The Holiday watchlist, Part 2: Netflix’s movies with a message


Continuing on with my year-end movies list, this post is about Netflix’s two big budget films of 2017. In both cases, the directors are trying to say something personal, wrapped up in a piece of larger-than-life, big-budget entertainment. So even if you didn’t get or care about the message, you could still enjoy your popcorn for a couple of hours. Other than that, there’s not much that the 2 films have in common!

Okja competed for the Palm d’Or at Cannes in May 2017; it caused some ripples because it was not a theatrical release and a part of the Cannes establishment didn’t think it should have been featured at the festival. Nevertheless, the movie carried the sort of message that really appeals to the liberal and progressive environment at Cannes and it got a standing ovation at the end of its premiere, eventually racking up an average Metacritic score of 75/100 from 36 movie critics.

In some ways, Okja is a mirror of Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 international breakout film The Host. In The Host, a huge mutated fish-creature emerges from the Han river and carries off a little girl to its lair; the rest of the film deals with her father’s attempts to rescue his daughter. In Okja, a little girl forms a strong bond with a huge genetically modified pig-creature which is being raised on her grandfather’s farm. The international corporation which owns the ‘super-pig’ takes it away once it’s fully grown and the rest of the film deals with the girl’s attempts to rescue the creature, which she has named Okja.

Unfortunately, all the characters in the film are irritating in some way (even the little girl on some occasions) and it’s not easy to really enjoy a movie when there’s no one in it that you like. Having said that, the over-the-top acting from renowned actors like Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano combined with various darkly comic set-pieces do keep the film chugging along. Even if you want to enjoy the film as mindless entertainment, it’s difficult not to think about its themes of mass-consumerism and modern society’s hypocrisy of compassion…we talk about protecting the environment and taking care of all living beings but turn a blind eye to the untold suffering of billions of forcefully domesticated animals who are put through a brutal mass production pipeline to satisfy our cravings. In that sense, the director has done a masterful job of getting his message across via a well-crafted piece of entertainment. Brad Pitt is an Executive Producer on this, by the way.

Bright was released by Netflix just a few days ago and makes no pretense of being an awards contender, having averaged a very poor Metacritic score of 29/100 from 26 critics. The film is directed by David Ayer, who for most of his career has scripted or directed films about cops, crime and corruption in Los Angeles. His films are generally hit-or-miss, with the first Fast and the Furious, Training Day (Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke) and End of Watch (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) all enjoying both critical and commercial success. He has diversified his oeuvre in the past few years, directing the World War II tank movie Fury (which I loved), the much maligned Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Sabotage (which I also loved) and the disappointing DC Comics team-up film Suicide Squad.

Bright attempts to tell the story of race politics through the allegory of ‘species politics’, much in the same way as Alien Nation did in 1988 and District 9 in 2009. Set in an alternate present, humans co-exist with Elves, Orcs, Fairies and Centaurs. Elves are at the top of the social food chain, driving Lamborghinis and wearing high fashion while the Orcs are the gangsters and thugs…respectively playing the roles of WASPS, African-Americans and Hispanics from a standard David Ayer story line. Will Smith is an LAPD cop who is paired up with the city’s first ever Orc cop and has to overcome his own prejudice as well as that of his fellow police officers against Orcs, while trying to uncover a big conspiracy. The movie actually starts off well, driven by strong performances from Will Smith and Joel Edgerton (as the Orc cop Jakoby), but the third act is an incomprehensible mess and towards the end I was just waiting for the movie to end. Okja uses elements of scifi/ fantasy to lull the viewer into reflecting on the real world, but Bright misses that opportunity. Still, it’s worth watching, but you’ll find yourself fast-forwarding through the last half hour or so.

My next couple of posts get into heavier territory, covering several movies that explore the human condition, covering the entire spectrum from black comedy to documentary/ guerrilla style film-making.

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The Holiday watchlist, Part 1: The entertainers


It’s that wonderful time of the year when I put in a concerted effort to watch all the year-end blockbusters and award contenders and also catch up on any notable indie films I may have missed out on from earlier in the year. In the past month, I’ve managed to watch about a dozen movies. They seem to fall into about 4 categories – pure ‘popcorn’ entertainment, action movies with a ‘message’, movies about the human condition (guilt is a common theme this year) and one set which I classified as ‘educational’, because I learnt something about history or society through watching them (with varying degrees of entertainment value).

Today I will cover the 2 straight up entertainers I’ve seen in the past month.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – This movie has been subject of much more controversy than should be necessary for a piece of pure popcorn entertainment. When The Force Awakens came out 2 years ago, critics and audiences both enjoyed it, but they also noted that the film rehashes several story beats from the 1977 Star Wars; too safe, too much comfort food. Now with The Last Jedi, critics appreciate the creative risks taken by director Rian Johnson, but fans are incensed that he is messing with their beloved recipe. Which leads to the question: what is the vision for any beloved long-running series of books, TV shows or movies? Fans expect their beloved characters to stay consistent (or at the very least, evolve gradually over time), but want to see them in new settings, facing new challenges. Something about this basic equation has not worked with The Last Jedi. I did feel impatient with Rey chasing a whiny Luke around that island and felt the plot get very thin with the codebreaker on Canto Bight. That middle part of the narrative was choppy and uneven. But equally, there was plenty to enjoy – the opening bombing sequence featuring the heroic Paige Tico, Vice Admiral Holdo’s stunning act of bravery, the visually inventive battle on the planet Crait, the porgs, the beautiful crystal vulptices, the repeated humiliations of General Hux, the reunion of Luke and Leia, etc. Overall, I came out of the theatre happy, but now all the online criticism has amplified the faults of the film and seems to have spoilt my memory of the experience. I definitely need to watch it again to ‘reset’ how I feel. In the long run, I think audiences will forgive Disney for this film. After all, in six months’ time, we’ll have some light-hearted fun in the spin-off movie Solo: A Star Wars Story which has been put together by the ever-dependable Ron Howard. And I am pretty sure JJ Abrams will wrap up the final trilogy nicely with Episode IX in Dec 2019.

Murder on the Orient Express – I enjoyed this movie sufficiently enough to watch it a second time with my kids a few weeks later. I haven’t read Agatha Christie’s book so cannot comment on how faithful an adaptation it is. I have seen the celebrated 1974 version which was very engaging, but I had actually forgotten the plot and the outcome, so I was fully engrossed while watching Kenneth Branagh’s version. I believe that the new version can be rated one notch better, mainly because of that element of twinkly-eyed mischief which seems to permeate the film and the character of Poirot himself. The production design and Haris Zambarloukos’ lush cinematography both do a superb job of evoking the romanticism of that era. And every single member of the ensemble cast is pitch perfect – from the big names like Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz and Dame Judi Dench to the dependable character actors like Willem Defoe, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Coleman and Josh Gad to relative unknowns like Tom Bateman (Bouc, the director of the train), Leslie Odom Jr. (Dr. Arbuthnot) and Marwan Kenzari (the conductor Michel). Of course, in this era of political correctness and fair representation, people may ask if there were no talented Belgian actors available to play Hercule Poirot, but Branagh inhabits the character with such flair, that it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role now. I am very much looking forward to having him return as director and star in A Death on the Nile. And hopefully with a star-studded supporting cast.

In my next post I will cover the two Netflix ‘movies with a message’, Okja and Bright.

Godless: Steven Soderbergh’s Western mini-series is both epic and intimate


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In the past 5-7 years, scripted shows like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, True Detective, Narcos, Downton Abbey and The Crown as well as mini-series like John Adams, The Night Manager and The Night Of have all brought richly detailed, large scale, cinema-quality entertainment to TV.

Netflix and HBO in particular have been very successful at attracting the best of Hollywood talent to write, produce, direct and star in these drama and fantasy epics that have pushed the boundaries of what was considered possible and acceptable on TV, in terms of graphic violence and sex as well as production values.

One of those big names who turned his attention to scripted TV is Steven Soderbergh. From 2014 onwards, the Oscar-winning director has executive produced half a dozen TV projects, including the award-winning 2013 TV movie Behind the Candelabra (about the later years of entertainer Liberace) and the 2-season show The Knick.

This week I finished watching his latest TV project, the 7-episode mini-series Godless, a Western set in the 1880s, starring Jack O’Connell, Michelle Dockery and Jeff Daniels. After being indifferent to Westerns for many years (I didn’t really get all the fuss about Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven, because I didn’t understand the genre that they were deconstructing), I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 2008 and fell in love with the genre. I embarked on a journey of ‘self-education’, ended up watching most of the classic westerns and now keep an active eye out for new entries into the genre (there haven’t been that many).

Godless is the story of Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell from Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken) and Frank Griffin (comedian turned character actor Jeff Daniels); Roy was adopted into Frank’s group of outlaws as an orphaned boy and has now grown into a young man who doesn’t vibe with the group’s modus operandi of robbing and raping. Frank is by turns cruel and caring, a learned, enigmatic man with a magnetic personality who wears a preacher’s collar while committing the most violent of crimes. He is a father figure to Roy and the rest of this 30-member ‘family’ of violent and psychotic men.

At the other end of the spectrum is La Belle, an isolated mining town populated almost entirely by women. An accident in their silver mine two years earlier wiped out the entire male population of the town, with the exception of the undertaker, the bartender, sheriff Bill McNue and his young deputy Whitey Winn. The women have slowly learned to make do on their own, but in addition to their emotional distress, they are now in dire straits financially as the mine is unused and no longer bringing income to the town. Sheriff McNue’s sister Mary Agnes is one of a group of women who decides to take charge of the town’s destiny.

Living on a ranch close by is the beautiful widow Alice Fletcher (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery), along with her teenage son and mother-in-law. Also a few miles from La Belle, is Blackdom, a poor farming community of African American Civil War veterans, who have settled there with their families.

All these lives are violently thrown together when Roy Goode decides he has had enough of Frank Griffith’s life of crime and parts ways with him. Frank considers this a betrayal, even more so considering that Roy intercepts the gang’s latest robbery and takes off with the loot! Roy is now on the run from Frank and his men, gets injured in a shootout with them and eventually arrives at Alice Fletcher’s ranch seeking shelter.

The basic framework of the story is derivative. To begin with, there is a significant parallel with Shane – Roy Goode becomes a father figure to Alice Fletcher’s son while recuperating at the ranch. And the story of how a town holds out against attacking outlaws has been told in various classics including High Noon, Rio Bravo and Gunfight at the OK Corral. However, the freshness in Godless comes from having a large part of the story set in a town without men; this creates a unique dynamic, particularly for a Western.

The show is directed by Scott Frank, who made his name as a screenwriter on movies as diverse as the Spielberg sci-fi classic Minority Report, Barry Sonnenfeld’s black comedy Get Shorty, Steven Soderbergh’s crime-comedy Out of Sight (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and the X-Men franchise spinoffs The Wolverine and Logan. There is a dark sensibility running through all his work and that is given full rein in this show; in fact, the title Godless is a reference to a statement made by Frank Griffith that there cannot possibly be a God in this land of cruelty, sorrow and despair.

I loved that the show took its time in exploring the backstories and personalities of the key characters, weaving its way through flashbacks and subplots. Some reviewers found that these diversions slowed down the pace too much, but I really enjoyed seeing all these slices of frontier life and it helped me invest emotionally in the fate of the various characters, including even Frank Griffin (such a fine performance by Jeff Daniels, who surely has come a long way since acting opposite Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber!).

The production values, cinematography and visual effects are all top notch – movie quality – as we have now come to expect from a Netflix production. Also, de rigueur for these top tier shows now, is the striking combination of graphics and theme music that comprise the opening title sequence. Totaling 7 ½ hours of viewing, this is perfect for a weekend binge watch!