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OKJA Review – “Giant, Genetically Engineered Super Pig in the Big City”



Quick! What countries come to mind when you hear the term ‘foreign cinema’? Chances are South Korea wasn’t the first (or second, or third, or fourth or…) that would come to mind. Which is honestly a shame, because Koreans can flat out make movies.

While most Americans might be more familiar with the filmmaking efforts in China and Japan, Asian cultures (and a certain, often Hot Topic-skewing, segment of the American population) have been devouring Korean movies for decades. 

Director Joon-ho Bong, whose 2006 hit The Host currently ranks fourth all-time in Korean ticket sales, is one of the Korean new wave’s shining stars. His newest film, Okja, a Netflix Original was released on the streaming service and on limited screens in the U.S. on June 28th.

Bong previously dipped his toes into English language and cross-cultural filmmaking with 2013’s, Snowpiercer. It’s easy to see by the fan and critical reactions to both that movie and ‘Okja’, he will likely continue this career path. Based on his technically beautiful approach alone, he’ll likely be able to pull an AngSteven Yeun Lee  and become an Asian film maker that is able to work both domestically and in the Hollywood system with great success. (Speaking of Asian directors who were given large-budget Marvel movies, it’d be interesting to see what Bong could do with a $150 million Doctor Strange movie…though he reportedly wasn’t thrilled with the process of making the much more low-stakes ‘Snowpiercer’ for $40 million ).

Okja, a US-Korean joint production, stars both Korean and American actors (and one Korean-American actor in Steven Yeun) and, though shot mostly in English, about one-third of the dialogue is delivered in Korean. For an interesting look into Yeun’s character and how the Korea/English language dynamic plays an important part in the film, click here.

The plot focuses on a Korean farm girl, Mija (played with a natural and enjoyable earnestness by Seo-Hyun Ahn), and her relationship with Okja, a hippo sized ‘Super Pig’ that Mija needs to rescue form the evil corporation trying to take her away. But the central conflicts at play are, at best, a little muddled. 

I mean, the evil corporation (the fictional Mirano Corp.) did give Okja to Mija and her grandfather (Hee-Bong Byun) in the first place. And they did pay them to raise her. And they did make it abundantly clear they were going to take her back some day. And the current CEO (played with a cartoonish but somewhat moving earnestness by Tilda Swintonis trying to distance the company form their world-destroying past. And, though Mirando Corp. wants to turn the Super Pigs into food, we do see Mija using Okja to catch fish for stew and her grandfather definitely raises other livestock on the farm to eat. We’re also told, albeit through a Mirando promotional video, that the Super Pigs could possibly produce more food for starving people all while leaving a smaller impact on the environment. So…maybe evil is a bit strong? 

While this type of complex dynamic could mean that the audience is left to draw their own conclusions and that we’re not meant to pick sides so easily. This film, however, definitely draws our conclusions for us in pretty dark and unambiguous terms. The problem seems to lie in the weird tonal shift the movie goes through. 

The opening act, sets up a movie that promises a surreal and heart-felt adventure. The naturalistic acting from the Korean actors clashes well with the over-the-top performances from Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays a once-beloved TV presenter reduced to the role of a current corporate shill (and with the voice of Richard Kind on cocaine and helium). 

There’s an early action sequence where Okja leads a chase through a Korean shopping center that is fantastic and simply brilliant from a technical standpoint. Bong, cinematographer Darius Khondji and special effects coordinator Jeff Brink are a fantastic team and I left act one excited for what was to come. 

Unfortunately, once the action moves to America, the Korean actors disappear for long stretches and the hyper-exaggerated American performances have nothing to ground them and often vere towards grating. The style and surreal feel of the film became lost in a weird, but not wholly unenjoyable, mishmash of a corporate drama (Swinton is fighting off her sister for control of the company/we see that Mirando’s ‘earth friendly’ claims are a little too good to be true) and a soft-core heist film anchored by Paul Dano (who can play irritatingly sanctimonious almost as well as he can play conniving and weasley). 

By the end of the film, we’re happy with the way Mija’s story ends but it’s hard to reconcile the other storylines with the movie we were promised in the first act. In all, it is a gorgeously shot and mostly well acted film that you would be forgiven for choosing to turn off, or at least tune out, once you no longer have to read the subtitles. 

Rating: 3/5 Stars – See it for the surprisingly good action sequences, a glimpse at the soon-to-be-a-star Seo-Hyun Ahn, and because your film nerd friends won’t stop insisting you that you have to.

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Midnight Mass: The Blood of Life



The isolated island community of Crockett receives a mysterious new head priest, full of secrets and a brand new testament under a very unusual Messenger of God. 

Meet poor Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), freshly released from prison and wracked with guilt over what got him there, a stupid drinking accident that caused the death of his ex-girlfriend. The last thing he wants to do is go back to Crockett and the judgment of the mostly religious community there, his disappointed family, and the nightmares of his ex’s death that plague him. But where else would have him? Resignedly on the ferry, he goes. 

Riley’s dad Ed (Henry Thomas) isn’t the kind of man who talks very much at all, much less about his feelings, or his very real disappointment in his elder son. Riley’s teen brother Warren (Igby Rigney) has no idea what to say to him either, and just generally keeps mum. Riley’s mom Annie (Kristin Lehman) is accepting and loving, hesitant in how to help her eldest son but never wavering in her faith in the help of our lord Jesus. Mom seems to think a good heaping dose of the Church would set Riley right but is surprised to learn that the old priest of the Parish, Pruitt, has taken an extended leave of absence from the island, and his newcomer replacement Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) is young, charismatic, and bursting at the seams to tell the whole island about the gifts he brought them, most especially what he claims as a new testament under a messenger of God. 

We’ll get back to that whole ball of issues in a moment, the other interesting characters of Crockett Island. Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan) is the nightmarish overly polite and gently, almost lovingly condescending neighbor Christian woman you’ve ever loathed, the kind of person who explains away every last thing her Church may do wrong or contradictory because, after all, God works in mysterious ways. Pfft. Of course, Bev immediately ingratiates herself as the second to the new Father Paul in their services and is the first to start covering up his transgressions as they become more rampant. 

Newcomers to Crockett Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) and his son Ali (Rahul Abburi) present a burgeoning problem to the plans of Father Paul and his shadowy companion, for they are both practicing Muslims. The practical side of investigating these so-called ‘miracles’ and strange happenings falls on Hassan’s shoulders, as he already struggles with barely-concealed racism and suspicion from his fellow islanders, and of course his son is being wooed away from him by the promise of actual, tangible miracles, but from a different whole faith and God. Father Paul definitely does not practice a traditional Christian faith and relies far too much on making use of the eucharist, the ceremony of the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ turning into bread and wine and, well, consumed. 

Wade (Michael Trucco) and his wife Dolly (Crystal Balint) are lifers of the island and both in general interested in one thing, the advancement of their own family, specifically their daughter Leeza (Annarah Cymone), who happens to be in a wheelchair. And that happens to be the canny Father Paul’s first real miracle-with-a-cost that he demonstrates to the astonishment of the parishioners, after a heartfelt and rousing sermon, Father Paul commands Leeza to rise, to stand, and to walk. And lo, she does. What parents wouldn’t wholly dedicate themselves to a cause after seeing this happen to their beloved precious daughter? The fringe benefits of healing, and power, the ones that come at a mighty, currently unnamed, cost, are simply a nice bonus. 

Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet) is the town drunk, and while his reasons for drowning his sorrows in the sauce might be understandable, absolution wears a very different face when it comes from Father Paul. While Leeza might be willing to forgive Joe, and even as Joe begins attending the newly-formed Al-Anon meetings on the island of course hosted by Father Paul, redemption might’ve been better sought from medical professionals, and not this newfound method of religious worship. 

Dr. Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish) is the islands’ kind of all-around medic, and this is how she and Riley’s old friend Erin (Kate Siegel), also newly returned to the island, a few months pregnant but traveling quietly alone, met when Erin comes to the Doc for obstetrics. Sarah’s older mother Mildred Gunning (Alexandra Essoe) has many medical and mental issues, and Sarah struggles in their shared home, to take care of her addled mom and balance her own life. Then Father Paul takes it upon himself to visit one of his oldest parishioners, bringing the sacred host and wine with him to give directly to Mildred, who starts looking and acting so much better under his loving care. 

The show is very much a slow slow burn, with a lot of the actual action taking place in the last two episodes. Much of the beginning and middle episodes feature two people just sitting alone, having quiet and seriously in-depth conversations about heavy subjects – grief and repentance, what happens when we die, the disasters that come as a result of addictions, how our actions’ consequences reverberate to those we love around us, faith and the foibles of man, and of course, the giving of oneself over to a higher power, for strength, and guidance, and love. 

Except, for the higher power that Father Paul brought back with him, to share with his beloved flock of Crockett Island, while it may be extremely powerful and full of what could be considered miraculous magic, everything comes at some kind of a cost. And when the Messenger of God is finally revealed to the shocked denizens of Crockett at Easter Mass, with Father Paul rapturing on about rebirth as the bloody massacre begins in earnest, it’s faith, not in any kind of God or religion, but faith in each other, that may save a few hardy souls. 

Question the wisdom of your religious leaders along with the rest of us in a fine slow-burn addition to the Flanaverse, Midnight Mass is on Netflix now! 

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Saw X: It ain’t brain surgery!



Legendary executioner Jigsaw returns to exact revenge on a cadre of scam artists who promised him a bogus cure for his cancer! 

First off, be aware, that this is what I call an interleaved sequel, a movie set between previous films in the franchise. In this case, Saw X occurs after the events of the very first Saw film, and before Saw II. Everybody got where we are? Good! Into the madness, we dive! 

So, as we all know, John Kramer’s been diagnosed with cancer, very aggressive brain cancer, and likely doesn’t have much time left. And he’s tried everything under the sun, doing a ton of meticulous research, we’d expect nothing less from our master of the art of murder, and not one thing has worked. Yet one man from the support group for cancer sufferers, Henry (Michael Beach), offers an off-the-books supposed miracle cure, and John jumps at the chance. 

Why does this nonsense always sound too good to be true? Because it is. Deleted scenes from the first Deadpool movie already told us why traveling to Mexico for any kind of medical cure is a sublimely stupid move, but Kramer is desperate. And while he might be sick and dying, John Kramer has never been what anyone could call stupid. So the villa out in the Mexican countryside, the affable cab driver Diego (Joshua Okamoto) professes surprise at Kramer being highjacked for his good, the nervous muttering from assistant Valentina (Paulette Hernandez), the side-eyeing from little housekeep Gabriela (Renata Vaca) and her tequila, and most especially the smooth and smarming reassurances of head “doctor” Cecilia Pederson (Synnove Macody Lund), all leave a kind of sour taste in John’s mouth. 

The whole cluex4 scene is done in the style that the Saw films are known for, where we the audience are treated to cut-together explanatory scenes in a flip-flash fashion of usually about two minutes, for poor John when he realizes he’s been hoodwinked and just how badly, seems a little contrived. But then it’s entirely possible that we the audience truly expected our genius mastermind of the infamous Jigsaw murders to have realized what was happening sooner, and got enraged along with Kramer. And cheered as he prepared to take his bloody and ultra-violent revenge! 

First up in our grand guignol of executions is the return of Jigsaw’s first protégé, Amanda (Shawnee Smith). And despite her avowed reverence for Jigsaw and his proven “therapy”, Amanda does waver a bit when the scammers are put through the paces of their specially-made Saw traps, and they shriek and blubber and bleed out. The appearance of the ringer of the bunch, Parker (Steven Brand), doesn’t even slow our beloved engineer of the damned down, because we knew Jigsaw would have his other apprentice waiting just off stage, the deliciously vicious Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). Even the monkeywrench of involving little-boy soccer fan Carlos (Jorge Briseno) in the traps, is just another cog in the machine that is the brilliantly plotting mind of John Kramer. 

A fine addition to the Saw legends, showcasing a return to the beloved style and panache of the original Tobin Bell-starring Jigsaw films, Saw X is splashing gore and gallons of blood in theaters now! 

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Scott Pilgrim Takes Off



“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” Netflix’s latest series, is a rollicking journey through the world of video game culture, blending nostalgic references with a fresh narrative twist. Centered around Scott Pilgrim, portrayed with magnetic charisma by Michael Cera, the show skillfully integrates gaming elements into its storytelling, creating a delightful homage to the video game subculture.

The series cleverly employs pixelated graphics, power-up animations, and game-like sound effects to bring the virtual world to life. These visual cues, reminiscent of classic video games, enhance the storytelling and resonate with audiences familiar with the gaming landscape. The attention to detail in recreating iconic gaming moments is commendable, creating a visual and auditory treat for enthusiasts.

The exploration of video game culture goes beyond mere aesthetics; it becomes an integral part of the characters’ identities and interactions. The script intelligently weaves gaming terminology and tropes into the dialogue, effectively blending the real and virtual worlds. The series navigates the challenges and triumphs of the characters through the lens of gaming, making it a unique and engaging experience for both gamers and general audiences.

The ensemble cast, including standout performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, and Chris Evans embraces the gaming theme with infectious enthusiasm. The chemistry between the characters is palpable, adding emotional depth to the series.

“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” successfully taps into the zeitgeist of video game culture, offering a nostalgic yet contemporary take on the gaming phenomenon. It’s a must-watch for those who cherish the pixelated roots of the gaming world while providing an accessible and entertaining narrative for a broader audience. The series takes off not only in its title but also in its ability to soar within the ever-expanding realm of Netflix originals.

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