Okja (2017) – Film Review

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Available to watch on Netflix. In fact, exclusively available to watch on Netflix – this film is already infamous for getting booed at Cannes, following Netflix’s decision not to have it distributed in cinemas worldwide, provoking controversy amongst the international filmmaking elite. They’re quite rightly worried about cinema’s decline as a medium: the latest projections have forecast that Netflix and Amazon Prime will overtake UK cinema box office spending by 2020, for instance. The reasons for this are manifold and too detailed to go into here, but ticket price inflation (a dozen British pounds I paid to see the mediocre Wonder Woman recently) and the distances required to travel to see films in a theatrical setting, with no guarantee of their quality, seems to me of foremost importance, and could very well lead to the cinema becoming a rarified spectacle in the near future, reserved for special occasions much like the theatre. The monthly fee for Netflix is minimal in comparison, and the risk of expending time and money on a bad film simply doesn’t exist: if it sucks, you just turn it off and move on to something else, simple as, which is a power the cinema seat will never be able to bestow.

Even more importantly, Netflix are taking enormous risks with their homegrown projects, making, for instance, Disney’s cynical ploy of rehashing their old stock into ‘live action’ CGI-fests appear exceptionally unimaginative and even desperate by comparison – and let’s not forget the relentless chains of superhero ‘cinematic universes’ that are scripted and directed with a passion closely approximating to zero. As a film fan, looking up the films at your local Odeon can fill you with despair, whereas reading about the future of Netflix projects is enticing – the company’s attracting immensely talented directors to make original works, doubtless drawn to the streaming service’s instant audience of 100 million subscribers, and also Netflix’s laudable decision not to interfere in the creative production of their visions. They trust the talent they’ve hired and let them get on with it. Why on earth would you want to make another film for the Weinsteins, producers who will constantly try to interfere in the creative process and have a hack at the final cut for the sake of ‘commercial viability’, when Netflix can and will allow a free handle on the reins?

Stop booing everyone, and start applauding the fact that a company is using its profits to take risks and release otherwise unreleasable novelties such as the multilingual Okja, a film by the incredibly talented South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Before this, his last project was the terrific apocalyptic thriller Snowpiercer, which didn’t even get released in the UK by the Weinsteins, who couldn’t figure out a marketing strategy despite its having a cast that contained Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and John Hurt. Go figure why Joon-ho’s chosen to move to Netflix with this one.

A good story is a good story, no matter the medium. And Okja has all the makings of one. It’s a simple tale at heart, about a Korean girl called Mija (13 year-old Ahn Seo-hyun, tough and likeable) whose best friend is the genetically modified ‘superpig’ of the title. After an idyllic start (reminiscent of My Neighbour Totoro), she must chase Okja first across Seoul and then across America after the pig’s stolen from her by the shady Mirando Corporation, who are the company that crafted it in a laboratory in the first place, and who now plan to turn it into meat. Mija’s aided in her rescue mission by the Animal Liberation Front, a group of vegan terrorists led by Paul Dano (channeling a portion of his sanctimonious elan from There Will Be Blood, I think), who are determined to expose Mirando Corporation’s abuse and cruel slaughter of animals.

What makes this film interesting is that Mirando Corporation’s CEO, Lucy, rather than being depicted as a single-mindedly villainous entity, is actually concerned with softening her image and appearing as a do-gooder, in response to the hyper-capitalist drives of the company’s previous CEOs, her father and sister, who tarnished its reputation forever by dumping chemicals and causing a lake to ‘explode’. Lucy Mirando and her sister, Nancy, are played by Tilda Swinton (so memorably perverse in Snowpiercer), and she works very hard, and very admirably, to show the human failings at the heart of capitalism. Yes, Lucy is intending to slaughter all of the superpigs that she has cynically harvested, but with the good intention of using the meat to help feed millions of starving people around the world. It is up to you to decide whether her intentions are genuinely altruistic – Swinton gives you several clues, but the ambiguity is clearly an important part of the film, making it a more intriguing ride than just a bland ‘corporations are bad’ morality tale.

Also very sly is how the satire in this film, ably handled by Joon-ho and his cast, attacks not just the hypocrisies of the Mirando Corporation, which are obvious, but also the leftist insurgency of the Animal Liberation Front, whose mantras about not harming animals or people seem to dissolve quite quickly before the film’s end. This displays a South Park-level of appreciation that satire should tackle hypocrisy wherever it’s to be found, both on the left and on the right, regardless of the political bias of its writers. Organisations often have inbuilt double standards and moronic infighting, which dilute their impact considerably, and Okja’s beauty is of showing a 13 year-old girl, whose simple care in the world is to love her best friend, caught between the bureaucratic stupidities of two unwieldy and opposing enterprises.

On a more surface level of enjoyment, it must be said that Okja has tremendously filmed action sequences, including most especially a road chase through Seoul that’s far more exhilarating than any I’ve seen in the Fast and the Furious series. Its photography in the early sequences, of Mija and Okja roaming across the farmland and mountains of South Korea, is so stunning that, yes, you do rather wish you could’ve seen it on a big screen.

There are other reservations to be had: Jake Gyllenhaal hams it up too much as a fading alcoholic TV presenter, and although it looks like he’s having more fun than he’s had onscreen for years, his bug-eyed approach is good only for a few light chuckles, and it doesn’t justify his tendency to hog the screen.

But overall it’s a worthy experience that you will want to watch again very soon after it’s finished. And of course, on Netflix you can!

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Starlito & Don Trip: Step Brothers THREE (2017) – Album Review

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Robert Christgau called this Tennessee rap duo’s latest album his ‘favourite hip-hop album of the year’, although he qualified such high praise by arguing on Twitter that the year ‘should damn well be generating better ones’. I agree that it’s been a rather weak year for rap so far, especially since wasting time over the last few days trying to come to terms with thin releases from some of its major players (Big Boi’s Boomiverse, Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory, 2 Chainz’ Pretty Girls Like Trap Music). And though Step Brothers THREE isn’t likely to be my favourite hip-hop album of the year (the bottomless puzzlebox of DAMN. looms large), it’s a hell of a lot tighter than most.

Opening track ‘5X’ reaches a level of effervescence with its chanting female backers that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on last year’s best rap album, Coloring Book, and these ‘step brothers’ trade goofy rhymes with each other winningly. It’s a peak: no subsequent song comes close to matching it, although practically every song does have one or two choice lines and more than a few memorable earworms.

Here are some favourites of mine: the amusingly paranoid cheating saga ‘If My Girl Found Out’, a ‘Good Cop Bad Cop’ tale concerning opposing officers Craig and Bart (less simplistic than it sounds), a ‘13th Amendment Song’ doubtless inspired by Ava DuVernay’s excellent Netflix doc and driven by an on-point chain gang sample, a celebration of reaching 25 that’s powered by a muscular keyboard riff, and a sorta-touching rap ballad that insists they don’t deserve a ‘3rd 2nd Chance’ – that’s from any of their women.

Starlito is the Chuck D of the show, deeper voiced and vaguely menacing, whilst Don Trip is a spiritual Flavor Flav, higher pitched and hence more comically inclined. But together they are no match for Public Enemy – they aren’t as focused politically, as relentless musically, or as funny consistently. Still, they are their own beast, darting from topic to topic and mood to mood, sometimes within the same song, demonstrating themselves to be creatures of the information-overload 21st century – even as they bemoan some of the technology that defines our era: ‘They say we’re New Slaves, but really nothing’s changed/We’re just addicted to our cell phones and brand names’. How’s a brother to fight systemic racism if he’s glued to a screen?

I like these two rappers because of their acknowledgment that they’re not above everybody else, admitting at various points to their addiction to dope, women, gambling, hustling etc. They’re common muckers, trying to make a name for themselves and a little cash money on the side, and I wish them well, even as I wish they’d show the consistent respect for other people, especially their ‘bitches’, that they demand for themselves.

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Young Thug: BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS (2017) – Album Review

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So this is what happens when you cross gangsta rap with the singer-songwriter genre… As you might expect, certain songs here are bewildering (in a good way), like for instance ‘Me or Us’, which sounds for all the world like a Paul Simon co-write with its innocent acoustic strumming, or ‘For Y’all’, which has a horn chart adding mariachi flavouring for no reason at all except, y’know, good times.

I’ve long been aware that rap is the most adventurous genre of music in the game, so it was no surprise to hear that Young Thug had recorded a ‘singing album’ with country and melodic R&B touches – but it is a fair surprise to hear that it sounds this good. It shouldn’t be – Thug’s rapping has always had a sing-song cadence to it, partly thanks to autotuning but mainly due to a wacky variability in pitch and tone that he’s utilised to become one of the most distinctive voices in music. His larynx commands more sound effects than the latest Star Wars film: grunts, shrieks, yelps of delight, warbles, and ‘skrrt skrrt’s all emanate and mix together with a rhythmic unpredictability to make his vocal performances endlessly fascinating works of beauty. Hence this is a vocal album to trump most singer-songwriter’s recent efforts, even if classic trap beats and rumbling basslines serve as a constant reminder that this is still hip-hop.

Another reminder is the all-round thuggery of the words, full of dumb boasting such as ‘I’m the black Christian Grey, you know what I’m sayin’?/I got fifty shades of baes with me’. Oh dear… To be fair, Thug does manage to sneak in some cute shout-outs to his six children on ‘Daddy’s Birthday’, his fiancée on multiple occasions, and, er, the green stuff (with Snoop Dogg in tow, of course) on ‘Get High’. But then he goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like ‘Let’s drink a pint of codeine/When she on syrup she a lil easy’, which sounds to me like rape. As an oh-so-middle-class non-G who abhors bullshit macho posturing in all its forms, and most especially when it involves forcing yourself on inebriated or unwilling women, I find moments such as this one very hard to take. And so should you. But it must be said that Thug’s music is still undeniable, and it would be hypocritical to try and pretend that I’m immune to its many charms.

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Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound (2017) – Album Review

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Back in 2013, Beyoncé’s masterpiece ‘XO’ cannily perceived how our awareness of death might only serve to intensify the heightened emotions of love, and hence be a good thing: ‘We don’t have forever/Baby daylight’s wasting/You better kiss me… Before they turn the lights out/Before our time has run out/Baby love me lights out!’ Now here we are in 2017 and alt-country hero Jason Isbell has written us an imaginative song in much the same vein: ‘If We Were Vampires’ ponders what would happen if he and his wife were never to shuffle off this mortal coil, and concludes that ‘I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand… Maybe time running out is a gift/I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift.’

It’s one of many quietly ingenious, heart-warming moments on this tender album. The album ends, for instance, with these ace words of advice to his daughter: ‘Just find what makes you happy girl/And do it ’til you’re gone.’ A family man and proud, The Nashville Sound continues Isbell’s journey towards contentment, one that started with his last solo album Something More Than Free. However, it also remembers the dark times that went before that, as witnessed in 2013’s Southeastern where his past as an alcoholic was both directly and obliquely explored. So Isbell understands why a working-class stiff might turn to drink as an escape from his life in ‘Cumberland Gap’, and how a miner might indulge in long-distance sex because his short-distance existence is so unbearable in ‘Tupelo’; although it must be said that his sympathy doesn’t extend to the US President whose election campaign promised to restore these character’s industries – Trump’s agenda frightens him, particularly when considering a future for his daughter, a future that he nevertheless still believes in: ‘I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation/I think the man upstairs musta took a vacation/I still have faith, but I don’t know why/Maybe it’s the fire in my daughter’s eye.’

This album is extraordinary then in terms of its searching, optimistic lyrics. And if the music is slightly less extraordinary, well, it doesn’t detract from what remains an essential purchase. The lumbering albatross of this album is the 7-minute ‘Anxiety’, which is awkwardly slung round the middle of its neck and is an unfortunate distraction from much of the good work elsewhere. Isbell’s vocals are another distraction, proving to lack some of the gritty character and charisma of many of his characters – I’ve long considered his voice to be a tad too pretty, too smooth.

Nevertheless it’s great to have the 400 Unit back supporting him, their large sound beefing up well over half the tracks with potent crunchy guitar and drums. But the nicest musical touches of all come from Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires, who appears on fiddle and backup vocals throughout, and who doesn’t just add subtle variety but also makes clearer the familial atmosphere that imbues these recordings with a warm fuzz.

Country music is great at disproving the lie that domesticity in art is naff, boring or somehow ‘bourgeois’. In The Nashville Sound, as elsewhere in Isbell’s career, the simple matter of settling down and raising a family sounds like the greatest adventure of them all.

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Laerte-se (2017) – Film Review

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Available to watch on Netflix. This documentary explores the life of Brazilian cartoonist Laerte Coutinho, who in 2004 came out as a transgender woman after nearly six decades of living as a heterosexual man. The death of one of Laerte’s sons seemingly triggered a bout of gender dysphoria. This led to an exploring of the titillating idea of transvestitism: firstly in the fictional cartoon strips that brought her fame, and latterly in the dressing of her own body. Laerte is not strictly transsexual – she damn well likes her penis, and is disturbed by the notion of losing it – although she’s perturbed by her scrotum and yearns for breasts. But as this film makes delightfully clear, gender is a spectrum that should be considered (celebrated, even!) as a separate condition from biological sex. Laerte decries certain ‘fascists’ in the transgender community who try to put her down for not having had breast implants, implying that she’s somehow less of a woman because of it, a line of argument she rightly dismisses as ‘corporatism’. If gender identity is fluid then it should be entirely about choice, and nobody should be able to dictate how your body corresponds to said choice. Laerte-se is a forceful argument in this vein: one striking shot sees Laerte shaving in the shower, her penis protruding slightly from in between her legs, reminding us that genital and (performative) gendered sex can be quite different things. Laerte herself, as a human being, comes across as warm and likeable throughout, but rather distant – there are emotional barricades she puts up, seemingly to bar this documentary from full access, so that by the end she still remains quite an enigma. Her cartoons, which are generously deployed, give a glimpse of a deeper malaise and dissatisfaction, yet they’re always smothered with black humour – hinting at a more intimate well of personality, which the filmmakers never quite unmask. Still, as an examination of gender fluidity first and foremost, Laerte-se’s both fascinating and prescient. And its profundity ultimately boils down to a simple statement, as most profundities do: ‘human beings should be allowed to enjoy themselves, regardless of gender.’ What kind of asshole would disagree with that?

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Chuck Berry: Chuck (2017) – Album Review

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Hands down the single most important figure in the history of rock music (Dylan and Hendrix aren’t too far behind, but they are still behind), Chuck Berry will forever be the first port of call when future generations try to get to grips with the groundbreaking phenomenon that is (Hail! Hail!) rock & roll. He invented the form: without him there’d be no Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Kinks, Springsteen etc. etc. you get the point. His revolutionary fusion of a backbeat-you-can’t-lose-it with explosive riffs and soloing on guitar (plus bluesy bass and boogie-woogie piano never too far down in the mix) codified the basic language of rock & roll and inspired millions of teenagers; simultaneously his exceptional lyrics invented the basic language of teenage rebellion: ‘School Day’ articulates better than any song I’ve heard how popular music is essentially a locus for working- and middle-class kids to vent their anger at the petty frustrations of life. And get laid. The man who penned ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ (incredibly his only no. 1 single) was ever the sly fox who knew full well that all of the dancehalls and automobiles peppering his narratives were essentially heady metaphors for s-e-x (see ‘I Wanna Be Your Driver’ for only the most obvious example).

In short, the man was a genius, and an utterly unpretentious one. Oh, and ‘Promised Land’ may just be the greatest song lyric ever written.

Now I’ve gotten my love for the recently deceased off my chest, let’s turn to the matter at hand: Chuck, the great man’s first posthumous album, and his first one in 38 years. It was recorded in a series of sessions that began in 2001 and continued right up until his death, at 90 years old, earlier this year. It’s a ‘greatest hits’ of his last 15 years on earth, then, and suitably raggedy as a result. But not nearly as shabby as you might expect.

Naturally, there are no songs here to match epoch-defining classics like ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Rock & Roll Music’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’… But there are plenty of good ones. Starting with hot opening duo ‘Wonderful Woman’ and ‘Big Boys’, in which his famous catalogue of riffs, including that ‘Johnny B. Goode’ one, are recycled again and yet sound remarkably fresh, even when coming from the red Gibson and aged vocals of an octogenarian. ‘Lady B. Goode’ and ‘Jamaica Moon’ are sequels to known classics that satisfyingly reward long-term fans of his amazing career. And he’s still a sly fox, cunningly updating his double entendres for the 21st century on the live, sleazy, and very funny ‘3/4 Time (Enchiladas)’: ‘I’ve been hoping to find a woman like you, honey, whose software matches this hard drive of mine.’

Rock is a collaborative sport, as Berry full well knows, and he benefits not just from the support of The Blueberry Hill Band, who sizzle here where his 50s crew erupted (perhaps in deference to his age), but also from the well-judged cameo appearances of Tom Morello, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Gary Clark, Jr. (on guitars the lot of ’em), all of whom rightly sound blessed to be allowed to record with the founder of their careers. Best of all, though, are the several collaborations with his children, Charles Berry Jr. on guitar and Ingrid Berry on harmonica, which help to make for example the gorgeous tribute to their ever-comforting presence, ‘Darlin’’, sound so real and so true: ‘Your father’s growing older/Each year strands of grey are showing bolder/Come here and lay your head upon my shoulder/My dear, the time is passing fast away.’

As you might gather from that quote, this album feels more autobiographical in tone than anything Berry’s recorded previously. Most of all, it’s dedicated to his long-suffering wife Themetta ‘Toddy’ Berry, who for nearly 70 years put up with his well-known cheating ways, plus a whole lot more I’m sure, and who very much deserves such tender tributes as ‘Wonderful Woman’ and the spoken-word ‘Dutchman’. Which isn’t to say that Chuck’s forgotten his roots in fiction, for there are several narratives that live up to his poetic reputation: ‘Big Boys’ is a cute tale about partying with girls and boys out of your league, and ‘Lady B. Goode’ is a typically well written story-in-song. Yet the female perspective of the latter is proof again that he has matured some, and recognises that he owes a great debt to his greatest lady friend.

Chuck is a worthwhile addition and a fitting ending to his catalogue then, providing both a rare opportunity to learn more about the character of Chuck himself, and/or to revel in the sharpness of his fictional observations, as you see fit. Any old way you choose it.

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My Life as a Courgette (2016) – Film Review

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When people tell me they believe the quality of films are in decline, I like to remind them that we’re currently in a Golden Age for animation. Not just the consistent powerhouses of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, but also smaller studios from all around the world, are investing in carefully considered, thoughtful stories with absorbing narratives that just so happen to be animated. It’s incredibly lucky for all of us that as animation has moved into three dimensions, it has also moved closer to a multidimensional approach to characterisation and the perplexities of the wider world – as so far most inane comic book blockbusters have failed to do. A shortlist of brilliance, from this decade alone: Toy Story 3, Frozen, Despicable Me, Anomalisa, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Little Prince, Moana, Zootropolis, Your Name

Add to that list The Red Turtle, which I raved about last week, and the alternately adorable and harrowing My Life as a Courgette, which I’ll rave about now.

I haven’t seen a film quite so tonally audacious as this one for a very long time. There are moments with the sweetness and innocence of licking a lollipop in summer; there are other moments with the bitter and undeserved cruelty of finding you’ve dropped it. It’s a tale with an unsettling synopsis: a 9 year-old boy, Icare, nicknamed Courgette by his alcoholic mother, finds himself, due to a very dark twist of fate, landed in an orphanage with a group of kids who have equally turbulent pasts. Drug addiction, murder, sex abuse, and the deportation of immigrant relatives are just some of the issues these little – tragically little – human beings have had to face. One heartbreaking recurring moment, for example: a girl runs onto the orphanage’s porch whenever she hears a car’s engine, calling out ‘mum!’ We know, of course, her mum will never come.

What’s amazing is that these serious issues are never overplayed for easy, sentimental tears; nor do they ever threaten to cast a permanent shadow over the slight, 66-minute film, which in total is an uplifting experience. Scenes of a ski resort trip, a disco, a Halloween party, and many more are infused with such joy that I can only attribute them to a supreme empathy shown by the filmmakers in their depiction of childhood. Perhaps it’s the especially fractious nature of the world at this time that causes me to be so moved by these scenes of communal, shared enjoyment; perhaps it’s more simply a nostalgia for childhood days of yore, an emotion that I’m normally suspicious of, but not in the case of this film. It’s hard to be suspicious when you’re laughing your socks off, at the innocent ways in which these kids discuss the intricacies of sex. And when Courgette discovers love for the first time, it’s not only impossibly sweet, it’s also believably life-altering.

This film is both bitter and sweet to its core, an oxymoron that plays out in the technical accomplishment of the animation itself – a stop-motion universe of just about recognisably human figures who have exaggerated, sickly pale faces, as unnerving as a clown’s, yet with wide open eyes inviting empathy, and overt primary colours (garish dashes of blue, yellow, and red) shading their hair and the shadows around their eyes. It’s a striking palette that serves the story, even as it resists beauty in a way the Pixar and Studio Ghibli aesthetics, for instance, certainly don’t.

The beauty instead comes from the script, by the terrific Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Being 17), from a novel by Gilles Paris, which comprehends a child’s perspective so acutely, and with a warmth that’s impossible to resist. And of course credit is due to first-time Swiss director Claude Barras, most certainly a talent to watch, who so ably deals with the book’s, and Sciamma’s, sharp tonal shifts.

The greatest testament I can give to this rich film is this: despite everything the kids go through, it really makes you long to be a part of Icare’s life as a Courgette.

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