Okja (2017): Where Miyazaki Meets Horror

  “Okja” is a strange and wonderful film. This is a film that starts like a Miyazaki film and ends like horror movie and inbetween tries to political satire and be an all around adventure story. Did it work? Enough to the point that I did enjoy this film and recommend it. Netflix is getting better at putting out quality original work and this is a shining example of a great film of theirs that shows the streaming platform (and often times going cheap) can work for quality original works.

The film was directed by Bong Joon-Ho who co-wrote it along with Jon Ronson.  Bong Joon-Ho also was one of the seven producers on the film. The others were Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Lewis Taewan Kim, Dooho Choi, Seo Woo-Sik and Ted Sarandos.

The story involves the Mirando Corporation sending lab designed super pigs around the world to be raised by farmers in the best Pig Competition, where the winner will be crowned in 10 years. During that time Okja, one of the pigs is raised by Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her Grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong). When the corporation returns and takes Okja Mija goes on a journey to save her friend and fights herself being manipulated by different political factions who want to use Okja to their own ends.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: Flawed Characters and Ego – Most of the minor characters in this are compelling in the ways their egos and drive them and make them flawed. There is Jay the leader of the Animal Liberation Front who believes in consent but ignores it for the overall aims in the end, there is Lucy Miranda who wants to make her company better than it is but not face the darker side of the slaughter house and there is the Grandfather who wants his granddaughter to have success but in the end misses how important Okja is to her. These characters make the narrative interesting.

Magical Realism – Giant Pigs created in a lab transported around the world for a Best Pig competition that will take place 10 years later, and one of them is raised by a little girl in the mountains…it is right out of a Miyazaki film and was part of what made this film so fun. I’ve always loved the fantasy in magical realism and this film captures that really well.

A Critique of Ideology over People – Both the ALF and Mirando Corp don’t care about people, only ideology. We see this in how Lucy’s sister turns on her, on the lying that K and Jay both do to Mija in order to serve their overall goals and in the end the hero of this film has no ideology and just wants to be with her pig Okja. This is the core theme of the piece and from that do good where you can as you are and don’t let ideology consume you.

The Cruelty of Factory Farms – The film is extremely against factory farming and you get to see all the parts of it as the Super Pigs get slaughtered and how their different parts go to the different areas of the supermarket. Mija sees this first hand at the end and it is really well done…this is when the film turns into a horror film as we see it all through Mija’s and Okja’s eyes.

The Cons: The Satire – The Corporation doesn’t feel like it is full of people and the ALF is so disconnected and all over the place that they are hard to take seriously as a force. This really brings down the satire as our villains become a bit too cartoonish, which hurts the satirical argument in play.

This is a flawed film that also manages to just be great. Certain characters feel like caricatures (the Mirando Corporate characters as a whole (except maybe Lucy) and some of the Animal Liberation Front Members) but this didn’t bring down my overall enjoyment film. This film is solidly great and now that I’ve watched this and “Snowpiercer,” I can’t wait to see what director Bong Joon-Ho does next.

Final Score: 9 / 10

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The Nice Guys (2016): A Solid Action Comedy That Celebrates Absurdity

the-nice-guys

   Shane Black is a great director…he is most in his element when he is doing buddy cop type comedies like Tony Stark in “Iron Man 3” being forced not to use his suit as an out, “Kiss, Kiss, Bang Bang” had the everyday guy in over his head in a bigger conspiracy and forced to work with someone opposite of him and that film is a classic and one of my all time favorite films…”The Nice Guys” follows that same sort of deal and is one of the greats of this year because of it.

     The film was directed by Shane Black who co-wrote it along with Anthony Bagarozzi and the film was produced by Joel Silver.

    The story takes place in 1970’s Los Angeles and follows hired muscle Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and corrupt private P.I. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) as they are forced into working together and  following up on a missing person’s case related to the porn industry and a porn film where all the cast members are getting killed.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world of the 70’s and how it is presented is wonderfully sleezy and corrupt, which is the perfect character for our main leads to inhabit as they are a part of that same corruption but have enough of a heart to shine a light on it. It’s really beautifully presented.

The Cinematography – Philippe Rousselot does a great job presenting very tightly paced scenes that give tension to even conversations between characters as everyone feels confined, even when they are running. This helps raise the tension which compliments the action.

The Action – The action is fantastic! There are quite a few gun fights and fist fights and each of the fight has stakes. Even Crowe’s Jackson who is an enforcer has a hard time sometimes which shows how strong the government agents are. It isn’t easy for these guys even when they are in their element.

The Writing – The writing is fast, witty and funny and presents the absurdity of our characters’ lives and situations. This is really what makes the story so fun as like “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” we are waiting to see if the characters will win despite their own flaws and everything else and this film presents that beautifully.

The Comedy – The comedy is solid and due to the absurdist nature of so much of what is going on we have jokes that are created out of the strange situations are characters find themselves in and how broken and absurd their lives are.

Holland – Gosling plays this P.I. scumbag who comes around in the end. His core question is “Am I a good guy?” Which his daughter answers with a resounding “no” at the beginning, but by the end he proves he is capable of it. A lot of the empathy for the character comes from Gosling’s strong performance as he’s an overall despicable person through most of the film.

Jackson – Crowe is the enforcer with a heart of gold as we find that his best moment was standing up and protecting people and throughout the film he is given the choice to kill or save and dealing with his core nature of being good or bad as well. Crowe is hilarious in how genuine he is in everything, even though he is a hardened killer.

Holly – Holly is the heart of the film as she is the one who inspires Jackson and Holland to be good. She also helps solve the case too as she is one of the few who knows what is going on a lot of the time or happens to be in the right place at the wrong time.

Okay: Amelia and her Activist Group – We gets bits and pieces about what they are fighting for but we never know the full corruption of what the Car Industry and Government were doing and most of the characters, including Amelia die until we can ever get to know them.

The Cons: The Villains – There aren’t really any good villains. The Doctor is interesting in that he seems to be a serial killer but they never really go into that and Amelia’s mother is just an unknown factor as are her agents. The Porn Enforcers are just sleezbags so at the end of the day the villains really bring the film down. None of them stand out on why they are fighting for what they are fighting for.

   What really brings this film down in the end is we don’t really get to know or come to care about Amelia. We know she is an activist and her bringing down the corrupt relationship between the Government and Car Industry is cool but we never get to know her as a person or get more about her relationship to her mother, who is the big bad. This film is seriously worth checking out though! This is Shane Black in his element and Crowe and Gosling have hilarious chemistry that really carries the film as each of their dysfunctions brings humanity to them. Check this film out.

Final Score: 9.3 / 10

Where the Buffalo Roam (1980): An Okay Hunter S. Thompson Film

Where the Buffalo Roam poster

         Hunter S. Thompson is a fascinating character, he was a journalist who critiqued the world around him and was always getting into trouble and messing with his own perception through the use of drugs. This of course has lead to some interesting books and films…the best of which thus far “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which feels like a drug fueled trip. “Where the Buffalo Roam” is a much smarter film as far as story goes, but in many ways just as random which brings the story structure down. Beyond this I’ll get into why it’s okay, but not great in the assessment.

         “Where the Buffalo Roam” was directed by Art Linson, who also produced the film and written by John Kaye. The story is based on The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat and Strange Rumblings in Aztlan by Hunter S. Thompson.

        The premise of the film is Thompson recalling the adventures with his lawyer Lazlo and the situations and exploits they were a part of created. The story begins with Lazlo defending teenagers for possession of marijuana and fighting the prosecutor which leads to him being arrested. We than jump four years later, as Lazlo has grown popular and but goes missing and draws Thompson into his life again during Super Bowl VI. From here the story unfolds as they clash and we see how different they truly are in their idealism.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Music – Music is taken from the sixties, seventies and eighties which gives the movie a real lived in feel. Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” is played at some point, as well as some other classics. This was a pro for sure.

Lazlo – Lazlo is Thompson’s idealistic lawyer who gives us a glimpse of the many arms of the activist community during the sixties. This makes him a fascinating figure as we see him fight physically in a court room after a young kid gets 5 years to life for possession of marijuana. Lazlo is fighting to change it and stands by the activists. This is the good of the character, the darker side is when he joins some of the more violent movements and tries to create an isolated community in the middle of nowhere. It is here we see his selfish side comes out as he talks about saving a woman for Thompson (Really? She’s not a thing). I liked Del Toro in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” better in this role, but Peter Boyle does alright and is good at showing both the idealism and violence that made Lazlo who he was.

The Super Bowl – We see the guys who got the press passes go backstage drunk and say hello to their mom on live television, we see Thompson drunk and tripped up playing football with the staff and turning his room into a field and of course Lazlo arriving in a Nixon mask.

The Campaign Trail – This is after Lazlo has gone and Thompson adopts the identity of Harris (Rene Auberjonois) and get him tripped up on acid while he goes and talks to the Candidate and takes off his clothes in front him while advocating for the doomed while the Candidate tells him the “Doomed can fuck themselves.” You pretty much see how his charisma and crazyness is able to put people at ease to reveal themselves to him, making his stories interesting.

Harris – Rene Auberjonois (Odo from “Star Trek: Deep Space 9”) Does a great job as the nervous reporter from the Washington Post stuck in the crazy plane with all the activist journalists. He connects with Thompson though and Thompson’s hallucinatory drugs make him super relaxed and fun. Rene does a good job playing both the different parts and I wish we’d seen more of his character after what went down.

Hunter S. Thompson – Bill Murray does a good job humanizing Thompson and his perspective. What we see is a guy who is a bit of a troll and loves poking power and authority while standing up and helping the poor when he can, as well as just seeking a good time. All these parts of him are shown really well and we get that he’s a genius but not very responsible as he runs away from assignments (he gives his press pass to two strangers to get them into the Super Bowl) but he is aware enough to not join Lazlo’s violent cult that plans to kill those who disagree as he has violent people in his organization. Thompson never loses his idealism, and we see it in his conversation with students at a university where he doesn’t advocate for his lifestyle of drugs and insanity but tells them it worked for him. Murray brings an every man approach to the role that humanizes more than the insane Johnny Depp from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” though Depp is much more fun to watch because of his insanity.

The Cons: Cinematography – “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” felt like a drug trip, this film, even though Thompson is on drugs throughout it, is not. It is almost like the biographical approach was taken too literally in how it’s presented, which takes away from some of the more insane scenes…like spraying people on an  airplane, a drug addled game of football and others.

The Story Structure – Because Thompson is recounting the story, nothing feels at stake. No matter how crazy things get, we know he’ll get away. This is another way “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was better since we didn’t know that. It is also hard to see him his praise for Lazlo when at the end they are fighting all the time and Thompson clearly doesn’t like the revolutionaries after one of them beats up his own men and almost shoots up Lazlo’s cabin. If this is Lazlo’s story, it remains unfinished, so what was the point?

The Beginning – The story kicks off really slow and it is hard to sympathize with Thompson at first as we see him constantly skirting his responsibility and using random people. He becomes more sympathetic in contrast to Lazlo, but the story doesn’t start off making him endearing…even if he’s played by Bill Murray.

The Ending – The Ending just kind of ends, he leaves Lazlo again (when it wasn’t needed, he left him before when Lazlo and his group were getting weapons). It would have been stronger if Thompson had any desire to join the group, but we never see him wanting too. He enjoys what he gets from his work and being able to drink and do whatever drugs he wants while covering interesting events. So Lazlo’s temptation doesn’t really feel like a temptation, which again we see Thompson at his ranch so we can guess even earlier that never took Lazlo up on his offer.

      This movie was enjoyable, it was okay…but it wasn’t great. The story structure and how the film is presented don’t lend themselves will for getting fully invested in the different adventures and events. We in the end, have no reason to care about Lazlo and Thompson is interesting, but without a concrete structure it is hard to get invested in the events that unfold. Knowing he’s writing the story takes away from it too. If it was him writing his biography it should have been revealed at the end, so we wouldn’t know how things would end up in the end. I’d say see it if you like Hunter S. Thompson’s writing and like Bill Murray but if you don’t, you aren’t missing much.

Final Score: 7 / 10. Solidly okay.