Review Round-Up: The Prestigious Netflix Titles – Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories, and Mudbound

Posted: January 20, 2018 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Written by Daniel Simpson

Ojka

okjaOkja is a mashup of a Spielberg-esque adventure film where a child befriends a sort of magical creature (in this case a genetically engineered giant pig named Okja) and a darker satire about corporations and the food industry. That’s certainly a creative idea and the man at the center is Bong Joon Ho, a director who, if nothing else, has never been charged with being uncreative. The film is at its best in the first act, focusing on the growing bond between young Mija (An Seo Hyun) and Okja. The special effects used to bring Okja to life are generally pretty impressive and I did buy into the relationship between her and her young owner. This section of the film also culminates in a really zany chase scene which is exciting and a lot of fun. Generally though, this whole first act has a great energy which carries it through.

The film slows down a lot after the chase though, becoming more bogged down in the plot as the corporate suits who created Okja face how to deal with her and the media blitz. What hurts these sections are the characters, and specifically the over-the-top performances. Most of the American casts play their roles with such exaggerated mannerisms and habits that it becomes impossible to take anything seriously. Any nuanced message Bong Joon Ho might have been trying to convey about corporate culture and factory farming is completely dwarfed by the absurd characters. Tilda Swinton has dual roles as the head of a major corporation (each ridiculous in their own way), but the real culprit is Jake Gyllenhaal, who, if nothing else, is clearly trying.

To the actors’ credit, I have no doubt they give the performances Bong Joon Ho wanted out of them, but I don’t think it works. The resulting film becomes too silly to take seriously as satire, but also a little to dark and unpleasant to enjoy as a fun romp. The film certainly has its moments and I do applaud Bong Joon Ho for his creativity and boldness (I certainly won’t be forgetting Okja anytime soon) but all told this didn’t really work for me.

C

 

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)The-Meyerowitz-Stories-posters-4-600x894

My usual response to movies by Noah Baumbach, and other indies depicting the mundane problems of upper-middle class white people, is muted enthusiasm. Baumbach’s films are usually well-made, with wit and some good writing, (even though looking over my records I have typically given them negative scores), but they aren’t funny enough to totally function as comedies or interesting enough to totally function as dramas. That’s sort of true of The Meyerowtiz Stories, Buambach’s newest, as well, and as I was watching I more or less expected to have the same response I typically do. But as the movie went along, I found myself warming to it and actually getting pretty invested. I think the key here is the characters, who are all likable people but also very flawed in their own ways and the family dynamic at the core of the film makes a lot of sense. The performances are also pretty strong, especially from Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel.

At the end of the day, this isn’t far removed from the sort of indies I described at the beginning of this review, but it did charm me in ways I didn’t quite expect. Again, the key is the characters. Much to my surprise, I ended up really liking these people and wanted them to work through their problems. It’s ultimately still a pretty minor work, but I did enjoy my time with it.

B

 

Mudboundmudbound

Netflix may have been making strides to bolster their original film content throughout the year, but Mudbound is perhaps the first film to really signify the streaming service might be ready to compete in terms of prestige cinema. Co-written and directed by Dee Rees, Mudbound is an epic family saga set on a farm in Mississippi in the mid 1940s. The focus specifically is on two families, the white McAllan family who owns the land, and the black Jackson family who works it. In addition to having to work together, both families are connected by a son who serves in the war and comes back a changed man.

That Mudbound is based on a novel is apparent early on. The film’s encompassing look of two families speaks to the sort of ambitions which often take root in literature and while the time frame of the film is relatively contained, Mudbound still has an epic sweep. This is a film that is interested in the inner dynamics of each family which also looks at more specific relationships between each, could also be considered a character study of a few select people, a story of PTSD, jealousy, inter-generational struggle, the roots of race in American history, the changing social mores post World War II, and a story of friendship. That’s a lot to juggle and if Mudbound has any major flaw it’s that it bites off a bit more than it can chew. Not all themes are necessarily given the amount of time they need and the film doesn’t coalesce fully. Still, I’d much rather see an overly ambitious movie than one lacking. More to the point, scene to scene Mudbound is highly engaging and navigates through these ideas quite well, whether through plot, overtly through dialogue, or visual implication.

The film certainly has higher production values than I would have expected from a Netflix original film, accurately recreating the period and also staging some convincing, albeit restrained, battle scenes. The fact that most of the film is set on a farm rather than cityscapes probably helped keep the budget low while still conveying the period, but all the same it is impressive and the film also features some very confident and lush cinematography. Dee Rees’ work with her cast is perhaps even more impressive than the technical filmmaking. This a stacked cast full of talented character actors, many of them doing some of their best work. The heart of the movie is probably Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund who play the two men who return from the war as changed men. Hedlund does a good job portraying someone shaken by his experiences in the war, but Mitchell’s character is even more interesting. In addition to struggling with PTSD, Mitchell also finds himself longing for his experiences as a soldier where he was actually treated with respect and dignity. To go from being a war hero in Germany back to being a lowly black man in 1940s Mississippi is a jarring shift and Mitchell captures that tension exceedingly well. Mary J. Bilge also carries tremendous power in her role as the Jackson family matriarch and Carey Mulligan also gives a very memorable turn. The whole cast is really great through and come together nicely.

All told, Mudbound is highly impressive and to my eyes is easily the best movie Netflix has produced. It doesn’t quite handle its many elements perfectly and the film can be a little slow to get going, but in its best moments, Mudbound is emotionally fraught, insightful, and very well made.

B+

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