Atomic Blonde (2017): Neon Action with a Convoluted Plot

Coming off the success of co-directing John Wick, stuntman-turned-director David Leitch left production on the sequel for his first solo outing, Atomic Blonde. Adapted from a graphic novel, the film is a cold war era spy story with Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) starring as Lorraine, a British MI6 agent tasked with recovering a list of undercover operatives taken from a killed MI6 agent in Berlin. The setup is familiar with both Skyfall and Mission Impossible using similar plots, but the film distinguishes itself with its unique, stylized action.

From the first frame, Leitch goes for a decidedly anarchic tone. The opening credits and intertitles are spray painted onscreen and the streets of East Berlin are riddled with graffiti and punks. His film breaks against the typical noir with its use of style and energy. Every set is bathed in a seedy neon green, red, or blue and he runs with this aesthetic even more than he did on John Wick. His commitment to this visual style provides a distinct look that is as noticeable as Lorraine’s hair color. Forget neo-noir, Leitch has styled Atomic Blonde as a neon-noir.

The sound design of the film provides a beating pulse to the action. The crack of gunshots is deafening and each strike in the frequent combat scenes creates an ear-splitting thump. Music blares constantly providing an electric or, in one case, ironic backdrop to the violence onscreen. The film uses an 80s heavy soundtrack featuring the likes of Depeche Mode, David Bowie, and even George Michael. Music is almost used as much as this year’s Baby Driver, but unlike that movie, the music never overshadows the action. In most cases, Leitch’s music choice adds a playfulness to the fighting and prevents the film’s violence from becoming too heavy.

Theron is a fearsome action star.

And Theron dishes out suffering like a professional. She isn’t the perfect action hero that glides easily through each enemy, nor is she a Jackie Chan-like fighter that stumbles through their encounters. She is tough, resourceful, and unrelentingly brutal. Leitch isn’t as proficient with hand-to-hand combat as he was with gunplay in John Wick. Some of the fight scenes lack the cohesion of better action films, but Leitch and Theron still deliver their fair share of beatdowns. The best of these takes place in apartment building used as a sniping spot by KGB agents where Leitch orchestrates a series of extended takes as Lorraine fights her way through her enemies. It doesn’t hold up to the masterful combat from The Raid and its sequel that the film is clearly mimicking but it does give us a clearer view of the merciless damage these agents inflict on each other without succumbing to the overediting of combat that plagues most action blockbusters today. Her hits land with a ferocity but we still see Lorraine falter. Several of the men are larger than her and their size gives them the upper hand. However, her fighting and her greater characterization are not just defined by her immense skill, but by her tenacity. These protracted fights become less about who is stronger, and more about who continues to come back after each blow. Theron’s defiant glares are the best indication that she has a resilience they can never hope to match.

As a cold war thriller, the plot in encased in paranoia. Lorraine’s orders are to trust no one, even her fellow MI6 agents. Several supposed allies appear, but potential betrayals are lurking around every corner and no one has a clear motive. The narrative can get lost in these turns. One too many reveals near the end start to unravel the story and character motivations leading to more confused shrugs than the shocked gasps the writers hoped for. The plot strains under these repeated twists as they undermine the plausibility of the preceding events. It makes the case for John Wick’s paper-thin revenge story. By using the simplest of setups, that film shifted the audience’s focus to its best feature, the action. Atomic Blonde’s story is its weakest element, but it can be enjoyed for its neon-drenched bloodshed and rousing soundtrack.

3/5 stars.

Dunkirk (2017): A Well Crafted, but Forgettable Ride

In his first historical film, director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) brings his talents to recreating the Dunkirk evacuation, where over 300,000 Allied troops, surrounded by Germans, were saved by hundreds of private boats that crossed the English Channel to rescue their soldiers. Rather than work with a linear story, Nolan splits the film’s focus into three separate viewpoints: soldiers on the beach awaiting help, a civilian (Mark Rylance; Bridge of Spies) and his son taking their personal boat to assist in the evacuation, and a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy; Mad Max: Fury Road) providing cover to the trapped soldiers.

Nolan’s strength as a writer has always been structure. Films like Memento and Inception, exploited their setup for suspense and the same happens here. The characters may be in different locations, but any building intensity is meant to be shared between them. Working with his regular composer, Hans Zimmer, he uses an ever-accelerating ticking clock as a metronome for the film’s tension and audio bridge between the perspectives. As the film cuts between each set of characters, the danger they face is carried forward and builds with mostly fruitful results. There is an overreliance on raw decibel power to create a feeling of intensity, similar to the sound mixing in Interstellar, that is not as effective as desired, but the film succeeds in making each disparate scenario equally precarious.

In the past, Nolan’s greatest weakness has been exposition. Needless, forced exposition that talks down to the audience as if the director’s greatest fear is that the masses will not be able to keep up with his intelligence even though his films, despite their often deliberately convoluted structure, are fairly followable. In Dunkirk, he breaks away from his tendency to overexplain. The film features little dialogue, instead relying on images of warfare to propel the story. With a few exceptions, namely Rylance’s seemingly sedated performance, he refrains from undue exposition.

The scale of the action is the film’s greatest triumph.

The lack of exposition also extends into character development. These are people whose names you will not know, even during the course of the movie. Perhaps this is a willful commentary on the war itself, claiming that the characters have little individual identity because they are each one of many who experienced the same trauma in WWII, but that does nothing to connect the audience to them. For all of Nolan’s immense technical skills, emotions have always been a major shortcoming. Even the basic plot of many of his films can be reduced to men whose lives are disrupted by engaging with emotions. The missing attachment to the characters makes the film more appreciable for its technique rather than its heart.

Dunkirk is an amusement ride. That isn’t necessarily a criticism, but it does accurately depict the film’s effect. The characters and actual plot are either simple or deliberately downplayed. Instead, we are meant to take in the expertly realized period and effects in the moment. Nolan and his team have recreated the incredible scale of this moment in history. Countless troops appear to line the beaches without any suspicion of computer generated assistance. He continues his love of practical stunts by using multiple real Spitfire fighter jets and the same wing-side camera shots from the famous docking scene of Interstellar. While enjoyable, the emphasis on historical accuracy over feeling has the unintended consequence of making the film forgettable. Like even great rollercoasters, it entertains during its runtime then fades away as soon as the ride ends. Dunkirk is well-crafted experience, just not a particularly emotional or memorable one.

3/5 stars.

Lady Macbeth (2017)

Referencing one of the most devious characters in literature is a bold choice for a film, but, thankfully, the title isn’t a spoiler. That being said, the lead character Katherine (Florence Pugh) does share many traits with the famous femme fatale. She is a young woman in England during the mid-1800s married to an older man. The marriage provides her with stability, but not affection. Her husband is entirely uninterested in Katherine, emotionally or physically, and spends his time away for business, leaving Katherine to her own devices.

The setting echoes Katherine’s lonely life. Her house, while huge, feels stark and empty. This isn’t a Merchant Ivory film where homes are filled with countless knick knacks. Despite her husband’s wealth, the furnishings are minimal and she is the only non-servant residing there. She is initially forbidden from leaving the house, but even when she does the outdoors offer no reprieve. The landscape is barren and desolate. It only highlights her increasing isolation and how meaningless she feels her life is.

A vacuous existence is Katherine’s greatest fear.

Pugh makes the perfect Katherine. A relative newcomer, she embodies the ideals of a woman of her time while believably progressing into aberrant behavior. Many actors playing characters in the past have an incongruous look. Their body and features can be too sculpted for the simpler time. Pugh, while still attractive, has a more era appropriate frame. In her blue dress, she is the image of upper class England. As takes extreme measures to control the direction of her own life, her ruthless determination comes through. Pugh’s tenacious performance causes Katherine to be an intriguing character, even as her actions become heinous.

Director William Oldroyd makes some interesting casting choices. Improving diversity in film has fortunately entered public discussion as of late, but period pieces have always been an issue. How do you incorporate actors of different races when a film’s setting wouldn’t have allowed it? Oldroyd chooses anachronism which results in a welcome change. There is some initial confusion when actors of color are shown in positions unexpected for the time, but it quickly fades to the background. Unfortunately, the plot results in negative outcomes for most of the non-white cast which is alarming. It’s impossible to speculate on whether this was coincidence or not, but either way it gives the film an unwelcome nastiness.

Everything changes for Katherine when she meets one of the men working on her land and begins an affair with him. Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) finally brings some excitement into her empty life so when her father-in-law returns to scold her and beat Sebastian, she does what she believes is necessary to preserve her only passion. This is where the film hits its stride. Lady Macbeth proves to be about the limits of selfishness and, later, self-preservation in the face of accepted morality. The lengths to which Katherine goes are equal parts amusing and mortifying. As she descends deeper into depravity, the cause of her actions comes into question. Is this the result of her failed marriage? Loneliness? Or maybe this is just the manifestation of an impulse already inside of her? Oldroyd hints at answers for each of these questions but prefers to luxuriate in Katherine’s increasingly extreme measures. Pugh’s unyielding performance and the almost transgressive narrative turns make Lady Macbeth a wicked drama with a remarkably sinister lead.

4/5 stars.

Wind River (2017)

After scripting both Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan made a name for himself as a writer of taut action films; light on exposition but heavy on tension. He makes his directorial debut with Wind River. Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) plays Cory, a US Wildlife Service agent that stumbles upon a dead body in the Wind River Native American reservation. He recognizes the body as the best friend of his daughter, who also died years earlier. He, along with the under-resourced local police and FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen; Martha Marcy May Marlene), search for her killer in the harsh backdrop of frigid Wyoming.

Renner commits an admirable effort, but is miscast. He elongates his speech and uses short sentences to make himself seem world weary, but his still isn’t believable as the character. 25 years ago, this role would have been played by Tommy Lee Jones. His performances always feature a curt directness that suits Cory’s mountain man characterization but Renner can’t match Jones’s brand of gruff credibility. Olsen’s ingénue helps him seem experienced in comparison, but his performance falls just short of the verisimilitude needed.

Gil Birmingham (right) and the Native cast deliver the standout performances.

For all of Sheridan’s history with succinct writing, this is his weakest script. It’s still well-written with a twisting plot far above most other films, but has some clumsy dialogue and exposition. The film begins with a flowery poem that never amounts to anything and the tragic backstory about Cory’s daughter is awkwardly repeated, even in scenes where it has no relevance. The entire subplot is a manufactured method to make Cory more sympathetic but has little material effect on his behavior. His actions would have been the same without it and the film would have benefited from reduced exposition. Sheridan frequently shifts the focus back to Cory’s past at the expense of the greater story: the plight of the Natives in modern America. Perhaps without the extra eyes of a different director, some of these missteps made it through to the final version.

Many will compare this film to the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Yes, it features a murder in a wintry rural setting, but that is where the similarities end. While there are brief moments of humor, Sheridan isn’t interested in the sardonic wit of the Coens. The closest analog is Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Both films are about the fringes of society and the suffering of the people who reside there. The Native reservation is depicted as a desolate place. A land and a people that have been mistreated for so long that hope is a thing of the past. Several characters are shown as frustrated with the systemic disadvantages they face and the vicious cycles they are limited to. When Jane sees the victim has been raped and asks if their medical examiner is qualified, the police chief answers simply “He’s kept busy.” Everything has an air of accepted despair. Sheridan aptly uses this as the prevailing tone of the film. The overwhelming misery creates apprehension. Injustice is a daily occurrence so the prospect of failing the investigation has a high possibility. It surely wouldn’t be the first unsolved crime for the area. By ingraining the futility of reservation life into the plot and atmosphere, Sheridan creates an action film with a tense, discomforting bleakness.

4/5 stars.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

When people first came out of screenings of Avatar, they spoke of wonder and amazement. They talked about being transported to a world unlike anything they had ever seen before and in a way they had never experienced. But I never felt that way. To me, it was derivative world with an even more derivative plot. The most noticeable thing about the CG world was just how expensive it must have been to render. Not creatively challenging. Expensive. I mention this because I think I finally understand how those people felt back in 2009. Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional) has done what James Cameron tried, but couldn’t accomplish. In Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, he adapts a comic series with incredible devotion. The story follows Valerian (Dane DeHaan; A Cure for Wellness) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne; Paper Towns), special agents of the human empire in the 28th century. The titular city floats through space and houses millions of individuals of all species living in all biospheres, but there is a problem. Deep within the city is a growing radioactive zone and none of the soldiers sent there have come back alive. Valerian and Laureline must find out what is causing the disturbance before it threatens the lives of the city’s many inhabitants.

The city is a believably massive and maze-like entity.

Besson’s visuals are on another level entirely. These are some of the most creative and hyper-detailed renderings ever put to screen. Some of these may be pulled from the original comic, but it’s clear that Besson and his team of concept artists put a staggering amount of labor and love into every frame. Opening scenes of a peaceful, primitive species on a beach planet are genuinely awe-inspiring. Water shimmers and color radiates with life. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Besson uses every spectrum of the rainbow and doesn’t succumb to the dull tones used to make a film seem “realistic”. There is so much sheer variety in the film’s settings. While Avatar only featured a jungle, Valerian has deep sea exploration, life-sized nervous systems, and the most gorgeous semiconductor manufacturing you will ever see. All of these environments have the originality and detail to sustain entire films of their own, but they have mere cameos here because there is so much other creativity to show. There is even an inventive spin on the standard seedy desert flea market sci-fi trope. The market is situated in the middle of the desert, but visitors need to use special virtual reality gear to phase themselves and their belongings in and out of the market. With the equipment on, the area is a bustling bazaar filled with diverse species selling anything you could want, legal or not. Besson uses this as the perfect setting for a heist. As Valerian sneaks in and out of the virtual reality, the tense subterfuge is contrasted with images of him walking through an empty desert to comical effect. This is just one of the many examples of how the incredible effects elevate common scenarios.

This is only one of the many, varied locations.

It’s a shame that the beautiful images have to feature two disappointing leads. DeHaan and Delevingne only have a small fraction of the chemistry the script demands of them and fall too easily into archetypes with DeHaan as the overconfident asshole and Delevigne as the uptight one. DeHaan’s cocky delivery never has the charm needed and Delevigne is relegated to nagging and rolling her eyes. The plot itself mostly serves as an excuse to traverse the varying environments within the city. While it does feature endearing side characters, particularly a trio of enterprising informants, the film’s narrative and its mismatched leads are a disappointment. Fortunately, this is a movie where the strengths can mask the flaws. The unbridled artistry that went into every landscape and every character create a computer-generated world of pure delight. For those who can overlook mediocre writing, Besson and company have produced visuals that will be talked about for years to come.

4/5 stars.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Picking up a few years after the previous film, the apes are still hiding in the woods and battling the humans. Their leader Caesar (Andy Serkis; The Lord of the Rings) is trying to find a way for them to end the conflict with the humans or at least escape to a new home where they can live in peace. On the other side is The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a military leader bent on eliminating the apes.

War is both a Darwinian and a biblical epic. The hatred coming from the Colonel is because he is acutely aware of humanity’s own inferiority. Caesar and the apes are as intelligent as the humans but they are physically stronger. In a world of natural selection, they will eventually win out so the Colonel seeks to end the apes before that can happen. Caesar becomes their seminal figure in the face of this threat. He is the only one that can save them from this oppression and move them into a new age.

Serkis continues with the nuanced, emotive performance we have come to expect. This Caesar is the definitive ape leader, but he does not have the energy of his youth. More than anything else, Serkis exudes Caesar’s responsibility. He bears the burden of saving his tribe and the minor grimaces and pensive pauses in his decision making demonstrate the weight he carries. Every direction he takes the apes in could potentially change their lives. Serkis’s motion capture cements his Caesar as the true star of this film trilogy.

Harrelson was the wrong choice for an already lacking character.

The motion capture performances are further complemented by Weta’s incredible attention to detail. Having innovated the motion capture process with Gollum then enhanced it with 2005’s King Kong, Weta is the leading effects house for this technology. The textures of their wrinkled skin, the matted fur, and, most of all, the emotion in their eyes is clearer than ever. This is the first of the recent Apes films without human protagonists. It forces the audience to identify with the apes rather than their own species and this is only possible because of their rendering. Weta’s visuals create the emotion needed to recognize the humanity in the apes.

The Colonel becomes a cartoonishly evil character. He shaves his head with a straight razor and is almost always seen wearing sunglasses. The film tries to show his behavior as the result of cold pragmatism, but, as a brand-new character, he feels two-dimensional. There is a shoehorned backstory to make him sympathetic, but it is too abrupt to change his characterization. Harrelson’s performance is part of the issue. He is neither menacing nor does he appear particularly strategic. He has always been better in lighter roles and he seems miscast here. His Colonel is supposed to be taken seriously but instead comes off like Brad Pitt’s character in Inglorious Basterds. He is unintentionally silly in a somber film. He can’t bring depth to an underwritten character and without a grounded villain, the film is unable maintain its more realistic tone. The motion capture acting is stellar and Weta continues to impress with their visuals, but the weak antagonist diminishes the gravity of any threat to the apes.

3/5 stars.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

After years of begging for Sony to let go of their biggest franchise, we finally have a Marvel produced Spider-Man. This film stars Tom Holland as Peter Parker and picks up after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Peter spends his afternoons as Spider-Man doing small deeds around Queens instead of the high-stakes battles we are used to. He wants to have more responsibility and gets his wish with The Vulture (Michael Keaton; Birdman). The Vulture uses alien technology to create and sell deadly weapons of immense power that rival, and perhaps eclipse, Spider-Man’s own abilities.

The writers (there were six in total) make the smart decision to skip over Spider-Man’s origin. The Amazing Spider-Man movies suffered from their familiarity and Homecoming avoids that pitfall by (correctly) assuming the audience already knows his backstory. The script instead treats being a superhero like an extracurricular activity. It focuses on Peter attempting to balance his schoolwork, friendships, and trying to impress Tony Stark enough to become a full Avenger. This turns the film into equal parts superhero and coming-of-age story, one with an incredibly likeable supporting cast. As he deals with his best friend, his bully, and his potential love interest, Peter becomes the relatable character we know and love. At his heart, Peter Parker is a good, smart kid. He’s a nerd and isn’t the cocky, often creepy version played by Andrew Garfield. The writing and choice to cast actors actually passable as teenagers allows the characters to becoming endearing and believable.

The charming students make the high school scenes some of the best parts of the film.

The film does still suffer from some rapid editing and cliché plot points. The origin of the Vulture is cut together at blistering speed with a hastily added title card used to leap forward in time. This was clearly done to limit the potentially long runtime, but starts the movie on rocky footing. Then the movie resorts to an overused epiphany during the mandatory action set piece where Spidey hears a guiding voice during his moment of crisis that gives him the strength needed to overcome his current obstacle. These are both unfortunate realities created by the requirements of the genre, but don’t detract from the overall enjoyment.

This may be the first superhero film in years to produce any amount of sustained tension. Typically, fight scenes are major in scale but minor in impact. How can we worry about whether a character lives or dies when we know they are already slated for a sequel and know that they make their studio too much money to kill off? Spider-Man breaks this trend with one particular revelation that will come out of nowhere, but makes perfect sense in the context of the story. It plays on an already tense situation for teenagers but adds a physical threat. This is helped by Michael Keaton as one of Marvel’s only interesting villains. Note that he is an ordinary villain and intentionally not the super kind. He doesn’t desire global domination, but rather has the modest goal to take care of his family and his employees. The reason for his villainous turn is also convincing. His small salvage team loses their contract with the City of New York to Tony Stark’s company after the destruction from Age of Ultron. Essentially meaning that the man responsible for the damage is also profiting from it. One of the film’s most refreshing aspects is how it casts Tony Stark in an unflattering light. It points out that he is a member of the wealthy elite that seems exempt from responsibility which makes The Vulture’s blue-collar frustration more sympathetic. The strength of its villain and the genuine surprises make Homecoming one of the best superhero movies in recent memory.

4/5 stars.

Landline (2017)

Gillian Robespierre’s (Obvious Child) sophomore effort is an unfortunate disappointment. Her stellar debut mixed awkward humor, real dilemmas, and a gentle romance, but Landline features very little of what made that film great. The new movie again stars Jenny Slate as Dana, a 30ish engaged woman, and her dysfunctional family, each member on the verge of a supposed crisis. She has caring but divided parents played by John Turturro (Barton Fink) and Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie) and an obnoxious teenaged sister Ali (Abby Quinn) who acts out at every turn.

This may be one of the first films to feature 90s nostalgia. We’ve seen many movies with bell-bottomed characters in the 70s, the big hair of the 80s, but few have recreated the 1990s. The denim-heavy clothes, cassette tapes, and titular landlines all reference the decade but what is surprising is how little the time period matters. Beyond the absence of cell phones and social media, the characters talk and behave in such a modern way that it is easy to forget when the film actually takes place. This makes the choice of setting a confusing one. It doesn’t add any particular nuance to the story. It’s not something that could have only happened in the 90s, so the setting was likely chosen to match Robespierre’s own experiences growing up. It’s nice to see a different choice for a period piece, but the not-quite-retro setting is only worth a few pop culture references and nothing more.

The constant, and usually unfounded, whining of the daughters becomes irritating.

While her previous film was about one woman coping with the upheaval of her already scattered lifestyle, Landline centers on a family unit. The relationships and the mistakes one person makes are reflected through each family member. The parents, while physically together, are emotionally separated with the father having an affair with an unknown woman. The daughters are also distant and constantly argue with each other. Ali sneaks out at night, curses nonstop, and is completely opposed to anything her parents say. Dana, engaged to a loving fiancé, is having second thoughts about where her life is headed and takes out her frustration in arguments with her parents and Ali. The dialogue is realistic, but the sheer abrasiveness makes the characters unlikable. The way the family, particularly the daughters, cut into each other with their words is downright mean. The insults aren’t played for humor, so the film becomes an incessant display of verbal abuse to people that they supposedly care about. It’s an unwelcome look at the cruelty people can show to those closest to them.

Furthermore, the mistakes they make are unprovoked. Characters risk loving relationships for momentary pleasures and mistreat each other for no apparent reason. These are relatively affluent people with no physical, mental, or financial issues to speak of, but they still create problems for themselves as if they have been through some kind of trauma. In Moonlight, the main character had to deal with growing up with a poor, crack-addicted single mom in a crime-ridden neighborhood intolerant of his orientation, yet he complained less than these people do. Their pleasant, upper-middle class lifestyle is apparently too easy so they make unnecessary conflict. Ali screams at her mom for asking about her college applications and Dana gets upset with her fiancé for calling her after she abruptly moves back to her parent’s house. These aren’t relatable or even meaningful problems and without that, the film remains a showcase of unpleasant, self-destructive characters oblivious of their own privilege.

2/5 stars.

A Ghost Story (2017)

With very few words and an austere tone, A Ghost Story is going to immediately turn off some viewers. This isn’t a film with an explicit narrative, nor is it a fast one. Where others use special effects to create representations of the dead, the ghost here is almost comical in appearance. Like a lazy Halloween costume, it’s just a figure under a sheet with two eyeholes cut out. But this simplicity is intentional. Director David Lowery reteams with Casey Affleck (Manchester By the Sea) and Rooney Mara (Carol) to create a film that begins with a young couple, but focuses on a ghost left behind. Coming off Lowery’s last film, a larger-budgeted Disney-produced remake, this feels like a cleansing exercise and a return to his independent roots. Although it was well-received at this year’s Sundance Film festival, to some, it felt like an unnecessary student film experiment.

Even at a slim 90 minutes, the film may be too long. The slow, deliberate style is appropriate for the story and tone, but, despite the big ideas at play here, the film would have been improved at 60-75 minutes. The early scenes with Affleck and Mara and their gentle intimacy are compelling and the final time-spanning sequence is incredible, but, in between, the film lags. We spend too much time with the various new inhabitants of the house without progressing the story. The worst of these segments features a ham-fisted monologue from an inebriated hipster about the meaning of life in an infinite universe. This is clearly Lowery’s message to the audience, but the blunt delivery is at odds with the film’s subtle style and can be repulsive in its direct proselytizing.

Even with its simple appearance, the ghost becomes an expressive character.

Lowery is known for his lyrical style of storytelling. His first film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, was his version of an early Terrence Malick film. Heavy on voiceovers and light on narration, it used its natural light cinematography to create a sense of nostalgia which has proved to be Lowery’s primary interest.  While that film was soaked in sepia tones, A Ghost Story exists in the haze of fuzzy memory. The sets have a light fog that clouds each scene casting the entire film as something of the distant past. At one point, we meet another ghost in an unintentionally funny conversation. The other ghost is also waiting for someone, but can’t remember whom. As these ghosts wander through the lives of whomever moves into their houses, waiting for their special someone or someones to return, the film unveils itself as a look at our own emotional baggage and the legacy we leave behind. This recalls an intertitle from In the Mood for Love. “He remembers those vanished years as though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.” The ghosts misguidedly search for a feeling that they may never have again and as Lowery delves deeper into this futile search, the film expands beyond its seemingly limited scope. It becomes a film not just about one couple, but about the passing of time, memory, and the inherent history that every location carries, but rarely shows.

4/5 stars.

Okja (2017)

[BS Note: This film is currently available for streaming on Netflix]

Returning to Korea after his first English language film, director Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) has made his second creature feature. In 2006, he put his own spin on the monster movie with The Host and here he brings a unique narrative about a special pet. A multinational food corporation with a bad history, Murando, led by their strange CEO Lucy (Tilda Swinton; Doctor Strange), has created a new breed of superpig – larger, less environmentally demanding, and tasty. In a rebranding effort, Lucy announces that 26 pigs will be sent out to be raised locally by farmers around the world with a plan to hold a “Best Superpig” contest and launch their new food products 10 years later. Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) is the teenage girl who has raised her superpig, Okja, in South Korea until it is taken away by Murando. Unwilling to say goodbye to her pet, Mija travels to America to bring Okja back home.

The success of the film relies entirely on its depiction of Okja. The hippo-like animal is rendered with a startling amount of personality and intelligence. She cuddles with Mija as she sleeps and is able to problem solve when needed. She is less like Mija’s pet than her partner in crime as she helps her fish, climb, and even risks herself to make sure Mija is safe. Most computer-generated effects suffer from unrealistic physics. They feel weightless and removed from the physical world. Okja doesn’t have this problem. She trots and leaps with a heft fitting of a creature her size. This attention to detail in her animation makes her feel believable as she interactions with the objects and people around her.

Okja’s human emotions make her immediately endearing.

There are some unexpected additions to Bong’s direction. He shoots the film with a much more frenetic style than usual. The camera bounces and shakes as it chases its subjects, even employing snap zooms as needed. This progression towards a more mainstream style of shooting action started with his previous film, Snowpiercer, but is much more prevalent here. The end result is somewhat mixed. While it does add a sense of chaos to the story, especially when Okja is involved, it can be unnecessarily distracting. It makes the otherwise well-staged action harder to follow which detracts from its overall impact.

Few filmmakers working today can juggle multiple conflicting tones like Bong can. While the overall silliness of the film prevents it from ever becoming too heavy, he still has to balance animal cruelty, extremism, corporate machinations, and animal-human relationships, each with its own tone. Fortunately, he is able to quickly change the mood as needed. Thrilling chase scenes end in toilet humor and what could be a tense hostage situation with animal rights extremists is punctuated by their incompetence. The one constant in the changing moods is Mija’s relationship with Okja. Mija’s unbreakable will to save Okja and her refusal to give up are heartwarming. Their affection serves as the emotional core of the film. While situations can often stretch believability, their friendship is a pleasant anchoring point. There could be a greater theme read into about the morality of animal farming and meat consumption, but Bong keeps his emphasis on Mija and Okja. Their credible relationship and Bong’s skilled tonal maneuverings make Okja a sweet story of the bond between a girl and best friend. Slighter than his typical work, but enjoyable nonetheless.

3/5 stars.