OKJA (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Bong Joon-Ho

Written by: Bong Joon-Ho & Jon Ronson

Starring: Ahn Seo-Hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-Bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins & Giancarlo Esposito

South Korean director/screenwriter Bong Joon-Ho has carved out quite a nice filmography for himself. He’s made acclaimed thrillers (MEMORIES OF MURDER, MOTHER), one of the best monster movies of the new millennium (THE HOST), and recently broke into English language films with the slightly-overrated-but-still-good SNOWPIERCER. OKJA sees Bong Joon-Ho constructing a creature-feature crossed with a wild adventure and a deep bond between a girl and her animal friend. This eccentric film probably won’t please everyone because it’s pretty damn weird to begin with, but it’s a crazy ride from beginning to end that had me grinning from ear to ear.

In an effort to roll out a new kind of GMO meat, CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has created a breed of genetically engineered super-pigs and zoologist/reality star Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) has spread those super-pigs throughout different countries to see which farmer has the most effective methods. Cut to 10 years later in South Korea, young Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) has a best friend in giant super-pig Okja. When the Mirando Corporation comes to collect Mija’s companion for tasty meat, the determined farmgirl decides to take matters into her own hands and fights to get Okja back…with the help of a radical PETA-like group called the Animal Liberation Front. Chaotic craziness ensues, alongside lots of laughs and a surprising amount of feels.

OKJA kicks things off in the right direction as the first quarter of the film sets up the comical premise in a convincing way and develops the relationship between Mija and Okja. The friendship between this little girl and her giant pig is surprisingly effective and the viewer can feel the connection between them. This greatly benefits the story when Okja is stolen and we root for Mija to rescue him. I sincerely wanted to see this girl and her giant pig reunited, which resulted in lots of vocal reactions as her journey puts her into perilous situations and pits her against a cruel corporation. Young newcomer Ahn Seo-Hyun puts in the best genre-based leading child performance since Onni Tommila in the twisted Finnish Christmas flick RARE EXPORTS.

The supporting cast has a number of big names and stand-out performances. Tilda Swinton does a fine job as unusual antagonist Lucy, who cares about Mija and Okja’s situation more than I anticipated. She also does well as Lucy’s sinister twin sister during the final third. Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from BREAKING BAD) has a few moments as Lucy’s reserved assistant. Meanwhile, the ALF is populated by the likes of Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Daniel Henshall, and Devon Bostick. The motley crew of activists supplies lots of comic relief and a surprising amount of heart.

The only bad performance and one of OKJA’s two major flaws arrives in Jake Gyllenhaal’s over-the-top antics as the crazy scientist/reality star. I seriously don’t know what happened here because Gyllenhaal is (in my opinion) one of the best actors working today. This actor takes odd, artsy, and serious roles that usual have him acting his ever-loving heart out. His attempt as a goofy, cartoonish villain is cringe-inducing for all the wrong reasons. He sucked me right out of a major moment that should have been hard to watch. Instead this would-be depressing scene became depressing purely because of Gyllenhaal’s unusually terrible performance.

OKJA’s second problem comes in its not-so-subtle message hitting the viewer over the head like a sledgehammer. That’s not a huge detraction as the film is still massively entertaining and hits its emotional cords just right. However, I feel that PETA, vegans, and vegetarians will likely hold up OKJA as a crowning achievement of cinema. Meanwhile, meat-eaters in the audience may find themselves occasionally rolling their eyes. Still, the film overcomes Gyllenhaal’s crappy acting and the overbearingly preachy message through sheer entertainment, well-executed laughs, stellar effects, and an emotional core. The super-pig Okja looks every bit as good as THE HOST’s freaky-ass monster and that’s a massive compliment.

Viewers who will dig on what’s essentially an entertaining R-rated version of a heartwarming family-friendly adventure will likely find themselves head over heels for OKJA. This movie is weird, hilarious, and moving. I loved every second of it, even when the two notable flaws reared their ugly heads. OKJA is something out of the ordinary and I hope that plenty of viewers love it as much as I did. OKJA comes highly recommended for the delightful little oddity it is.

Grade: A-

FAST FOOD NATION (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Images, Strong Sexuality, Language and Drug Content

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Directed by: Richard Linklater

Written by: Richard Linklater, Eric Schlosser

(based on the book FAST FOOD NATION by Eric Schlosser)

Starring: Patricia Arquette, Luis Guzman, Ethan Hawke, Ashley Johnson, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Willis, Paul Dano

Far more on the dramatic side of things than the documentary SUPER SIZE ME bringing attention to the same problems, FAST FOOD NATION is told through multiple connecting narratives that revolve around the greasy food industry. A good way of describing this storytelling style is that this is TRAFFIC with the drugs swapped out for burgers and still set around a corrupt broken system. What makes NATION so much more intriguing as a film is that writer Eric Schlosser, who penned the non-fiction book that this film takes its name from, joins director Linklater on the screenplay. The commentary and messages aren’t subtle in the slightest, but everything is solid enough to bring plenty of weight to the everything being said. Well-written characters make the film work as a drama, even if some of the stories themselves come off as one draft away from being completed. I can safely say that this is an interesting and intelligent movie saddled with a fair share of pitfalls.

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Don Anderson is a marketing representative for Mickey’s (a fast food restaurant chain) and has been informed of a very disturbing test result. A popular new menu item called “The Big One” has been found to contain some cow manure in the meat itself. His boss politely addresses it as “There’s shit in the meat.” So Don is sent to a small Colorado town to investigate the company’s meat-packing plant, but he’s suspicious that everything is being sugar-coated for his visit. In the very town that Don is visiting, Sylvia and her fellow illegal immigrants are working in the very same meatpacking plant. Soon they find that the job is not without significant risks, both from unsafe conditions and a belligerent supervisor. Finally, there’s Amber, a young Mickey’s employee. Amber works in a Mickey’s to earn cash needed to get by, but she’s faced with moral dilemmas popping up at her unhealthy workplace.

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There’s plenty of intriguing details in FAST FOOD NATION. I enjoyed watching it as a whole and appreciated the brutally honest nature. If you do some research on fast food as a whole, you’ll find some pretty disturbing stuff. Enough to make you question why people would bother to put that stuff into their bodies. The graphic visuals are unapologetically disgusting and though I don’t know for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the filmmakers used real cow carcasses in the meat-packing plant scenes. It’s clear that Schlosser is co-writing this screenplay with director Linklater, because it almost seems like stretches of words right off the page of his book have been turned into dialogue for the characters. It’s not annoying or forced in any way. These are some very realistic people brought to the screen. Ethan Hawke shows up for a few scenes in a minor role, but makes a big impression.

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Undeniably, the best part of the movie comes in one conversation with Bruce Willis’s scene-long character. He delivers a lenghty monologue and the shocking statements coming out of his mouth most likely reflect the empathetic feelings of heads of these big fast-food chains. After all, why should McDonald’s change a damn thing if they keep serving billions around the world? This is all regardless of the disgusting discoveries made at plenty of their restaurants (watch the stellar documentary SUPER SIZE ME for more details on those). The same can be said of any huge fast food chain. The food is crap and they know it’s crap, just like the people eating it know it’s crap. They still eat it (it’s quick and convenient) and the fast food industry is still booming. Willis’s amazing dialogue drives every point of this home and I felt that scene should have been the conclusion of the entire film. This final moment would have sent everything off with a powerful bang.

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Instead, FAST FOOD NATION is a mess when it comes to the organization of the three plot-threads. Kinnear’s character of Dan is front-loaded into a majority of the first half and as a result his story concludes at the halfway mark (with Willis delivering that awesome speech). Then the viewer is left with one very solid thread and another plot that goes on well enough, but builds to absolutely nothing as there isn’t a proper conclusion given. This all comes as a result of Linklater and a screenplay focusing far too much on significant stretches dedicated to one specific plot-thread out of the three. The final cut suffers in being uneven and winding up as a good movie, but one with some baggage that’s hard to ignore.

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I did think that FAST FOOD NATION is a film that was worth my time, in spite of the aforementioned problems. I might even revisit this one in the future. If all three threads had been balanced out more and one specific storyline had been given a couple of scenes to conclude in a satisfying manner, then this would might have been a great-bordering-on-fantastic film tackling important issues. Instead, it’s a good flick with some interesting things to say, but it ultimately winds up suffering from those damn screenplay problems.

Grade: B-

Derrick Carter’s Top 10 Films of 2013

List by Derrick Carter

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Trance, Ender’s Game, Simon Killer, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, Rush, Captain Phillips, Stoker, and Side Effects

10. Dallas Buyers Club

10. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB: This film may not be entirely true to the events that it’s based on, but DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is the kind of the movie that makes you re-evaluate just how you’re living your life once the end credits have begun to roll. Matthew McCounaghey and Jared Leto give two of the most heartfelt performances of the year. It’s not a movie that you’ll want to watch on repeat (mainly due to the fact that it’s a film about a man fighting an incurable disease and the war the FDA launches on him), but it’s certainly a powerful one. This is a movie that drained me emotionally by the end of the film, because I was feeling the same frustration at the injustice of how the characters were being treated. Excellent film and I’ll be surprised if both Leto and McCounaghey don’t get Oscar nods.

9. Maniac

9. MANIAC: 2013 was a fantastic year for cinema, but it was a bit of a pathetic year for the horror genre. The best wide-released horror flick was YOU’RE NEXT (which is missing from this list and isn’t even in my Honorable Mentions). There’s always independent and foreign horror to satiate the need to be frightened. MANIAC is a remake that outdoes the original in every conceivable way, whilst also adding the element of seeing the entire film literally through the eyes of a serial killer. What could have wound up being a cheap gimmick becomes a wholly disturbing and chilling experience that will leave you struggling to get a good night’s sleep for a long time after.

8. Place Beyond The Pines

8. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES: There are gripping stories, moments that shock you, and conclusions that leave you emotionally devastated. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES contains all of the above in a narrative that could be seen as almost an anthology format. It’s a story that follows three different characters that are forever shaped by the choices of someone else. Tragedy is one of the most accurate words I can pick when describing this film. Also, it should be noted that the final moments of the film (fueled with a haunting score) had me crying like the first time I saw AMERICAN HISTORY X.

7. Frozen

7. FROZEN: It seems like ever since Disney switched to the computer animation format, they lost the spark of what made their former efforts so magical. Gone were the musical numbers. The sense of timeless fairy tales seemed to be replaced with potty humor and pop-culture references. Recent films like TANGLED and PRINCESS AND THE FROG tried to recapture that flame that gave Disney films like THE LION KING and BEAUTY & THE BEAST. Somehow, against all odds, FROZEN winds up being the best Disney film in about two full decades. The songs are catchy and have stuck with me since my viewing experience. The script also gives memorable characters, while mocking certain Disney clichés and delivering a timeless, wonderful tale. FROZEN is truly something special!

6. American Hustle

6. AMERICAN HUSTLE: Capturing the essence of the 70’s from set designs, costumes, a very cool soundtrack, and Bradley Cooper’s unforgettable perm, AMERICAN HUSTLE told an intense and very entertaining crime story without ever delving into the ultra-violence that the subgenre usually contains. It was a bold move on the part of David O. Russell, but he’s crafted a fantastic film that let the A-list cast run loose and wild to my delight. This is a movie about people double-crossing each other and by the time everything begins hitting the fan, it’s unlikely that you guessed much of what was in store for you as a viewer (including one very neat cameo).

5. Gravity

5. GRAVITY: You can’t get much more epic than the setting of space itself and that’s exactly the canvas that director/writer Alfonso Cuaron (who held off on directing this film until technology was advanced enough to get across his vision) uses for this tale of survival. It’s spectacle, but cinema comes in many forms. It’s not all about important statements, human drama, character studies, or entertainment. Sometimes, a film just needs to be a ride and this is what GRAVITY was. A huge roller-coaster of a movie and I enjoyed it as such. It’s been a tad overhyped at this point, but GRAVITY still remains on my top 10 of 2013!

4. Worlds End

4. THE WORLD’S END: The final part of the “Cornetto” trilogy (also consisting of SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ) is my favorite of the comedic trifecta. Some human drama is thrown into this sci-fi comedy which makes for some unexpectedly emotional moments (much like in SHAUN), which in turn make the laughs that much more heartier. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright have closed off their so-called trilogy in grand style and though it’s sad to see it come to a close, I can’t imagine a better way to conclude the so-called Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy. Jokes are brilliantly set up in advance and the chemistry between the cast is so convincing and enjoyable to watch that you may even forget there are robots that show up later on (I certainly did).

3. Prisoners

3. PRISONERS: Few movies have ever made me as uncomfortable as this one did. I was uneasy for the entire running time and for good reason, PRISONERS quietly builds suspense and keeps itself one step ahead of the audience. It’s unflinching in its violence, but also shows restraint when it needs to. Some of the more shocking moments in the film come as to what’s implied rather to what’s shoved into the viewer’s face. This script was supposedly passed around from many directors and tons of different casting choices. The end result is so flawless that it makes one wonder if how it even would have stood a chance with anybody else involved. Heartbreaking, intense and concluding in the most provocative way possible. PRISONERS is the best thriller I’ve seen since Fincher’s GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.

2. Wolf Of Wall Street

2. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: Give Leo the award. Just give Leo the award already! The man is proving himself to be a chameleon of acting (in the same way Gary Oldman is). In THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Leonardo DiCaprio skillfully slips into the skin of drug addicted, sex addicted, all-around rich scumbag Jordan Belfort. Far from an unpleasant watch, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is easily the most entertaining film I’ve seen in all of 2013. I haven’t laughed harder at a movie all year (the scene involving Leo and Jonah Hill high on Quaaludes is one of the funniest movie scenes I’ve ever seen in my life). The three-hour running time seems to rush right past, showing the best pacing I’ve seen in a movie this length. Overall, just see it. I loved this movie and it’s one that I plan on buying the moment it hits home video!

1. 12 Years A Slave

1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE: It’s pretty surprising that there’s never been a proper film depicting the horrors of slavery until 2013 (ROOTS doesn’t count). This is a heartbreaking movie that tore my emotions apart and had myself (along with a sold-out movie theater) crying heavily during multiple points in the film. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is the kind of film that you never forget once you’ve seen it. It will stick with you and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes required viewing during History classes for its unflinchingly realistic look on the dark stain in American history. The acting from everyone is top-notch, as is every single aspect with this film. I can’t say that I enjoyed this movie at all, because it’s not made to be enjoyed. It does show one man’s struggle to retain his humanity and survive a 12-year-long period in slavery. Hard to watch, but ultimately rewarding in many ways, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a masterpiece through and through!

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence/Cruelty, Some Nudity and Brief Sexuality

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Directed by: Steve McQueen

Written by: John Ridley

(based on the book 12 YEARS A SLAVE by Solomon Northup)

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’O, Sarah Paulson & Brad Pitt

It’s so easy to overlook the past and pretend that atrocities didn’t happen. Some people say that slavery has been overdone in films, but those who don’t learn from the history are doomed to repeat it. Slavery was an abomination and it sickens me to no end to think that it occurred less than two centuries ago. This was a dark, scary piece of American history. This was a period of time where certain people weren’t considered to be human, based solely on the color of their skin. To make matters even worse, no one was safe from this horrible crime against humanity. It gave cruel plantation owners an excuse to be dehumanize others. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is an unflinching, disturbingly realistic film that is based on a true story that took place before the Civil War, when slavery was at its peak.

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Solomon Northup is a free black man living in upstate New York. Upon meeting some gentlemen, Solomon agrees to travel with them in the hopes of making some extra cash to support his family (a wife, a son, and a daughter). It is in Washington, D.C. that Solomon is deceived. Waking up in chains, Solomon has been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Given a new name and a fake past, Solomon does what he must to endure and survive this terrible ordeal. With prejudice and potential death lurking around every corner, Solomon serves 12 years that are split between two very different plantations. One is run by a Baptist preacher (Benedict Cumberbach from STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS), while the other is run by a cruel drunk of a man (played by Michael Fassbender) and his equally cruel wife (played by Sarah Paulson).

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12 YEARS A SLAVE wisely shows roughly two title cards explaining what the time and place is. This decision pretty much throws us into the disoriented world with Solomon as he struggles to find some footing and retain some of his dignity, along with his life. Early on in the movie, a fellow slave says to Solomon that if he wants to survive, he should try not to stand out. Later on, resigning to his current predicament, Solomon tells a grieving mother (separated from her children) that he doesn’t want to survive, he wants to live. Determined not to let grief and despair get the best of him, Solomon does what he is asked and also finds the courage to stand up when something completely unfair is occurring.

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The production values of the movie are top-notch and the A-list names add even more talent to display. This is Michael Fassbender’s most frightening performance and Benedict Cumberbatch is a marvel as a slave-owner with a touch of kindness. Paul Dano is despicable as an obnoxious carpenter, using the idea of slavery to further his own power-hungry ego. Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt aren’t in the movie for too long, but when they are they stand out as characters unlike any they’ve played before.

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The real show-stopper is the relatively unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor (who has been in many other films, but isn’t a standout face). It was a smart move for director Steve McQueen (who also directed SHAME and HUNGER) to cast an unfamiliar face in the role of Solomon Northup. If it had been a blockbuster actor like Will Smith, things could have easily gone downhill and become cheesy. Ejiofor gives a performance that feels real and being thrown into his position, we genuinely feel for his actions and understand his motivation to keep moving on and his fear to disclose his true identity to anyone, for fear of repercussions. We never leave Solomon’s side at any point in the movie. This is the struggle of one man through a dark period of inhumane history.

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The film is hard to watch and brutally real, but the experience is a rewarding one. It’s a history lesson that bears repeating over and over. Steve McQueen is not afraid to transport us back to the dark times of slavery and never once does he restrain from any of the honest tragedy of the entire situation. It’s unflinching, heartbreaking, and incredibly moving. Expect to emotional for a long time after the credits have rolled. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a modern classic, if there ever was one.

Grade: A+

PRISONERS (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content including Torture, and Language throughout

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Aaron Guzikowski

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo & Paul Dano

Imagine that you’re living a parent’s worst nightmare. Your children just vanished, less than a block away from your home. Someone took your kids and they might still be out there…alive…somewhere. How far would you go to get your children back? Would you become the equivalent of the very monster that abducted your offspring? With every second that passes, the likelihood of your child surviving this ordeal shrinks and those questions become very hard to answer. These are the kind of tough positions that the unrelenting thriller PRISONERS puts you in. If there was ever a film to be described as putting its viewer through the wringer, this is it.

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It’s Thanksgiving and the Dovers are visiting their close friends, the Jones family. At one point, the younger daughters (one from the Dover family and one from the Joneses) go to retrieve a whistle from the Dover’s household. Hours later, it becomes apparent that the girls are missing. Desperately, both families look down their street and through their homes for the children, only to wind up empty-handed. A foreboding RV was seen on the street right around the time that the girls were abducted and the investigation begins.

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Right off the bat, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman in a riveting performance) and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal delivering an amazing performance as well) are at odds with each other. The RV is found with a mentally incapable 20-something behind the wheel. The RV doesn’t have a shred of evidence and the suspect is released. All of this is happening while Loki investigates all the sex offenders nearby for a possible clue. What he uncovers is a disturbing discovery and a shrinking list of suspects. Meanwhile, Keller takes justice into his own hands and abducts the potential suspect in order to try to make him talk. Things get horribly disturbing and dark from then on. Nothing is quite as it appears to be and little details that happen in the early on come back in huge ways by the time the story is wrapping up.

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To say that PRISONERS is disturbing would be a vast understatement. This is far from a graphic or sadistic movie, but it’s devastating on so many levels. Even with a nearly three-hour running time, the movie never gives you have any room to breathe! I was uncomfortable from the moment the girls disappeared to the absolutely unpredictable finale. So many things are laid out for the viewer and even when a major twist is revealed, it isn’t explicitly spelled out. This is a smart movie that constantly plays off the audience’s expectations. After all, intensity of what might occur can be more chilling than what actually does happen at the end of some scenes.

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Then there’s the thick atmosphere of the film. The weather itself factors largely into this as there isn’t a single ray of sunlight in the entire movie. It’s always cloudy, rainy, snowy, or a combination of the three. Either way, it makes for an unnerving setting, even when a conversation between two characters in a car is playing out. That’s another thing about PRISONERS that’s notable too. When something as simple as a dialogue exchange is nail bitingly chilling, it says something for the quality of the movie. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal both deserve some kind of award for their performances. The twists that PRISONERS takes in the final hour left me gasping more than once or staring wide-eyed at the screen in disbelief. Let’s just say there’s no real way of predicting how everything will play out.

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PRISONERS is the best thriller I’ve seen since David Fincher’s GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. It’s an intense, chilling, and frequently disturbing crime-drama that feels like a tightening a noose around the viewer’s neck. This is what a thriller should be. It’s quietly thrilling and leaves you thinking about it long after. A haunting experience if there ever was one and it might wind up being the best film of 2013!

Grade: A+

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