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-

WAR MACHINE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: David Michod

Written by: David Michod

(based on the book THE OPERATORS by Michael Hastings)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Anthony Hayes, Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler, Daniel Betts, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, John Magaro, Scoot McNairy, Will Poulter, Josh Stewart & Tilda Swinton

Based on the non-fiction book THE OPERATORS, WAR MACHINE is the true-ish story of a military general’s rise and fall. Anti-war films and satire have gone together before. We’ve seen this combination in various TWILIGHT ZONE episodes and Stanley Kubrick made possibly the ultimate anti-war comedy in DR. STRANGELOVE. WAR MACHINE seems to be aiming for a satirical target, but frequently forgets the laughs and also tries to play itself up as a serious-ish drama at points too. This leads to an uneven film that’s not good and not bad, but somewhere in-between.

The war in Afghanistan has raged on for years, so the USA has sent in General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) to bring the conflict to an end. Instead of simply toning things down and readying to withdraw the troops, McMahon takes the unwinnable “war on terror” as a challenge and vows to come out with a victory. His quest for greatness leads the ego-driven military man and his colorful soldiers on a publicity-filled journey to win the war. As you might imagine, things don’t exactly go according to plan…because, well, you probably saw on the “war on terror” ended?

WAR MACHINE’s best quality comes in Brad Pitt’s performance as the determined general. At times, the film seems to almost turn into a character study of sorts and Pitt’s Mahon serves as a fascinating subject. He’s not a bad guy, not at all. His intentions are good and he wants to end his career on the noblest note possible. He just doesn’t seem to understand that he’s been thrust into a hole and keeps digging himself deeper. In certain moments, Pitt gets some chuckles in his reactions to the less-experienced higher-ups’ decisions (like having to wait for not one, but two, elections before going into combat). Furthermore, moments between McMahon and his wife provide extra effort in humanizing this character. Pitt’s McMahon, based on real-life general Stanley McChrystal, is easily one of the film’s biggest highlights.

The supporting cast is noticeably weaker as A-list actors briefly pop in for cameo-like appearances, while other actors are wasted on one-note stereotypes. There’s the geeky hacker soldier, the guy with anger issues, the one who doesn’t do much of everything, and the press guy who tries to put a positive spin on everything. Out of these four so-so characters, the only real performance of note is Topher Grace as the press relations guy and he gets occasional chuckles. Scoot McNairy plays a substitute for real-life Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, while Tilda Swinton receives one scene as an inquisitive German journalist. Ben Kingsley only has two brief scenes, the latter of which serves as one of the film’s more powerful moments as he reveals he knows his consent isn’t a big part of this war.

On a positive note, WAR MACHINE looks great. There was clearly a budget behind this project. Unfortunately, solid production values and a good leading performance can’t save the disjointed tone of the entire film. WAR MACHINE gets laughs early on, but then feels like it’s half-assing the comedic angle. As it tries to become more serious, it finds only a decent amount of success as a character study thanks to Pitt’s performances and a few good scenes showcasing the McMahon’s admirable qualities and weaknesses. The film falters when it comes to its most important aspect…being a war film. There are too many mixed bag moments before admittedly effective later scenes, so the final message feels disingenuous.

In watching WAR MACHINE’s tepid attempts at humor and not-quite-earned final message, I couldn’t help but wonder why David Michod didn’t just make a drama about a troubled general in the final days of the Afghanistan war. There are a few good laughs early on and great bits of drama that arrive in the second half, but the rest of the film feels confused and unsure of itself. Brad Pitt’s performance is a plus and I don’t consider WAR MACHINE to be a bad film at all. It’s just very messy and completely scattershot. It’s confused and unfocused, kind of like the “war on terror.” You can’t win a war against a concept and you can’t make a proper anti-war film without clear focus from the beginning. WAR MACHINE is just okay. If you need a two-hour time killer and like war movies (or Brad Pitt), this might do something for you.

Grade: C+

DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action throughout, and an Intense Crash Sequence

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Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Written by: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill

(based on the DOCTOR STRANGE comics by Steve Ditko)

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen & Tilda Swinton

Fourteen films and eight years later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still going strong. DOCTOR STRANGE is a rather unique addition to this long-running cinematic franchise though, because it injects mystical powers and wizards into the MCU. I thought that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and ANT-MAN were tough films to sell, but DOCTOR STRANGE seems downright challenging. Fortunately, director/writer Scott Derrickson is more than up to the task. Aided by fantastic performances, astounding special effects, and a smart script, DOCTOR STRANGE is easily the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie thus far!

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Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon with a huge ego. After saving lives and carving out an acclaimed career, Strange suffers severe nerve damage in his hands from a horrible car accident. When Western medicine fails him, the down-on-his-luck doctor turns to Eastern mythology. His skepticism turns to amazement upon meeting centuries-old sorceress The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange soon finds himself immersed in a world of infinite possibilities, many universes, magical talents, mythical weapons, and dark threats. When evil zealot sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) attempts to bring use The Ancient One’s magic books for evil, it’s up to emerging hero Doctor Strange to save the world.

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Benedict Cumberbatch is a welcome addition to the bevy of A-listers who populate the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Steven Strange, he starts off as completely unlikable and slowly begins to humble himself through magical teachings. Strange’s arrogance rivals Tony Stark’s cocky attitude, which makes me excited for the possibilities that might erupt when the two eventually meet face-to-face. After being an utter ass for the first third of the film, Strange’s changing attitude and emerging heroism ultimately wins the viewer onto his side. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Karl Mordo, a good-natured wizard who finds himself constantly at odds with Strange’s view of the world.

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Though a lot of hubbub erupted for her part in this film, Tilda Swinton vanishes into the charming role of The Ancient One. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams plays Strange’s former lover and best friend…providing great comic relief and believable emotion. Finally, Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, Marvel’s equivalent of Saruman and introduction for bigger threats in the future, as an intimidating presence with insane powers that make for great fight scenes…particularly when one of Strange’s plans backfires spectacularly.

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One has to admire how brilliantly written DOCTOR STRANGE’s script is. Yes, it’s a superhero origin story…but it’s the most compelling origin story to come out of the Marvel Universe thus far. This film stands entirely on its own and doesn’t fully seem connected to the MCU (a good quality), save for a few brief Avengers references and a mid-credits scene that promises more of Strange in future Marvel projects. Strange’s training takes time and introduces lots of complicated concepts that come into play throughout the story (astral projection, relics, other dimensions, spells, etc.). The ways in which we are given this complex information feel entirely natural and provide laughs…as well as sheer awe-inspiring moments.

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In terms of special effects and action scenes, this movie is awesome! I know that word has become commonplace, but it definitely applies to DOCTOR STRANGE’s jaw-dropping sequences of psychedelic head-trips, vibrant colors that look like a rave went to outer space, and an amazing INCEPTION/MATRIX-like battle through New York City that currently stands as one of my favorite action scenes of the decade. This movie is phenomenally trippy and cool the whole way through. Even visuals that might seem cheesy when taken out of context (a giant floating head, spirits leaving their bodies, etc.) all work perfectly within the film’s storyline and with the added weight of the characters inhabiting them. The film’s climax has also reinvigorated my love for superhero movies as a whole. I was slightly fatigued by the massive number of comic book movies hitting the multiplex in the past few years, but DOCTOR STRANGE has ignited the childlike spark inside of me and makes me crave the upcoming Marvel films now more than ever!

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DOCTOR STRANGE is easily my favorite movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It incorporates tons of complicated elements through a smartly written script and mind-blowing spectacle. The characters are all great, even if not all of them receive a ton of screen time. The humor works fantastically and never overshadows the film’s more serious moments. The action is exciting and adrenaline-pumping. The magical aspect delivers some of the most creative, head-trippy imagery to hit theaters in all of 2016! This is big entertainment done right in every conceivable way!

Grade: A+

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Suggestive Content and Smoking

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Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Christopher Lambert & Clancy Brown

The Coen brothers make unique movies. You can automatically tell if you’re watching a Coen brothers film from the offbeat dialogue, awkward humor, or quirky characters. Something about their filmmaking and screenwriting is instantly recognizable. HAIL, CAESAR! is their latest film and its an oddball comedy that satirizes Hollywood’s Golden Age in hilariously weird fashion. Featuring a cast full of A-listers who seem to be having the time of their life on set and using a screenplay that’s impossible to predict, HAIL, CAESAR! is the kind of film that reminds me why I love movies to begin with and the sheer beauty (and questionable studio politics) within the industry itself.

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Eddie Mannix is a Hollywood fixer for the illustrious Capitol Pictures. The studio’s biggest film of the year is HAIL, CAESAR! (think BEN-HUR), a biblical epic featuring the biggest movie star: Baird Whitlock. However, something strange has occurred on the set. Whitlock has gone missing and a ransom note reveals that this is a kidnapping set to the tune of a $100,000 ransom. Mannix tries to track down Whitlock, while other cinema-related shenanigans break out in the studio. DeeAnna Moran (based on Esther Williams) is pregnant with a child out-of-wedlock, while marble-mouthed Hobie Doyle (think John Wayne crossed with Kirby Grant) has been called as a last-minute replacement in a classical drama. Mannix rushes to find complex solutions to all of these dilemmas in the space of a single stress-filled day.

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HAIL, CAESAR! is both a love letter to classical Hollywood cinema and a merciless riff on it. It makes for a film that’s hugely entertaining, captivating, and hilarious to watch from start to finish, even if you’re not necessarily familiar with the old-fashioned material that the Coens are lampooning. The entire audience in my theater was cracking up throughout the entire film at the oddball humor, goofy twists, and utter silliness of the story. The film is very light-hearted, but also carries profound writing in Mannix having his own personal arc/revelation develop during the course of the story.

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The visuals are shot in vibrant colors that illuminate off the screen and the film’s sets are elaborate. It’s hard to believe that the Coen brothers were able to recreate the 50’s in such detail on a meager budget of 22 million (which is nothing compared to most big films today). This is the kind of movie that I want to pause scene to scene in order to notice the smaller touches placed throughout each frame (movie posters at the studio, household appliances, etc.). HAIL, CAESAR! is a gorgeous film to look at and you can never fully predict where its story will head next. I kept wishing that Mannix’s various jobs and the amusing studio problems would go on long past the end credits.

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Performances from the cast are top-notch. Their colorful characters were inspired by Hollywood icons of the past and could easily serve as main protagonists in their own individual films. Josh Brolin landed the leading role as Eddie Mannix (based on the real-life “fixer” of the same name) and plays the part to perfection. Mannix is not without his flaws (he has a tendency of slapping certain problems away), but he’s a fascinating character to watch. I particularly enjoyed his personal story arc (which I won’t spoil here) that evolves over the varying degrees of chaos he endures in a single day’s time.

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George Clooney is hilarious as the overacting Baird Whitlock and receives some of the funniest moments of the entire film, but Alden Ehrenreich steals every scene he’s in as Hobie Doyle. His interplay with Ralph Fiennes’s frustrated director is utterly hysterical to behold. Channing Tatum also gets an equally hilarious moment to shine in a musical number (which had me laughing to the point of tears). Also worth mentioning is Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists (inspired by Hedda Hopper).

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HAIL, CAESAR! pays tribute to and simultaneously nails studio politics in a nutshell. This includes the Coen brothers shining amusing lights on: religious leaders critiquing potentially offensive content in films, disastrous last-minute studio casting decisions, intense production difficulties, multiple behind-the-scenes antics (that aren’t entirely unbelievable), early tabloid journalism, and certain controversies of the time. The films within this film are spot-on parodies of specific genres (musicals, biblical epics, dialogue-heavy dramas, and westerns). Though I do wish that certain subplots had received more screen time (we get a couple of plot points explained away via exposition dialogue), HAIL, CAESAR! is a unique and completely hilarious cinematic experience. This is the first great film of 2016!

Grade: A

TRAINWRECK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content, Nudity, Language and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Judd Apatow

Written by: Amy Schumer

Starring: Amy Schumer, Tilda Swinton, Bill Hader, John Cena, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn & LeBron James

Romantic comedies aren’t exactly the kind of films that can majorly change over time. You have two people who fall in love with each other before encountering turbulence in their relationship that threatens to separate them before eventually reuniting and rekindling their affection for each other. It’s a well-known, often-used formula that’s associated with rom-coms and chick flicks. While TRAINWRECK doesn’t buck that decades-old trend, it happens to be directed by Judd Apatow (the man behind KNOCKED UP, one of my favorite rom-coms) and was penned and stars Amy Schumer. So with a hard R rating and crude sensibilities, TRAINWRECK should more than please couples who enjoy dirty-minded comedy with a soft side. It’s that sort of movie.

TRAINWRECK, Amy Schumer (left), 2015. ©Universal Pictures

Ever since she was a child, Amy was hammered with the idea that monogamy wasn’t realistic. As result, Amy has grown into a loose, heavy-drinking, drug-using writer working for a tabloid magazine. She’s never had a committed relationship, because she never thought that lifestyle was for her. This all changes when she’s assigned to write an article on sports doctor Aaron. Aaron is the polar opposite of Amy. He’s a conservative, nerdy guy and hopeless romantic. Somehow, Amy and Aaron hit it off well during an interview and go out for dinner. Dinner turns into drinks and drinks turns into sleeping together. Aaron has fallen head over heels for Amy and she’s trying to cope with the fact that she’s finally found someone she loves. That’s the set up and it’s not exactly hard to guess where the film goes from there, but it’s highly entertaining to watch.

TRAINWRECK, from left: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, 2015. ©Universal Pictures

TRAINWRECK isn’t exactly immune from clichés of the rom-com formula, but openly mocks them as it goes along. The screenplay is especially impressive seeing that it’s the first actual full-length narrative that Schumer has written as her past work consists of skits and stand-up comedy. It definitely helps if you like her material (and I do) as her crude sense of humor and talent both translate well onto the screen. The movie throws in a lot of fun plot details and manages to get a lot of mileage out of them. A ton of laughs come from Amy’s job at the Tabloid magazine (especially her mentoring an oddball intern) and frequent conversations with a homeless man on her street. As crude and lewd as TRAINWRECK can be, the film has a definite sweet side as well. A lot of the movie hinges on Schumer’s performance and she brings her character to the screen very well. In other hands, this character could have been downright despicable and unlikable on all fronts. However, we realize she’s a damaged woman with a lot of baggage. Watching her journey is an enjoyable experience, even when you don’t agree with her actions.

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As far as the rest of the cast goes, everyone else delivers in their parts. Bill Hader (who has been on a roll lately with THE SKELETON TWINS and INSIDE OUT) plays Aaron as someone we can sympathize with. While he’s not so much of the focus of the film as Amy is, the two have good chemistry together as a couple. Meanwhile, LeBron James is hilarious as an exaggerated version of himself. Brie Larson is great as Amy’s polar opposite sister and Mike Birbiglia is well-cast as said sister’s husband. I was surprised by John Cena’s performance. I haven’t seen him in much (besides the godawful MARINE), but Cena impressed as Amy’s ultra-sensitive beefcake fling. He’s not a huge character, but makes the most of every scene he’s given. The biggest problem in TRAINWRECK comes with pretty much every Apatow comedy of late. The running time is too long. It’s not enough to dissuade anybody from watching this movie, but there are scenes that definitely could have been removed entirely and nothing would be missed (e.g. one useless montage and an “intervention” scene that only serves as an excuse for a few cameos). It feels like TRAINWRECK definitely could have benefitted from more time in the cutting room.

TRAINWRECK, from bottom: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, 2015. ©Universal Pictures

TRAINWRECK is a dirty-minded, foul-mouthed rom-com with a heart of gold. Much like KNOCKED UP, the movie feels very honest in spite of its unavoidable clichés. Amy Schumer’s script is well-written and her performance is dramatically different from what you might expect from her. The film is definite date-night material for couples who happen to love Schumer’s comedy. You could do far, far worse in the chick flick department. Dare I call TRAINWRECK the best chick flick I’ve seen in a long time. I think I shall. If it sounds up your alley, give it watch!

Grade: B+

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