Film review – Okja (Bong Joon Ho, 2017)

Remakes, sequels, animated children’s film. Say what you want about the film studios, but if they’re judged solely on how to make money from well-marketed films, then they know how to do it. But when you look at the UK box office for 2017 on an artistic level, the top 10 leaves a lot to be desired.

Of the top ten, only La La Land isn’t classed as a remake, sequel or children’s film. You have to stoop as low as numbers 16, 17 and 18 to find Lion, Split and Get Out respectively, to start really finding good original cinematic enjoyment for adults wanting something fresh to think about.

Paul Dano

So whilst Okja, Bong Joon Ho’s latest futuristic sci-fi action film, was booed at Cannes Film Festival when the Netflix logo appeared at the start of the film, it isn’t a surprise that the popularity of the service has really grown exponentially in recent times. In the month of June, both Okja and the excellent The Circle landed on the service, along with women’s wrestling series Glow and the new drama series Gypsy, which stars Oscar nominee Naomi Watts. I’ve finished watching all but Gypsy, and it was often the case that I actively decided to stay at home to watch these instead of going to the cinema.

My decision wasn’t financially motivated. It was because they looked like better options.

‘Superpig’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it

Okja tells the story of a new breed of superpig that has been created by the Mirando Corporation as the flagship programme for new CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), who has inherited the company from her controversial family and is looking to create a better image for their brand. In 2007, 26 superpigs were distributed around the world to various farmers. Now, in 2017, the corporation will crown the best pig as they simultaneously launch products using the meat from the huge slaughterhouses being used to house and kill 1000s of the new species. The ten-year-old daughter of one of the farmers, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has grown close to the titular superpig and attempts to stop the competition from going ahead, teaming up with a band of animal rights activists that include Jay (Paul Dano), K (Steven Yeun) and Red (Lily Collins). Jake Gyllenhall also stars as eccentric television zoologist Johnny Wilcox.

Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando

Bong Joon Ho has created something exceptionally special here, getting excellent performances from all of his lead cast. But it is the performance by newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun that really captivated me. The opening sequence of the film may be all bravado and sensory overload, but the film soon settles into a much more naturalistic tone as we learn about the relationship between the young girl Mija and her best friend and childhood companion Okja. Its remarkable that the relationship feels so visceral given that there is nothing but animation for the superpig. There was a foam head made in the likeness of the eventual CGI creature to give her something to interact with. It’s an age-old technique but one that has resulted in an intimate and captivating coupling.

Jake Gyllenhall as Johnny Wilcox

The message contained within the film is at least on some levels for the viewer to consider the origin of the meat they are eating. “Okja is real,” director Bong Joon Ho said in a recent Independent interview. “It’s actually happening. That’s why I rushed making Okja, because the real product is coming.”

I personally felt disgusted by the end of the film and it brought back memories of Robert Kenner’s 2008 documentary ‘Food, Inc.’ Thry weren’t particularly positive memories, but they certainly were effective.

Given so many people have Netflix and can watch this film at no extra cost, it’s a no-brainer to seek it out and watch it. It might be the start of a new era of high quality original cinema heading first to home streaming platforms. Given the state of the year-to-date box office, it’s a movement everyone should be supporting.

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Film review – Letters from Baghdad (Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, 2017)

Synopsis (taken from the official website)

Letters from Baghdad tells the extraordinary and dramatic story of Gertrude Bell, the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day. She shaped the modern Middle East after World War I in ways that still reverberate today. More influential than her friend and colleague Lawrence of Arabia, Bell helped draw the borders of Iraq and established the Iraq Museum. Why has she been written out of history?


Review

First-time directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum have chosen an interesting topic for their debut feature. Gertrude Bell may not be a household name to most, but based on the evidence here she should be. Mixing archive video footage and voice-overs from Tilda Swinton and a host of other character actors, the film brings to life her letters from an important time during Iraq’s formative years.

Bell lived from 1868 to 1926 and was a truly independent woman, defining her life with a series of firsts. She was the first woman to receive a First Class Honours degree from Oxford University in Modern History, the first woman to journey solo into the Arabian desert (1500 miles on a camel across Central Arabia), was the only female diplomat at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the only woman at the Cairo Conference in 1921.

This film concentrates more on her time in Baghdad, critical to the formation of what we now know as Iraq. Her involvement came in the final for years of her life, but in that time she managed to define the borders out of the then-named Mesopotamia, before helping in the formative administration of the country and the controversial installation of their first monarch ruler: King Faisal bin Hussein. She was a good choice to spearhead the tasks due to her knowledge of the area after her extensive travels and relationships and understanding of local knowledge.

To appreciate the film fully it’s probably worth knowing what to expect. It is very much a narrative in the form of a book. It may have taken a considerable amount of time to research and compile the video footage from stock libraries around the world, but the visual result is only minimally engaging. There are many photographs from Bell’s personal collection but no video footage of her directly. This is neither good nor bad, just a matter of fact.

The letters and statements from other people associated to her – relatives, friends and colleagues – aren’t simply narrated. Instead, they are delivered in a talking head style to the camera. It may sound unusual, but it does work and there’s no better way to achieve an entertaining result.

This is a great resource for anyone who wants a penetrable route into the life and achievements of one of the greatest women of her time. It may have its flaws but as a ninety minute film it should reach a wider audience than if they published her letters in book form.

A solid documentary.

Film review – A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2016)

A Bigger Splash tells the story of Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), an ageing rock star taking a resting vacation on the remote Italian island Pantelleria with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a filmmaker. Their vacation is disrupted when Marriane’s larger-than-life ex Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrives with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson).

Watching A Bigger Splash is a little like watching a car crash in agonisingly slow motion. As the tensions rise and tempers are frayed, you see the action unfolding and there’s nothing you can do about it. Even though you want to look away you just can’t.

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An interesting choice attributed to Swinton herself was that Marianne is recovering from an operation on her vocal folds. It means that her abundant acting abilities risk going to waste. This isn’t the case at all. Indeed, that she is able to command her scenes whilst not even speaking highlights her presence in front of a camera. Her frustration at not being able to shut Harry up is evident. This, mixed with Paul’s desire to not be drawn into arguments and Penelope’s apparent disinterest in just about everything, means Harry is able to be the centre of attention at all times, much to the bemusement of the three people whose lives he is engulfing.

It’s a tremendous performance from Fiennes. He is most certainly an annoying person to watch on screen, let along imagine being on holiday with. He’s a tragic man desperate to avoid the realisation that nobody cares anymore. We all know someone like Harry in our lives, but none of us like him. Unfortunately, whilst the performance is fantastic and it plays out beautifully, it doesn’t necessarily make for great cinema. Achieving a cinematic goal doesn’t justify it.

One thing this film shares with La Piscine, the 1969 French film on which this is based, is the gratuitous nudity. It didn’t really feel integral to the plot, and lacked any kind of eroticism that it may have been angling for, feeling instead to be overly sleazy.

The political setting didn’t really give any edge to the film either. Set amid a backdrop of illegal migrants landing on Pantelleria, it just felt like a shallow attempt to date the film without adding much to the plot. This could have been rectified if we’d seen the migrants sooner, but by the time they were first mentioned it felt like an irrelevant afterthought.

The film also feels about twenty minutes too long, with the action seeming to reach a climax only to drag  on far beyond the point it held my attention. As with all car crashes, it’s not very enjoyable to watch. The elements are all there – great acting, beautiful scenery, fantastic plot development – it’s just that the overall effect doesn’t deliver on its component parts.

A Bigger Splash is out at cinemas now.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2014)

Once in a while a film comes along and disappoints you so much you forget what ever made it appeal to you in the first place. The last time this happened to me was when I saw INLAND EMPIRE back in 2006. I was desperate to see it and couldn’t find anyone to go with me so walked on my own for over an hour to the nearest cinema showing it and watched the whole three hour spectacle unravel on my own. Actually was it six hours? It felt like it. And so it was with the latest Jarmusch film. I’m just sorry I forced the experience on my equally underwhelmed fiancé.

The film sets its pace deliberately slowly. Opening with a spiralling bird’s eye camera shot of our two main characters – played by Tom Hiddlestone (Thor, War Horse) and Tilda Swinton (The Beach, We Need To Talk About Kevin) – it matches the evocation of the interspersed antique record player. It’s intelligent camera work. We’re definitely spinning at the lower end of the 33 rpm spectrum, but it sets the scene pretty well with the slow and dirty rock music that accompanies it.

The story goes something like this. Our central characters (named Adam and Eve) are both vampires, they need blood to stay alive and source it from a sort of underground illegal blood trading market. Oh and Adam is also a reclusive rock star. And Eve has the power to touch things and say how old they are (I think this was sourced from the Superuseless Superpower blog, but I can’t be sure).

John Hurt (The Elephant Man, Alien) plays a very old vampire who it turns out is actually most of the greatest writers in the history of humanity. Chekov from Star Trek is Adam’s roady. Felix from Casino Royale makes an appearance. Later in the film, Eve’s younger sister arrives on the scene but it’s ambiguous as to exactly how old she is. I mean, there were long periods of the film where there was no dialogue and as I was drifting in and out of consciousness, and I got to wondering how old she really was. If Adam and Eve are about 600 years old and look like they’re about 40, she looks like she’s about 20 so must be about 300, but yet she acts like she’s about 14. So, do vampires mature at an extremely slow rate too? I don’t get it.

Anyway it rambles along for about two hours before getting to the point where something happens and they go abroad and have to look for new sources of blood. As my fiancé pointed out, it’s the sort of thing that would usually take about 20 minutes to develop in most films. It’s deliberately paced excruciatingly slowly and sometimes it works, but mainly it falls short.

It’s admirable that Jarmusch is bold enough to stick to his guns and allow conversation to take centre stage as he did so well with Coffee and Cigarettes, but this isn’t a film about having a conversation whilst smoking and drinking coffee. It’s a story about a rock star vampire, his wife who has a super power, a man who is secretly almost every important writer ever, Chekov from Star Trek and a seedy underground market for blood. Isn’t this a recipe for a really quite exciting film?

No. Apparently it isn’t.

Only Lovers Left Alive is out in UK cinemas on 21st February 2014.