As 2013’s Snowpiercer demonstrated in no uncertain terms, Bong Joon-ho will never be accused of excessive subtlety. Okja, his latest, doubles down on this, revealing a director entranced by over-the-top characterizations (I’m looking at you, Jake Gyllenhahl) and over-stuffed narratives. Tonally whiplash-inducing, this Netflix-produced film lands firmly in the realm of love-it-or-hate-it, but it’s certainly never boring and often thrilling.
Tilda Swinton is at her Tilda Swintonest as the shiny new public relations face of corporate agribusiness, helming a Monsanto stand-in that seeks to “feed the world” through the mass production and industrialized slaughter of GMO “super-pigs”.
Okja is the name of one of these creatures, a sort of lovable cross between a pig, a manatee, and a floppy-eared basset hound. The only problem? The kind-hearted young girl who raised Okja in the Korean mountains is not about to sacrifice her friend to appease distant shareholders.
Much incident ensues, including elaborate chases through Seoul, the intervention of an Animal Liberation Front contingent led by Paul Dano, family strife for Tilda’s new-age CEO, a glimpse into the nightmare world of the slaughterhouse, and more. Bong corrals anti-corporate and animal welfare themes, letting them loose to ricochet throughout Okja. It’s E.T. by way of Earthlings, a political satire infused with a fairy-tale dream of youthful conviction, and an action film rolled into one.
In short, Okja has a lot on its mind, and if it doesn’t exactly cohere, no can fault Bong’s ambition. Review after review emphasizes that the film will turn your kids vegetarian overnight; a happy thought for some of us, but anyone seeking to locate an animal rights narrative in its whirlwind of plot may find themselves disappointed. That seems a wrong-headed way to look at Okja in the first place, though. It’s not a propaganda piece but something of a pastiche, full of charm and anger at the cynicism of global capitalism.
It’s also the best film Netflix has released to date, a fact of development that drew a firestorm of criticism at Cannes. The cinematic gatekeepers can boo all they like, as they stand in the way of history yelling stop. Okja is thoroughly engaging filmmaking, messiness and all.
(Streaming on Netflix)
There’s no easy way to construct a narrative of suicidal impulses and the kind of quiet desperation that leads people to them without going uncomfortably big or embarrassingly maudlin, and the challenges of the short film only exacerbate this. Stephen Day’s A Short Introduction To Love and Purpose threads that daunting needle with a crisply edited and well-performed character study, exchanging big moments for nuanced quiet ones. When our protagonist explains, “It’s exhausting. I just want to get off the ride so it can stop,” it’s almost without affect. It feels truly, sadly real in a way heightened melodrama never would.
As much a tender brother/sister story as a meditation on Camus’ “only … really serious question in philosophy,” Day packs enough emotion into the film’s 25 minutes to justify a running time twice that length. Naturalistic and morally resonant, here’s a film that opens in nameless, indeed unnameable grief and ends in the kind of hope only human connection can provide.
While I’m sad to report that you can no longer binge on the entirety of the Jaws series on Netflix, it’s always a good time to revisit Spielberg’s original classic.
And never more so than right now. As Brandon Ledet reports on Swampflix, the film spans the days between June 28th and July 8th, leading comedian Howard Kremer to encourage that fans watch it in real time. Ledet also helpfully provides the annotation:
June 28 (0:00-5:05): Chrissie Watkins is killed by a shark while skinny-dipping.
June 29 (5:05-18:39): Alex M. Kintner is killed by a shark.
June 30 (18-39-23:01): A $3000 bounty is placed on the shark.
July 1 (23:01-27:53): Michael Brody’s birthday.
July 2 (27:53-50:09): A caught tiger shark is shown to the public but does not contain human remains.
July 3 (50:09-53:27): Mayor Vaughn refuses to close the beach.
July 4 (53:27-1:07:02): The 50th Annual Regatta is interrupted by a shark.
July 5 (1:07:02-1:20:39): Martin Brody and Matt Hooper sail with Quint in search of the shark.
July 6 (1:20:39-1:36:23): The search for the shark continues.
July 7 (1:36:23-1:50:01): The shark damages the boat’s hull.
July 8 (1:50:51-2:03:55): Quint dies and the shark is blown up.
It’s a fun, slightly silly way to recontextualize a masterpiece that may seem all too familiar by now. Except, perhaps, to my girlfriend, who somehow has never seen Jaws. (Yeah, I know.) No time like the present!
(Streaming on Starz)
The horror movie streaming service Shudder — aka my current obsession — rounds out their collection of grime and Italian sexploitation with a number of films directed by women, including shorts from up-and-coming filmmakers. I’ll be profiling as many of these as I can when October rolls back around — thereby tackling both that month’s horror challenge and running up the score on #52FilmsByWomen — but Venefica is my favorite to date.
Director/writer/star Maria Wilson’s short is a rug-pulling coming-of-age story, depicting a witch undergoing a crisis of conscience in a remote location. But things aren’t what they seem, and in the course of less than 10 minutes, Wilson sets up the narrative only to cleverly undermine it. Venefica pulls off what short horror does best: immerse you briefly in a strange yet recognizable world, and then turn the tables on you. It’s funny and scary, as it should be.
(Streaming on Shudder)
One of the best films of 2016, anchored by Annette Bening’s acting master-class but surrounding her with a first-rate ensemble, 20th Century Women is wry, sad, and continually rings true in unexpected ways. The details of its late-70s moment — the feminist consciousness-raising groups, the beefs between Black Flag and Talking Heads fans, the ubiquitous cigarettes — infuse every inch of the frame and ground its story of a boy jointly raised by the women in his life, who are going through epochal transitions of their own.
This is a deeply melancholy film that still finds time for some funny setpieces, some bedroom dancing, and all the trappings of a mixtape youth at the crossroads. It’s a time capsule and an honest reflection on all the forces that hold us together and pull us apart. Just a wonderful film all around.
(Streaming on Amazon Prime)