’s history. The last batch? Undoubtedly among the best. I agree with a coworker, who wished the long episode had been the last of the season, instead of the first.

So my two shows are done. What to watch next, TV-wise? Some of the finest options can be screen on Netflix. Here are a few:

“Top of the Lake”: Jane Campion’s miniseries starring “Mad Men”’s Elizabeth Moss was screened at Sundance and aired on the Sundance Channel, but now it is streaming in full on Netflix. It is hard to argue against classifying Campion as hit (“The Piano,” the underrated “Bright Star”) or miss (“The Portrait of a Lady,” “In the Cut”) but even those misses are fascinating. “Top” was acclaimed by most as one of the hits. Film Comment’s Amy Taubin called this story of a pregnant 12-year-old-girl and a detective’s search for the truth “’Twin Peaks’ crossed with ‘The Killing.’”

The seven-episode series Top of the Lake, Taubin says:

“[I]s the toughest, wildest picture Jane Campion has ever made. Campion’s previous foray into television, ‘An Angel at My Table,’ a four-part biopic about the writer Janet Frame, was focused on a single character, and though dramatically and psychologically compelling, it lacked the expressive visual style of Campion’s features. With the emotional intensity of its performances and the urgency of its drama scaled to match its vast, primal setting and six-hour length, ‘Top of the Lake’ is something else again: series television as epic poem, the Trojan Wars recast as the gender war. Three women, each on her own journey, connect and bring the patriarchy to its knees. But that’s too bald a description.”

This sounds like Campion’s most important work in years, and a must-watch.

“Luther”: I can’t say for sure whether this BBC cop drama is more than just another cop show, but I can say its star is Idris Elba, and he is one of the finest we’ve got. Elba is on the verge of a major breakthrough — he appears in the soon-to-be-released “Pacific Rim” and portrays Nelson Mandela in a biopic out later this year — but many know him best from this series. The third season airs this summer.

“The Fall”: Gillian Anderson’s post-“X-Files” career has been quite interesting, especially her turns in Terrence Davies’s “The House of Mirth” and an adaptation of Dickens’s “Bleak House.” In “The Fall,” she plays a detective investigating a series of murders in Ireland, and Anderson plus detective plus murders equals I’ll watch.

“Hemlock Grove”: Eli Roth’s Netflix series received little of the critical love that greeted David Fincher’s “House of Cards,” but that’s alright. The horror series looks like a messy blast, and I like that the second Netflix original series went in such a different direction.

“House of Cards” (BBC): Speaking of “Cards,” the original BBC series is also streaming on Netflix, with Ian Richardson as the lead. It would be fun to compare his performance with Kevin Spacey’s often over-the-top but effective work.

“Arrested Development”: You know about this one. In fact, you’ve probably watched it — perhaps twice. I am working through it slowly, since any show that can show David Cross’s Tobias playing a fetus deserves to be savored.

 

Image from “Top of the Lake” from Indiewire

Rent/Stream This: 2009’s Bitter, Brilliant “In the Loop,” Co-Starring James Gandolfini

in_the_loop

As I mentioned yesterday, in 2009, I reviewed “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci’s bitter masterpiece “In the Loop” for the Buffalo News. While James Gandolfini did not have a starring role, his was a key supporting performance. The four-star (says me) film is available on Netflix Streaming, and is, without question a must-see.

“In the Loop” has been referred to as the “This is Spinal Tap” of political cinema, and that glib description is not far off. Like “Spinal Tap,” it is a comedy in which every moment of absurdist humor is completely believable. This, it seems, is our government, and it’s not pretty.

Also like “Spinal Tap,” “In the Loop” is utterly, gob-smackingly brilliant, a piercing piece of satire that is laugh-out loud funny, boldly plotted and wonderfully cast. And with the Academy Awards’ best picture category now fattened to 10, it may even find itself up for the top Oscar.

Armando Iannucci — best director’s name since Florain Henckel von Donnersmarck — is not a well-known filmmaker in the States, but fans of Brit comedy might know his work with actor Steve Coogan; they devised “Alan Partridge,” an oft-failing fake chat show host. (Add the series to your Netflix queue, now, and watch for a Coogan cameo in “Loop.”)

Tom Hollander, an actor best known for a supporting role as a stiff-upper-lipped baddie in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” saga, is ostensibly the lead in what is really an ensemble film about diplomacy, war, manners and the culture clash that occurs whenever multiple nations are called upon to work together.

Hollander plays Simon Foster, a U.K. government minister who makes a disastrous faux pas in an interview, referring to a U.S.-backed war in an unnamed land as “unforeseeable.” This is a problem, since it’s at odds with the prime minister office’s expected stance.

Peter Capaldi, as Malcolm, the PM’s communications director, is forced to explain Simon’s comment, which is interpreted by the media as a slide-away from support for the Americans. As Capaldi, a Scottish actor who here turns cursing into a stunning art form, explains, “He did not say unforeseeable. You may have heard him say it, but he did not say it.”

It’s also the first day for Toby (Chris Addison), dubbed “Ron Weasley” by Malcolm. He’s a young aide seeking to make an impression, and finds himself joining Simon on a trip to D.C., and in the bed of another ambitious aide, played nicely by all-grown-up Anna Chlumsky (“My Girl”).

Toby tries to help Simon right himself; the wishy-washy politico is unsure which side he’s on anyway. Soon ambushed by press, Simon’s response to the “Is war unforeseeable?” question is a confused doozy: “Look, all sorts of things that are actually very likely, are also unforeseeable — for the plane in the fog, the mountain is unforeseeable — but then it’s suddenly very real, and inevitable —”

The media’s follow-up question is, of course, “Are you saying the government is lost in the fog?” which leads to an even greater pearl: “To walk the war of peace, sometimes we have to be ready to climb the mountain — of conflict.”

“You sounded like a Nazi Julie Andrews,” judges Malcolm.

These are the Brits. The Americans, meanwhile are an equally dysfunctional group. Karen Clarke (played by a wonderful actress, the award-worthy Mimi Kennedy), is a U.S. assistant secretary. She’s one of the few arguing against conflict, and she’s joined by a well-reasoned general, played, with utter perfection, by James Gandolfini.

David Rasche, so good in the thematically and spiritually similar Coen Brothers coal-black comedy “Burn After Reading,” is the epitome of the Washington hawk. His Linton Barwick, yet another assistant secretary, is a man not above altering meeting minutes to ensure the escalation of war.

“In the Loop” perhaps sounds confusing, and in some ways it is. The dialogue is lightning-quick, the acting suitably frantic, the mood, stressed. As it should be.

Another reviewer said “In the Loop” just might be “Spinal Tap meets Strangelove.” I think it’s too soon to say, but it’s certainly one of the year’s finest, most bitter masterpieces. This one goes to 11.

Rent This: “White Elephant” is a Predictable But Worthy Study of Buenos Aires Slum Life

w elephant

Sometimes a film that can only be called so-so at best is still worth watching, and such is the case with Pablo Trapero’s “White Elephant,” a well-made film about priests in Buenos Aires that never quite connects. I reviewed this 2012 Toronto International Film Festival entry last September for The Playlist, but I had forgotten about it until noticing it is now available on Netflix, Amazon Instant, etc. Here is my review:

Pablo Trapero’s “White Elephant” is a smartly acted, beautifully scored, often bracingly directed film of good intentions and big ambition. Yet it can only be called a modest success, and, in light of how strong some of its individual elements are, even a slight disappointment. Word from Cannes, where the film premiered last May, was that writer/director Trapero’s study of two Catholic priests working in the slums of Buenos Aires never quite connects, and was probably the least successful of the Latin American films on display at the film festival. (It was no “No,” apparently.) That buzz was accurate, but that doesn’t make “White Elephant” without value. It just means Trapero stopped at second following a base hit that should have led to an easy triple.

Trapero’s previous film, 2010’s acclaimed crime drama “Carancho,” starred the actor who is the greatest asset in “White Elephant”: Ricardo Darin. Best known stateside as the sad-eyed star of the Oscar-winning “The Secret in Their Eyes” and the twisty con-tale “Nine Queens,” Darin plays Father Julian, a devoted man of the cloth working to fight the drugs and crime that run rampant in the Buenos Aires streets so many call home. He is referred to at one point as “the slum priest”—a better title than “White Elephant,” perhaps?—and it is his job to bring new priest Nicolas (played by Dardenne Brothers’ favorite Jeremie Renier) up to speed. (The “white elephant,” incidentally, is an abandoned, never-completed hospital now filled with squatters.)

Nicolas is at an emotional and spiritual low following a massacre in the village in which he worked. He is haunted by his inaction (“I don’t deserve God’s love,” he tells Darin, weeping); a wounded man seeking a path to redemption. In the slums, and with Julian, he finds a chance. For this is a place that is ignored by the world at large—“This isn’t even on the maps,” Julian tells Nicolas, looking out over the sprawling mess of buildings. Trapero’s long, unbroken shot of Renier’s introduction to the “white elephant” complex is a stunner, an immersive bit of filmmaking that is both stimulating and eye-opening. He makes us feel as if this is the entire universe, and that no other future lies beyond. “If you leave, the slum will go out and find you,” says one youngster, ominously.

Julian and Nicolas are joined in their efforts “to fight violence with love” by a caring social worker, Luciana (played wonderfully by Martina Gusman, who co-starred with Darin in Trapero’s “Carancho”). Throughout, while we’re involved with the characters and their individual journeys, the overall story and motivations are often fuzzy and hard to follow; when a romance develops between Nicolas and Luciana, it seems not just sudden, but utterly unsupported. And its lack of consequence is not just odd—it’s downright unrealistic.

As Nicolas and Luciana fall deeper for each other, drugs and violence take center stage, and Trapero’s script veers into the obvious. The film never seems to reach a strong conclusion, ending with a death that is nowhere near as emotional as it should be. Trapero’s script is simply too vague and predictable, and his direction, while spot-on at several points, lacks the visceral kick to the shins of similarly themed films like “City of God” or “Pixote.” Perhaps wisely, he never attempts the “documentary” feel that those two films achieved. But that invariably makes for a less memorable work.

The acting is top-notch across the board, with Darin and Rennier doing some of their finest work, and Gusman a clear star in the making. The film’s other most notable triumph is its music from composer-pianist Michael Nyman. While Nyman’s work here lacks the inimitable majesty of his soundtrack to Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” the music brings a suitable air of grace to the harsh setting of “Elephant.” Its somber yet soaring sound is a surprising but welcome accompaniment to the action, especially upon Julian’s arrival to a grieving Nicolas. It is undoubtedly one of the most memorable scores I’ve heard in months, yet it is used too infrequently, and, it must be said, often feels too epic for what’s onscreen. The emotion of the moment is occasionally dwarfed by the emotion of the soundtrack.

Upon final analysis, it is difficult to tell whether we are meant to feel emboldened by the small, baby-step achievements we see onscreen, or saddened over the big-picture disappointments. (“It’s easy to be a martyr,” Julian tells Nicolas. “To be a hero, too. The hardest thing is working day after day knowing your work is meaningless.”) I hate to come down too hard on “White Elephant,” since it gets so much right. While it never fully transcends the feeling of I’ve-seen-this-tale-before, it is certainly a worthy, mostly realistic journey. It marks Trapero yet again as a filmmaker to watch, and Darin, especially, as a performer who gets better each time he’s on screen. It never breaks the shackles of predictability, but even with its missteps, “White Elephant” deserves an international audience. [B-]