All posts by Ben Cahlamer

‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ Fails to Find its footing

History is replete with the spoils of cinematic spies; resources and gadgets are ready at an instant; beautiful locales, venomous villains and gorgeous ladies on tap. James Bond was fashionable, Steve Rogers was symbolic, Austin Powers was hip, Derek Flint was cool, Ethan Hunt is grace under pressure. And then there was Eggsy Unwin, the unwitting street thug turned superspy. He returns to theaters in Matthew Vaughn’s farcical Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

Each of the aforementioned superspies were successful because their creators managed to put their characters in the middle of timely stories; they reflected the challenges that faced modern society while the actor inhabiting the role brought a certain braggadocio and swagger that made the performance ultra-cool for swooning audiences looking for an escape.

Vaughn has successfully delivered on this formula in the past, most notably X-Men: First Class and to an extent, the Kingsman’s previous outing, 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. The story there gave our future hero, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) an identity thanks to a life-oath sworn to between his dad and Harry Hart (Colin Firth). The bond that Jane Goldman and Vaughn created worked so well because it was about polishing the street-wise punk, making him realizing his potential; a proverbial rags-to-riches story. And, as much as it was The Secret Service’s script, Egerton and Vaughn are an exceptional duo when it comes to films.  See the melodrama Eddie the Eagle for a solid example of the actor-director’s teamwork.

In the over-long The Golden Circle, Eggsy is back, more polished with just a wink of his former street-wise life. In the opening frame, he demonstrates how well he can handle himself in a defensive situation, thwarting a former Kingsman applicant (Edward Holcroft). In the next frame, we see him with his girlfriend, Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) and his street-wise punk friends, establishing that he hasn’t fallen too far from his original tree, but he’s sprouting new leaves. Of course, he’s wiser as evidenced by the snarky, expletive-laden commentary throughout the course of the film.

Following a disaster that all but decimates the Kingsman, Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) find themselves turning to bourbon and their American brethren, the Statesman. Here, Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Pedro Pascal and Halle Berry come to the Kingsman’s rescue, and unless you live under a cinematic rock, the next part will not be a shock: Harry returns from the dead. Vaughn and Goldman go to great lengths to explain how this is possible.  This plot instrument is valuable in a sequence later in the film, but it’s an instrument that wears its welcome.

As spy networks cross, a sinister plot lurks around the other side of the globe with a deliciously evil Poppy Adams played by Julianne Moore. Moore’s performance is a highlight of the film, her pitch-perfect villainy was enough to make Blofeld blush. Except Charles Gray’s turn in Diamonds Are Forever. That’s a story for another time. Sadly, Moore’s presence on the screen is marred towards the end of the third act, but it isn’t enough to make you dismiss her character completely. Bruce Greenwood puts on his stately manner as the President of the United States and gives us a good show.

What troubles me about The Golden Circle is that I was left to wander off in my own thoughts during a key action sequence, partially because it was Bond-lite; something I’ve seen so many times. The parallel characters between the two spy organization are so similar, they seemed unnecessary, which is why it is a shame that neither Jeff Bridges nor Channing Tatum had too much to do in this film. What managed to bring the film around for me was a quote by Winston Churchill, uttered by Harry Hart.  I won’t recite it here, but you’ll know it when you hear it.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, the film is timely, even if it is over-the-top. Several strong character moments, specifically between Egerton and Strong support the film’s premise. Its length and distracting antics don’t always work. Rest assured, Vaughn, Eggsy, Harry and the rest of the team will be back.  Your box office dollars will ensure that.

Now in theaters, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is rated R by the MPAA.

I Am Home: Twenty years of ‘Event Horizon’

Twenty years ago this week, audiences were scared out of their wits with Paul Anderson’s sci fi-horror-fetish film, Event Horizon.  Plagued by production problems and studio interference, Anderson’s film ended up as maimed as most of the victims in the film (if you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t know if I blame you, but I would ask what you’re doing this reading this . . . . WATCH IT!)

I’ll be doing a more formal review in the coming weeks, but I wanted to get a marker out there . . . a warning if you will.

Fine.  If you won’t take my word for it . . .

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“Vacate… 

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… I want off this ship.”

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“You can’t.  She won’t let you.”

 

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‘Dave Made a Maze’ Is Zany Fun

I was fortunate to grow up with films like The Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, Gremlins, and Explorers.  To me, these zany films allowed me to explore my own dreams, to follow my passions, and to realize that the world is a much bigger, but not as scary a place as I thought it was.  These days, films are less focused on dreams and more on conquering our fears.

Yet, every once in a while, a film comes along that dares to explore the things that defined my childhood film experiences; a film that is so zany, so unbelievable that it just has to be seen with your own eyes.

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Here enters writer-director Bill Watterson’s debut feature, Dave Made a Maze, a film that made the festival circuit earlier this year and has entertained, delighted and surprised so many festival goers, and is now in a limited theatrical release.

Dave (Nick Thune), a struggling artist seeks to create something significant. Dave lives with his girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) in a small one-bedroom apartment.  His problem is that he never finishes anything that he starts and he decides one day to build a cardboard fort, becoming trapped in the self-evolving maze leaving Annie and their friends to effect a rescue.

Developed on a micro-budget, Watterson made something really special out of literally nothing more than a few sheets of cardboard and some tape.  The acting is really what carries the film and sells the premise.  Thune is brilliant as the misanthropic Dave.  Kumbhani was absolutely hilarious as the deadpan Annie.  She is Dave’s rock and yet, is tired of his lack of follow-through.  As his rock though, she understands the importance of what Dave started and why he needs to complete his quest.

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The heart in Watterson and co-writer Steven Sears’s script comes from the supporting cast.  The cynical Gordon (Adam Busch) is more talk and less about action (no wonder why he’s a perfect best friend for Dave), Greg (Timothy Nordwind) and Brynn (Stephanie Allynne) want to be able to brag about this experience, and documentarian Harry (James Urbaniak), along with his two-man film crew, are determined to make the whole experience more frightening than it actually is.

The motley rescue crew ignores Dave’s warnings and what follows is a hilarious reality check in a cardboard world where they need to find an exit strategy, quickly.

The amount of detail that went into creating the visual look of the film is staggering and it shows in both the cardboard creations and the practical special effects.  This film is very much a throwback to ‘80s PG – rated movies with tongue-in-cheek references to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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The references are where this film’s imagination shines.  Sure, there are unexplained inconsistencies in the story.  So long as imagination and dreams flow, life’s inconsistencies are bound to show up some times.

Now playing in theaters, sit back, relax and take it all in.  Life will never be the same after you’ve seen Dave Made a Maze.

Logan Lucky is a Winner

When writer-director Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking in 2013 to pursue painting, we thought he was gone for good. Soderbergh stated that there were too many obstacles to movie making.

“I’m interested in exploring another art form while I have the time and the ability to do so,” he told The New York Times in 2011. “I’ll be the first person to say if I can’t be any good at it and run out of money I’ll be back making another ‘Ocean’s’ movie.”

If you look at his Ocean’s films, the art of deception is just as critical as is the final, master stroke of the brush. This is not to suggest that Soderbergh deceived his fans from his absence. Rather, his Oscar-winning career has been defined through pictures with many moving pieces, creating a mist of subversion. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words and there is always more going on than meets the eye.

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We’re fortunate that he did not run out of money, and that he’s using it to continue his brilliant tradition of subversive heist capers with the ultra-cool Logan Lucky, opening in theaters this Friday.

Here, Soderbergh and Channing Tatum join forces again. No, Tatum won’t be thrusting about the screen or whipping out his pecs. But he does show his dramatic side as Jimmy, a blue-collar construction worker, who has recently had bad luck with a job and ongoing parental and marital issues with his ex-wife, Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes).

See, the Logans are very unlucky. They are unlucky at work, they are unlucky in relationships, and they are just plum unlucky at life.

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Adam Driver plays his brother, the deadpan Clyde, who’s had bad luck physically, a souvenir from Iraq, and he is left to tend bar in a dive. Together, they come up with a plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. To make the job work, they need the professional help of the close-cropped, pale-blond explosives expert, Joe Bang (played by Daniel Craig with a perfect Southern twang), whose name says it all; and he delivers too. Elvis’s granddaughter, Riley Keough, got to show off her driving skills as the Logan’s sister, Mellie.

Lucky doesn’t have the same glam and glitz as Ocean’s, but it’s not meant to either. First-time writer Rebecca Blunt crafted a tale of comedic intrigue full of family dynamics (Magic Mike), torn relationships and revenge heists (Ocean’s Eleven) using the politics of the South to frame her story. Soderbergh’s deft direction screams “look this way!” as our characters set their plan in motion, and you are drawn completely in.

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There was definitely a sense of déjà vu with this film. However, Soderbergh has taken all that he has learned from his convalescence to create a painting full of rich, well-developed characters. We get to know Clyde and what makes his creepy, Ooompa Loompa-vibe work so well. We see why the cheeky Mellie fits right in with her brothers, and Jimmy’s tender side, even with Bobbie Jo on his back, and why Joe Bang has a sweet tooth. Even the venerable Seth MacFarlane and Hillary Swank have their moments of fun. It’s this intentional reflection on the characters and their situations that really make the film tick.

I am by no means mocking Soderbergh. His absence from the silver screen has made my heart grow fonder for the works he has yet to give us. For now, he has a victory on his hands. Help him complete that victory lap, put your foot on the gas pedal and race (safely!) to your local theater to catch it. You’ll have a smile on your lips from the opening frame to the last credit (and, for cryin’ out loud, stay until the very last credit!)

Logan Lucky is rated R and is in theaters now.

Prieto’s ‘Kidnap’ Is A Timely Film

Halle Berry demonstrates time and again how magnetic her presence is on the silver screen.  She made her feature film debut in Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout in 1991.  She has won an Academy Award for her lead performance in Monster’s Ball and has been a Bond Girl, the epitome of actresses the world over.

It is safe to say that she is an established actress and entitled to make her own passion projects.

Unfortunately, the ‘passion’ and ‘project’ did not congeal in her latest film, Kidnap.

As the film opens, we meet waitress Karla Dyson who is as witty as she is stressed.  She is hurried, with a sense of purpose while her son Frankie sits patiently at the counter, waiting for his mom to be relieved so that they can spend the day at the park.

Knate Lee’s script starts out quite strong as we get glimpses into Karla and Frankie’s lives.  Karla is painted as a tough-as-nails mom while Frankie is bubbly and outgoing.  They are struggling through a bitter custody battle following Karla’s divorce from Frankie’s father.  Karla has a rather frank conversation with Frankie about making friends with his dad’s girlfriend.  Lee uses this point to paint stability in the fractured family while Prieto’s use of home videos over the opening credits goes to reinforce how far Karla will go to protect Frankie.

Once they get to the park, Karla becomes extremely distracted leading to the crux of the film’s story.  The interesting thing about the actual kidnapping is that Lee and Prieto intentionally force us to watch it along with Karla.  Circumstances force Karla to chase after the abductors.  As solid as the chase is, it is fraught with unnecessary camera angles.  Within these camera angles, Berry projects her way through the chase, demonstrating her determination, but it falls short.  It is important to note that Berry’s performance is as strong as it has ever been and her determination shined through.  In addition to her performance, her hair stylist deserves kudos too.

Lee introduces so many characters and story threads that come figuratively out of the swamp that they either get jumbled up or get lost amongst the never-ceasing chase.

Speaking of the never-ending chase, director Luis Prieto manages to put the tension into overdrive fueled by a red Chrysler Town and Country ripping through the Louisiana Bayou.  Someone at Chrysler is probably figuring out just how to market the Town and Country’s brains over the brawn of a third generation Ford Mustang.  Or else they’re trying to reassure worried moms that their products really can’t maneuver as quickly as depicted in the film.

Prieto and cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano find ways to distort the image with odd camera angles making it appear as if they were trying to extend Karla’s perseverance, but instead became distracting.  Labiano did manage to capture a number of gorgeous overhead and aerial shots really enhancing the Louisiana Bayou that is very rarely seen.

The stunts really shine here and Andy Dylan’s stunt team does deserve recognition.  It’s very rare for a film to contain so many driving stunts, even with the budget this film had.  The non-driving stunts also had a physicality about them that rivals a number of action movies.

Kidnap is a valiant effort to tell a modern take on the state of families and society in general.  While it is very clearly a B-level movie, Berry’s convincing performance carries the film so far before it completely deteriorates, overwhelmed by a projected chase and a number of missed opportunities.

“The Dark Tower” Crumbles Under Its Own Weight

For as long as I can remember, films adapted from Stephen King’s novels or short stories have resulted in either outright classics or box office failures that eventually turn into cult classics. I confess that I have not read his novels, but I have been enamored with the films that have come from his novels over the years.  Those films that resonated with me have done so because they have something to say.  They may not say it perfectly; they may not be very well-acted or well-told stories, but their message is always clear.

Unfortunately, Nikokaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower is a poorly framed hodgepodge of all three of the attributes I just mentioned. It is a semi-well-acted film, full of really interesting characters that have little to no life in them.  The antagonist is the Devil incarnate played by Matthew McConaughey.  As ‘The Man in Black,’ McConaughey is a gate-keeper of sorts, trying to tear open a dimensional wall between his pseudo-future world and our present day world where his agents are taking kids who he has deemed special.

In the real world, New York City is experiencing unusual earthquakes, shaking the city to its core.  The 11-year old Jake Chambers played by Tom Taylor, has lifelike dreams of people and events he’s never witnessed, yet they are as real to him as the world around him. He is able to capture these dreams in a sketchbook, but his fellow students and his parents believe he is hallucinating, forcing them to send him to a special clinic that they believe can help him.  After a rather unique escape, Jake finds a house which he saw in his dreams.  The house is a portal to the Mid-World, where The Man in Black is awaiting him.  As Jake makes his way into the Mid-World, he happens across Roland Deschains, better known as the Gunslinger, played by Idris Elba.  The Gunslinger, the last of his kind, is on a quest that fills his heart with rage.

It is this rage that Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Arcel tap into. Unfortunately, the overly limp characters don’t translate into a coherent story.  It was as if the four screenwriters pulled elements from several 1980’s fantasy films and 1960’s Spaghetti Westerns to create a visual background for these characters. Despite the incoherent nature of the story, the visuals were as good as any other film, but they were not enough to overcome the other elements in the film. Tom Holkenborg’s score created background noise, creating an environment rather than supporting the characters and their motivations, which is a shame because he is known for bombastic scores in similar style films.

McConaughey was fascinating to watch, his creepiness came through loud and clear, but it doesn’t serve the character very well; he is too boisterous to be moody, though I imagine he was selected for the broodiness he exudes in his Lincoln commercials. Elba plays rage quite well, but Arcel’s direction doesn’t allow him to fully transition from a “man of action” to being a mentor/protector for Jake.  Taylor seemed the most wooden, both in his approach to the role and his acting though he did loosen up by the end of the film.  The strongest moment is when Elba’s Roland recites the Gunslinger’s Creed as he and Jake bond.  The moment is not truly earned, but it emphasizes each character’s respective motivations later in the film.  McConaughey’s moment comes in the middle of the film when he visits Jake’s family.  His performance here is classic McConaughey, conveying so much through his looks and his actions rendering him less creepy.  If only for a moment.

Since I hadn’t read the novels before seeing the movie, I can’t speak to their true influence on the film. It was obvious that the screenwriters tried to cram in as much as possible into one movie with the intent of creating a universe of filmic stories.  Unfortunately, the sheer lifelessness in this film has sealed the dimensional gateways shut.  Though it does appear that a television series is being developed, which is the proper platform for something of this magnitude.

For a film that spent 10 years in various stages of development, it shows. There is a lot of potential created in various moments and yet, they go nowhere because none of the moments are truly earned.  If they do develop a television series and create some of the backstory that was missing here, I think I would be interested enough to catch it, but as a standalone film and an entry to another cinematic universe, it does not work.

 

Heineman’s ‘City of Ghosts’ is an eye-opening experience

I grew up with Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather who shaped our opinions and our discussions.  We as an audience had trust in what they had to say, and more importantly in how they delivered it.  Today, the news needs to be delivered as quickly as possible, and corrections issued if a mistake is discovered.  It has become so much a part of my everyday life that I have all but abandoned traditional news outlets.  Despite this, I find myself living inside the vacuum created by social media and online news media and yet, I’m still all-too-well aware of what’s happening in the world.  However, I find that online media introduces a high-level of bias colored by a cacophony of voices rather than one person delivering the news each night.  That’s why, when I sat down to watch “City of Ghosts,” I was quite taken by surprise.  I was only peripherally aware of the Arab Spring rising of ISIL and its dangerous stranglehold on the Middle East.  I was not aware of a group of citizen journalists who have risked everything to raise awareness of the occupation of Raqqa, a city deep inside Syria on the Euphrates.  Academy Award – nominated director Matthew Heineman managed to open my eyes very quickly to the true nature of both sides of this conflict as he lays out ISIL’s ascension to power and the rapid growth of citizen journalist network Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

After opening the film with the group receiving the International Press Freedom Award in 2015, Heineman goes on to describe ISIL’s rise to power, appeasing a war-torn populous looking for freedom.  The state-run news agency portrays life in Raqqa as peaceful, where basic services meet the needs of the people.  RBBS starts capturing footage of ISIL’s atrocities; using social media, they work tirelessly to create an online campaign attracting the attention of global media outlets and the ire of ISIL.

With unprecedented access to the core members of the group, Heineman depicts their everyday struggles to flee Syria for a safe haven in Turkey and Germany while the team remaining in Raqqa struggle to anonymously capture footage and photos of the atrocities that ISIL forces are inflicting. The team that remains in Raqqa upload the photos and videos of the atrocities to the teams in Europe.

As ISIL becomes aware of the clandestine efforts inside their borders we discover that there is truly no safe haven, for anyone.  In Raqqa, they order the citizens to destroy satellite dishes restricting internet access and cellular communications.  On the European continent, they execute members of RBBS.

In its simplest form, the picture Heineman paints is that of a propaganda war similar to one the British had with Nazi Germany during the early stages of WWII.  History is repeating itself.  Here, time is on the side of RBSS as they viral nature of social media works in their favor.  The more they post, the more it puts innocents in other countries at risk as evidenced by the attacks in France and in the United States.  And, it puts their own family members in harm’s way.

The efforts of this citizen journalist network bring to light real-world problems.  The images and the flow of the narrative convey the situation succinctly.  I could imagine audiences who watch this would be shell shocked at best.  Not for the feint at heart, Matthew Heineman touches a raw nerve here and it will stick with you long after you leave the theater.

5 out of 5 stars.

This review was written for and originally featured on phoenixfilmfestival.com.

Desmond Devenish’s “Misfortune” struggles to find it’s footing.

“A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes.” ~ Nicky Santoro, “Casino”

Cinematic history is replete with B – level budget films; films that the traditional Studio system were unwilling to take a bet on.  Roger Corman and George Romero are probably the most familiar names, while Peter Fonda and Bob Rafelson pushed ultra-low budget movies in the 1960’s and 1970’s with solid stories and characters that audiences could relate to.  Their efforts and changes in technology paved the way for Desmond Devenish to get his debut feature film “Misfortune” out to audiences.

When he’s not behind the lens producing and directing the film, Devenish plays Boyd, an unemployed aimless soul.  His girlfriend Sloan is a diner waitress who wants nothing more than to see Boyd do something with his life, even at one point asking him to take out the garbage which has been piling up in the kitchen for weeks.

Boyd learns from an old family friend that Mallick is about to be paroled.  Years ago, Mallick and Boyd’s dad, Roman, tried to do a deal for a small cache of diamonds.  Roman ended up dead and Mallick ended up in prison, but no one knows where the diamonds ended up.  With Mallick out for revenge, Boyd works with his street pal Russell, a cat and mouse chase across the Sonoran Desert ensues.

Where Devenish succeeds is in his casting choices.  Xander Bailey, who co-wrote the screenplay with Devenish played the ultra-suave Russell maintaining an even temper, an asset when certain situations throughout the film need diffusing.  Jenna Kanell pays Janel quite effectively.  However, once the story picks its pace up, she blended a little too much into the background.  This might have been intentional, but it didn’t serve her character effectively. Watching Boyd and Russell, I couldn’t help but recall Andy and Billy from Rob Weiss’ “Amongst Friends”:  two young punks who want to be street thugs, but don’t have the resolve to see their deals through.

Nick Mancuso plays Roman, who is only on the screen for a few minutes.  The confrontation between he and Kevin Gage’s Mallick at the opening of the movie really packs a punch.  Mancuso will be familiar to audiences as Tom Breaker, the CIA director in “Under Siege” and “Under Siege 2.”

Kevin Gage played Mallick with the same relentlessness that he gave us as Waingro in Michael Mann’s “Heat.”  Performance – wise, both Mancuso and Gage really took the film to the next level, but they couldn’t carry it.

Filmed on location in the Tucson suburb of Tanque Verde, Seth Johnson’s cinematography truly expands the scope of the film, giving it an epic quality.  It helped to capture the essence of the chase nature of the film.

Devenish’s script is a familiar, yet well – told story with Mann’s story telling sensibilities and Scorsese’s influences including “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t expand beyond its boundaries.  The challenge is that most of the characters are so flat that when some of the reveals happen, you aren’t invested in them enough to care.

“Misfortune” is now playing in a limited theatrical release.

Bong Joon-ho’s Okja is full of heart and depth.

Four years ago Bong Joon-ho surprised us with his astounding Snowpiercer, giving us a dystopian future in which the entire world was contained on a train.  It had a limited theatrical release and those that were able to catch it, were treated to an out of this world experience.

Bong has returned in full force with his latest adventure Okja which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year.  Netflix acquired the rights prior to the Film Festival with Plan B producing.

The film opens in 2007 with Bong’s perennial favorite, Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando having just taken over as CEO for Mirando, the multinational agro-chemical company.  Amid a growing scandal, Lucy pledges to the world that she will turn the company around with a special super pig which they have been breeding.  Twenty-six of them will be distributed around the world to be raised with the goal of having a contest to crown the biggest and best pig 10 years later.

Ten years later, Mija and her grandfather, Heebong have been steadfastly raising Okja when they are visited by zoologist and Mirando spokesperson Dr. Johnny Wilcox.  Wilcox has been on a global journey to crown the biggest super pig.  Mija, played by Ahn Seo-hyun, is suspicious of Wilcox’s purpose while Heebong, played by Byun Hee-bong understands all too well the purpose of the visit.  And when she is taken away, Mija follows Okja, meeting some interesting people along the way.

I want to get this out of the way, first:  I am not a fan of Netflix’s original content strategies; I don’t care for their exploits as a company to bring content to the masses and I really wish they work to bring their content to multiple formats rather than focusing on their subscriber base.  That’s a discussion for another article.

Ironically, I couldn’t help but to put myself in Mija’s shoes trying to fight the ever-changing tides of media distribution, much the same way as she struggled to find Okja and return her home.  This was never more apparent than in the overhead scene featuring Mija in a brightly colored purple jacket, going with the flow of the Soul rush hour foot traffic.  As she gets to the top of the stairs, bathed in sunlight, she turns and walks down the stairs, going against the grain.

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The love and care Bong gave to this film is evident from its opening frame to its [first] closing frame.  From the mountainous forests of Korea to the underground subways of Soul to the streets of New York City, Darius Khondji’s cinematography is absolutely first rate.  It’s too bad that I had to enjoy it on a 13 – inch screen instead of a 40 – foot-wide theater screen, though the detail was not lost on me.

Bong’s strengths as a story teller are steeped in rich, nuanced characters.  It’s difficult not to love Ahn’s understated approach to Mija as she struggles to cope with a world she does not understand; our moral compass, her determination is on her sleeves as much as her heart is.  Byun’s Heebong tries to stop her, knowing what awaits her and Okja.  Tilda Swinton is frighteningly hilarious as the scheming Lucy Mirando, a miss-goodie too shoes and her twin sister, Nancy, who is so morally bankrupt that she will stop at nothing to keep the engine moving forward.

Where Swinton’s outbursts are controlled, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Dr. Johnny Wilcox’s deranged rambunctiousness radiates.  During a crucial staff meeting, where Mirando is scheming her way to recover from a PR nightmare, Wilcox tries to remind her that he is the face of the company which she dismisses instantly.  The dejected Wilcox plots his own scheme to try and outdo Lucy.

Paul Dano plays Jay, the leader of the animal rights group Animal Liberation Front (ALF) trying to expose Mirando for what it is.  Dano’s character was meant as a bridge between Korea and America, guiding us through the narrative and while I thought his performance was very good, the character and the ALF function was unnecessary.  Mija could have and did achieve the same objective without the ALF.

The script by Bong and Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats) works on multiple levels.  Mija’s interactions with Okja mirror Dr. Grant’s interactions when he leans on the Brachiosaur to hear it breathe in Jurassic Park:  they are both astonished and connected to the creatures they’re trying to protect.  Swinton shines in her roles and Gyllenhaal was cloyingly sweet. The story felt disjointed, due in part to the inclusion of the ALF.  Dano’s performance was good, but it felt like an afterthought.

Okja as a CGI character was gorgeous to look at, up close.  When seen at a distance or in the processing center towards the end of the movie, the CGI look came through loud and clear, becoming a distraction.

None of these concerns should dissuade you from checking out this timely tale.  I’d tell you to go to a theater to see it, but Netflix has seen to it that you can only watch it on their streaming service.  That aside, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja deserves all the recognition in the world.  It is a great accomplishment.

Top Ten of 2017, so far . . . .

It’s crazy to think that half of 2017 has gone by.  It’s crazier to think that I’ve seen approximately 210 movies since January and 190 of those films have been in a theater.  April was an exceptionally busy month with the Phoenix Film Festival and, as you guessed, I am the Alamo Drafthouse’s second favorite customer.

What’s even crazier is that a Netflix original film has made my Top 10 list. Yes, be shocked.  Very shocked.  Several titles don’t have a distributor yet and some will release later this summer.

Without further ado, here is my Top Ten of the first half of 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10. Okja; directed by Bong Joon-ho, Netflix – A multi-national company coming to grips with a PR disaster is full of quirky characters and an off-beat story that is sure to please everyone. The heartfelt story misses some beats, but Bong’s strength is in his characters and for that reason it is recommended. Now streaming on Netflix and playing in NYC.

9. The Lovers; directed by Azazel Jacobs, A24 – The film debuted at Tribeca this past April to wide acclaim. Debra Winger and Tracy Letts play a dispassionate married couple on the verge of divorce. As they come to terms with their future lives apart, they find they have more in common than either realized.  Funny and heartfelt, Jacobs’ story is a strong indictment on the state of marriage and families and is recommended.  Available on VOD starting July 25th from Amazon.

8. Buster’s Mal Heart; directed by Sarah Adina Smith, Well Go USA – Sarah Adina Smith’s sophomore theatrical effort is set around the turn of the Millennium; this surreal mystery film features Rami Malek (USA’s ‘Mr. Robot’) in dual roles as Jonah and as Buster questions more than it answers. Buried deep within the questions, one is rewarded with a plethora of answers. Co-starring DJ Qualls, who made his mark in teen comedies of the early aughts, the local Alamo Drafthouse featured this film along with an insightful Q&A with the director.  It is available now on Amazon VOD and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on July 18th.  Seek out the Inversion for yourselves.

7. Baby Driver; directed by Edgar Wright, TriStar Pictures/Sony – Wright who is known for his quirky Cornetto Trilogy (The World’s End, Hot Fuzz, and Shaun of the Dead) brings us an homage to pulp 70’s cinema with his latest film, Baby Driver. Featuring an all-star cast with Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, Jamie Foxx, Lily James, Eiza Gonzalez, this mixture of music and visual imagery is one of the most original films to hit screens this year. Now playing in theaters, I can’t recommend this film enough.

6. The Midnighters; directed by Julian Fort, The Midnighters – Making its appearance at this year’s Phoenix Film Festival, Fort took home that festivals’ Best Screenplay Award, and he deserved it. Featuring Leon Russom as an aged safe cracker, he now has to cope with life on the outside. Infused with the essence of Michael Mann, the film holds no punches as we see the hardened Victor stuck at a crossroads.  Peppered with amazing supporting characters, this film is a gem on the festival circuit and it’s only a matter of time before it gets picked up for distribution.

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5. The Big Sick; directed by Michael Showalter, FilmNation, Lionsgate/Amazon Studios – I am a sucker for romantic comedies and this true life story of Pakastani stand-up comedian Kuamail Nanjiani and his courtship of Emily is no exception. The story by Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon is heartfelt, intelligent, and witty and the supporting cast of Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, Adeel Akhtar and Anupam Kher round out this 21stcentury romantic story for the ages. It made its debut at Sundance this year where Amazon picked it up for a record $12 million and is co-distributing it with Lionsgate.  It also won the Audience Award at this year’s SXSW.  Now in a limited theatrical release it opens wide on July 14th.

4. War for the Planet of the Apes; directed by Matt Reeves, Twentieth Century Fox – For a franchise that will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2018, Fox has managed to capitalize on an out of this world struggle between man and ape. In a trilogy that started with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, continued with Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014. Now, two years later, in War for the Planet of the Apes we see Caesar warring with the remaining band of humans while at the same time, he is fighting his own demons. Releasing on July 14th, audiences are in for a visual and sonic treat.  Make sure to check this out on the biggest screen with the loudest sound.  You won’t be disappointed.

3. Dave Made a Maze; directed by Bill Watterson, Gravitas Ventures – Making its appearance at this years’ Slamdance Film Festival, Watterson’s quirky adventure finds our hero has built a maze. The trouble is that he’s become trapped in his own device and his friends, who he warns not to come after him, do so. Part Goonies, part mad house and all fun, this film also became an after – hours highlight of the Phoenix Film Festival.  The film was able to secure a distributors and I encourage everyone to run to theaters in August to catch this, if you dare.

2. The Lost City of Z; directed by James Gray, Plan B Entertainment, Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street – The second film in my top 10 to feature outstanding cinematography from Darius Khondji, Gray’s stunning story of Percey Fawcett’s adventures in to the Brazilian rainforests is an exercise in patience where the viewer is rewarded with the aforementioned cinematography and a cast that is second to none, featuring Charlie Hunnam (in his second release of 2017), Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Angus Macfayden, Ian McDiarmid and in a second cameo of 2017, Franco Nero. The film sat with Paramount for six years and was finally picked up by Amazon, which released it theatrically via Bleecker Street where it sadly underperformed. The film is currently available for sale through Amazon streaming and will be available on Blu-ray on July 11th.  I cannot recommend this film enough.

1. Land of the Little People; directed by Yaniv Berman, Fresco Films –  Berman’s first narrative film is very much in line with his previous short films; the story revolves around four children who fight two military deserters for their territory where the violence is unrelenting, even up to the final frame. From what I understand, the film is an homage to Lord of the Flies, which I have not seen; I related it more to Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me. It serves as a punch in the gut, a wake-up call to the every-day struggles that other societies in the world face. This film has screened at multiple film festivals over the past year, including the Phoenix Film Festival where it won Best Picture and Director in the World Cinema category.  I very much hope more people get to see this important film; I cannot recommend it enough.

We’d love to hear from you.  What you have you seen and what has made your top list so far?