Here are a cross-section of a number of mildly-to- solidly recommended films recently made available on Canadian Netflix. (You can click on the movie titles to read my original reviews where I’ve written them in the past.)
*One note: In May I recommended Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, a film when I first saw it back in September 2010 I was heavily into the source material, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series of graphic novels. Seeing it again with some distance from the comics I was reminded that Edgar Wright’s playful direction, channelling both manga comic book and 8-bit video games, reaches some kind of weird, frothy perfection. It was a lot more fun this time around. Just for the record.
A key hypocrisy of western civilization is that we prioritize some animals as pets and some we eat. Okja gets right to the core of that problem, the story of Mija (An Seo Hyun), a Korean teenager and farmer who fosters a genetically engineered superpig named Okja (a not entirely convincing CGI creation the size of a small elephant, but much cuter) for years until the Monsanto-esque corporation Mirando shows up to collect their animal, who apparently tastes great and will make them a lot of money.
Cue an intercontinental chase to find and save Okja before she gets sent to the slaughterhouse, with the satanic forces of Mirando represented by Lucy and Nancy (Tilda Swinton wowing, her second role playing twins in a year), Shirley Henderson, the forever cool Giancarlo Esposito, and a truly unhinged Jake Gyllenhaal as the TV host face of the company, Dr Johnny. There’s also the Animal Liberation Front, looking to advance its own agenda, including Paul Dano, Steven Yuen, and Lily Collins. Mija is caught in the middle, just looking to get her friend (pet?) back.
Okja was produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B company, as was War Machine, another Netflix original, though this picture is a whole lot better. It’s directed by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), whose movies always look terrific, and here is especially playful with the tone. The film is fully a funny animal comedy—complete with a bunch of ripe scatalogical gags—an action movie—though some of the action beats are a little confusing—and a deft and occasionally powerful drama. Its intention may not be to turn you into a vegetarian, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you think of Okja the next time you bite into a pulled-pork sandwich .
Now that I’ve had some distance from Paolo Larrain’s incredible 2016—three features released in North America—this one, Jackie, and The Club—Neruda gets the top marks. It seems to accomplish the most—on the surface a biopic on the infamous Chilean poet and statesman, but at its heart a treatise on storytelling, a tongue-in-cheek examination of heroism, especially the kind we find in epic stories, and a sly commentary on celebrity. It does all of this while being moving, funny, and looking good. Unmissable.
If you don’t know the true story of Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor in Sarasota, Florida, in the mid-1970s, don’t worry. You won’t need to google her to feel the dread slowly accumulating in this devastating portrait of a capable, professional woman falling victim to stress, over-arching ambition, and mental illness over a few weeks in July, 1974. Rebecca Hall gives a huge performance that I wish more people had seen before this year’s award season—the slow build of anxiety and fear curdling behind her eyes feels undeniably true. She’s joined by a terrific ensemble of actors including Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, and Maria Dizzia. Director Antonio Campos and writer Craig Shilowich don’t put a step wrong here, offering a powerful understanding of their lead character with the ’70’s production design trumping last year’s The Nice Guys for sheer awful authenticity. A final shot, with “Love Is All Around” from the Mary Tyler Moore Show playing in the background, is masterful. As a measure of the kind of pressures that still exist for people, especially women, working in media, Christine persists with a vision sharply and unfortunately relevant.
Part of the programming of last year’s excellent Atlantic Film Festival, I’m sorry to say I missed Elle until now. It’s the story of a middle-aged woman, Michele (Isabelle Huppert), who runs her own video game company—helping design violent, sexually suggestive escapist fare—who is raped in her home by a masked interloper. She doesn’t report it to the police—she has good reason not to trust the gendarmerie—and instead starts her own investigation, all while she maintains a civil relationship with her ex-husband, a domineering one with her man-boy son, a bitter one with her free-spirited mother, and a sexual one with the husband of her best friend.
This is the work of Paul Verhoeven, the old provocateur, director of The 4th Man, Basic Instinct, and Flesh + Blood, and here he submits to his tendency to exploitative drama while orchestrating a pitch black satire/soap, taking a few pointed jabs at patriarchal French society. I don’t think it all works, but what does is undeniably, skin-crawlingly effective. What’s also undeniable is Huppert’s towering courage. I like Emma Stone as much as the next guy, but Huppert was absolutely robbed at the Oscars.
Welcome To Me (2014)
A weird counterpoint to Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York , the story of a person who gets a huge windfall and turns his life into theatre, Welcome To Me tells the story of Alice Klieg, a California woman who wins $86 million in the lottery and pays an informercial production company to create a talk show/performance art all about Alice (the remarkable Kristen Wiig). Alice has a self-described Borderline Personality Disorder, and the film walks the fine line of mining both comedy and pathos from her mental illness, while lining up an incredible array of talent in support, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Joan Cusack, and Tim Robbins, and then not doing very much with them. Alice feels like the ur-role for Wiig, capitalizing on all her strangest, awkward flourishes, and it’s worth seeing as a character study. As a pointed satire on our narcissistic media culture, it fails to convert.
Jumping into movies from Saturday Night Live, Bill Murray’s early starring roles were right on the money: Meatballs, Where The Buffalo Roam, Stripes, Caddyshack, Tootsie, and then Ghostbusters. Stripes is Murray’s second picture with director Ivan Reitman and it’s the one that perfects his slacker, counter-culture persona. He’s a guy whose life is falling apart so he decides to join the army. Harold Ramis, John Candy, and in one of his final roles, Warren Oates, offer essential and hilarious support. Structurally it’s a two-part movie—the bootcamp and what follows—but it unfortunately loses a lot of its energy in that second half. The structure of Stripes would weirdly be mimicked by a decidedly more dramatic portrait of war, Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, six years later.
Heavy Metal (1981)
I’ll never forget what a college friend told me when I introduced Heavy Metal to him: “Was this written by 12-year-olds?” I totally acknowledge his perspective—it was, in fact, written by a couple of Canadians, Dan Goldberg and Len Blum, who also wrote Stripes—and it feels like, in places, an animated anthology science-fiction fantasy aimed directly at teen boys and stoners, complete with plenty of nudity, swords, inter-dimensional travel, aliens, and Blue Oyster Cult on the soundtrack. Your mileage may vary on whether an animated anthology science-fiction fantasy aimed directly at teen boys and stoners is a bad thing, but fans of The Fifth Element should give it a look, especially the Harry Canyon story. It’s clearly an influence on Korben Dallas and Leeloo.
Drake Doremus’ film is an interesting experiment, envisioning serene future dystopia where feelings are outlawed and controlled. The allegory is a little heavy-handed and in places the picture occasionally slips into predictability, but the production is hypnotic and gorgeous. Now, with the current resurgence of Kristen Stewart, Equals can be seen as part of her recent effort lend her presence to interesting and challenging material.
Oasis: Supersonic (2016)
When the Manchester-bred brothers Gallagher showed up in the mid-’90s with their brand of sneery, rock and roll, the British press sniffed them up like good coke. It was a wonderfully codependent relationship since the brothers have always loved the attention—music magazines in the UK still find an excuse to put those boys on their covers twice a year, ages past the point anyone over here gives a shit. Whether they actually were as seminal a band as they seemed to think is sort of beside the point—their antics were always the real show. In this exhaustive chronicle of their rise and rise—not much here about how they fell apart in vicious acrimony and quite rapidly lost their knack to write memorable songs—we see and hear a lot of their bad attitude and, as usual, it’s never less than entertaining. Fresh voiceover from the now-estranged brothers—both are credited as executive producers—even indicate they’ve gained a modicum of self-awareness. If these doofuses can find a measure of maturity there’s hope for us all.
What We Do In The Shadows (2014)
A New Zealand vampire comedy: That unique combination of elements should be enough to attract interest. It’s a rambling but delightful affair, written, directed, and starring Taika Waititi (director of The Hunt For The Wilderpeople and the forthcoming Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok) and Jermaine Clement, the latter talent you may remember as one half of Flight of the Conchords. Fans of that show, or of the awkward, mockumentary-style humour perfected in the British version of The Office, should not miss this. It has a similar silly, improvised tone that hits more often than it misses.
True Grit (2010)
One of the Coen Brothers’ least quirky, most straight-ahead films still has a lot of signature Coenisms to enjoy. A western adapting the same material as the 1969 John Wayne/Glen Campbell picture, it stars Jeff Bridges as “Rooster” Cogburn, hired by Hailee Steinfeld’s 14-year-old to hunt down her father’s killer. Josh Brolin plays the villain, with Matt Damon and Barry Pepper offer whiskery support. The panoramas are wide and the tone is true, with every character wordy and wise, and there’s still room for travelling dentists in bear pelts.
If you’re in the mood for some pulpy, slightly derivative science-fiction action, you could do worse than Luke (Son of Ridley) Scott’s picture Morgan, which stars rising horror star Anya Taylor-Joy as a replicant, more human than human with psychopathic tendencies, and Kate Mara as the corporate consultant hired to assess her prospects. It won’t change the world but it might work for a few of those who just can’t wait for the Blade Runner sequel.
A Man Called Ove (2015)
A terrific crowd pleaser about a grouchy, suicidal Swedish senior citizen, it’s got the best Volvo vs. Saab joke in cinema history.