-A trio of 2017 films that were released right to Netflix. Watch them now!
For the rest of the year (and really with all of my reviews), I will talk about the experience of actually going to the theaters. I put a lot of stock in getting a ticket, sitting through the previews, and experiencing the film in the way the film-makers actually intended. Certain movies need to be experienced on the big screen. Horror films should be seen with packed audiences, reacting to the surprises. Comedies should be seen with riotous audiences. Spectacle films should be seen with the large screen and large sound systems.
This doesn’t mean that the emergence of the small screen, through the various digital streaming services, is not worth your time. Services like Netflix have begun financing independent films and releasing them out to everyone at the click of a mouse. One of the best parts of this is the ability to get quality films at any time that normally would never expand to your local theater.
When considering what to write this week’s column on, I decided against going out to the theaters to see a bunch of January releases that the studios tried to bury (although I did catch Liam Neeson in The Commuter, which was moderately fun). Instead, I did a little research, and found three of the films which Netflix produced and had the best reviews from 2017. I’ll tell you if they’re worth your time.
I’d like to also place a slight caveat on this, because there was a film distributed by Netflix that I already talked about in my best films of the year list. The Meyerowitz Stories from director Noah Baumbach and starring Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Dustin Hoffman, was among the best dramatic comedies of the year. I would totally suggest watching that movie as well, but I didn’t want to rehash the thoughts I already gave. Here’re the other three:
Director: Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host, Mother, Memories of Murder)
Starring: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Byun Hee-bong
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
Okja is a movie that’s extremely socially cognizant. It plays on the trends of zenophobia and the rising tide of support against animal cruelty in a very wholesome way. While Korean director Bong Joon-ho has largely been known for playing political tricks in his screenwriting, especially in a film about such violent class warfare as his last effort Snowpiercer, he also tends to throw the ball a bit wide of the mark occasionally. While Okja is well acted, often quirky, and interesting, it also doesn’t drum up the kind of drama we want. It’s good for its purpose, and it struggles outside of that.
The story revolves around a genetically modified pig, where its kind is distributed around the world to be monitored for progress. The central pig, and a prime performer, is Okja, an oversize pig who lives with his best friend and owner Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong). After ten years with his family, the corporation that created Okja comes out to South Korea, led by the eccentric zoologist Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal). They name Okja as the best pig, and a fight ensues between the corporation (owned by Tilda Swinton) and the animal liberation front (including Paul Dano as a member) as to who gets control of the super pig.
Outside of some distracting CG with Okja occasionally, the film’s production style is solid. The movie has a nice feel to it, and looks pretty luscious. Sometimes, we’re in a forested portion of South Korea, and other times, we’re in Seoul. Either way, the movie pays attention to make its visual style work for the meanings behind the film. They need Okja’s wild side to work alongside the main child, and it works when we see them playing in the woods to start the film. Then, when corporations get involved in trying to deal with Okja, we get a mixture of Hollywood quality and foreign quirk that makes the movie pretty satisfying to American audiences. Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton play up the corrupt and crazy American corporation idea, and the movie’s dark sense of humor carries much of the film.
All in all, I have to commend the film for its interesting topics. I just can’t say I was that invested.
I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE
Director: Macon Blair (X)
Starring: Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, David Yow, Devon Graye, and Jane Levy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%
Continuing the theme of movies that are quirky, I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore is one of the oddest tone combinations in a movie that I’ve seen in awhile. It attempts to mix a very, very deadpan comedic style with an almost thriller backdrop. Director Macon Blair doesn’t try to rope us in with anything laugh out loud, but instead settles for atmosphere and odd quirks that some of our characters exhibit. The subtlety with certain characters is what was intended, but it can also sometimes feel off-putting when the deadpan characters are thrown into crazier circumstances. The movie’s main flaw often feels like it doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be.
Our main character is Melanie Lynskey’s Ruth, who is a single, free spirit type, seemingly going through some semblance of a midlife crisis. She works as a nurse, and has a really bad day that begins to spiral her a bit out of control. First, a patient she was close with dies, and then she returns home to find her apartment burglarized, partially from her own carelessness by leaving the door unlocked. When the police aren’t really able to help, she seeks the help of her neighbor (Elijah Wood), who has a proclivity for heavy metal and Asian weapons.
This movie premiered at Sundance, which really is the hub for quirky films, but was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic film-making. The Gotham awards, which recognize mostly independent films, also nominated Lynskey for Best Actress in their ceremony. While I’m not here to dissuade their picks, I think that films at Sundance often get more credit when in the heat of the festival, but the quirkiness of a lot of the independent films tends to not land as well in later release. I definitely felt that way about this one. It had silly moments, and I appreciated the darkly comedic tone, but I didn’t really get invested because of the constant shifting in tone. A common thread of my reviews is often the way a good writer or director handle shifting tones. Often, constantly switching the style of the film is a detriment, and I didn’t feel like I had much to latch onto with this movie. Only a really good director can meld separate genres and ideas together effectively. Macon Blair is still too inexperienced to really tell.
One thing it does do, slightly (which I appreciated), was the way it made fun of gender politics. I noticed a way that people took Ruth less seriously when she began searching for her stolen property, and how the police chastised her as if she was a child. She certainly does end up proving them wrong. Ruth had a strength to her character that the people around her unappreciated, but I’m not convinced that Melanie Lynskey did anything specifically special with her performance. Elijah Wood as the quirky sidekick is amusing, but probably miscast.
When the movie switches to becoming more of a thriller as the plot resolves, you may struggle finding an investment with how everything turns out. No one in this film is particularly likable, and there’s certainly nothing about the villains that makes them different than any other white-trash burglar that gets thrown into similar films. The underworld visionary style was fine, and the performances were all fine, but I wouldn’t openly recommend this film. The critics loved it, and I can acknowledge that I tend to like quirky movies like this a little less than your average critic, but still, there’s just not a ton of substance, drama, or intensity in this movie.
OUR SOULS AT NIGHT
Director: Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox, The Sense of an Ending)
Starring: Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Iain Armitage, Matthias Schoenearts, and Judy Greer
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Both Robert Redford and Jane Fonda have given an entire career of really good performances. Fonda is one of the best actresses of her generation, while Redford was involved in some of the best movies of the 1970s. It really only takes a half decent story to make their interactions (this is their fourth time together) worth it, and Our Souls at Night is a nice, charming movie that deals with family struggles and age in a very respectful way.
Our story starts when Robert Redford’s Louis, a widow, gets a knock at his door and its the also widowed neighbor Addie (Fonda), asking to sleep next to each other to take away their loneliness. It isn’t sexual, but rather a desperate search for companionship after spending so much time alone. As they start to learn more about each other, their friendship and respectful romance blossoms.
As the town begins talking about their relationship, they work hard at keeping things discrete, but they become so close that their families begin getting intertwined. Addie’s son (Matthias Schoenaerts) is going through a separation and leaves his son Jamie (Iain Armitage) with Addie and Louis for the summer. Their makeshift family may be hard for their children to accept, but they both get a revitalized take on life.
The score is phenomenal, and the movie does a nice job at getting us to care about Louis and Addie. The reason I’m only a slightly passing grade on this is that their chemistry does sometimes feel contrived, as if Fonda is trying to play a more intrusive character than necessary and Louis play a more withdrawn character than necessary. It’s not that the performances aren’t really good, it’s that the script doesn’t always point to making these two people fit together. They do an excellent job with the grandchild, but on their own, there’s a lot of brooding silence and awkwardness that doesn’t really work for me. It’s tough to say that two performances are so good but the chemistry isn’t, but that’s how this feels.
Director Ritesh Batra made another decent movie this year in The Sense of an Ending, and both movies have a very down-to-earth, yet mystical, take on human emotions. This is true in this film, and although everyone does a nice job making this film work for its main characters, there’s a few scenes with Judy Greer and Schoenaerts as their various children that feel contrived. We haven’t focused enough on the negative to have these add-on plots work. It was better to just have a multiple months coverage of our leads’ budding relationship. As the plot thickens, the stuff we like grinds to a halt, and we care more about the family contrivances that keep them apart than the actual pace of the movie. I accept that life is complicated for these individuals who have lost so much and given so much to their families, but I also don’t accept the movie’s occasional straying away from what made it nice in the first place. Redford and Fonda are good, however, and that’s enough for me to recommend this one.
Next Week: Fifty Shades Darker, The 15:17 to Paris, and The Cloverfield Paradox