By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Reviews: Okja, Jupiter’s Moon

OKJA

Thanks to a projection malfunction, the morning’s press screening of Bong Joon-ho’s Competition entry, Okja, was memorably embarrassing. For the first few minutes of the film, the top part of Cannes’ biggest screen—the Grand Théâtre Lumière—hadn’t been raised correctly, leaving viewers in the balcony with a film they could only see two thirds of.

The scene transformed into a barnyard of booing and jeering, which ended when the lights came up and the situation was fixed after an extended break. Understandable, right? And c’mon—these things happen. Except the yelling started as soon as Okja’s Netflix presentation card appeared, muddying the matter more. Of course, this then fuels the ongoing debate on the Croisette: Can Netflix films win Palmes d’Or? Should they? The argument being Cannes is a festival where cinema is sacred—that films should be seen on big screens, not on small ones, a hardline philosophy that doesn’t seem to take into consideration Netflix’s machine-like production schedule that encourages (and finances) new works from ambitious filmmakers.

Like Bong Joon-ho.

Okja is certainly fun—a perfectly good choice for those Netflix nights when you can’t decide whether to watch Season Two of “The Office” again or move further down the “Chef’s Table.” If sometimes too broad for a film by a visionary filmmaker, Okja relates the novel tale of Mija and Okja, a little girl and her giant pig. (For what it’s worth, I kept thinking of the videogame A Boy And His Blob, as well as the more recent The Last Guardian.)

Mija and Okja are best buds for life, until Okja’s fate lies in the forks of Mirando, the fictional GMO company standing in for… Monsanto? As part of Mirando’s “superpig” pilot project, intended to ethically raise massive meat-sacks to end the world’s hunger crisis, Okja just happens to be the super-est. To prevent Okja from ending up on a plate, though, a group of nonviolent animal rights activists step in to help.

Playing rival twin sisters (each of them at times CEO of Mirando), Tilda Swinton is, as always, great to watch. Similarly, Jake Gyllenhaal’s animal television host-turned-mad scientist is one of the actor’s strangest roles, which is saying something. Bizarre and ungainly, he spends most of his (minor) role jutting his gangling limbs around in uncomfortable poses, squeaking his voice, and drinking heavily. Damn if he isn’t down to reach for something really dark.

Sound good? Keep in mind, a lot of this is over the top—right on target for an OTT broadcast. Ultimately, though, it’s whether or not the film makes you feel bad about slurping up pork bone soup after to see if the anti-meat message is any more convincing than its opposite, also found on Netflix: watching Aziz Ansari eat forbidden barbecue in Master of None.

JUPITER'S

Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, which won the Palme d’Or two years ago, has a scene that takes flight unexpectedly. Two years ago, its drone footage felt new and different from what helicopters could achieve. It was a period of experimentation, applying a technology that could democratize aerial footage for filmmakers new and old. (Back then, I wrote at length on the influx of drone cinematography.)

We may well still be in the experimental phase with drones. The toys are neat, in and of themselves. But often it feels like filmmakers use drone footage as a shoddy shorthand for embellishment—as if the tops of trees are suddenly interesting simply because a camera operator can buzz over them.

Gaze upon Jupiter’s Moon, then, Kornél Mundruczó’s Competition entry that uses more drone cinematography than I’ve ever seen in a single feature. It’s a pretty acceptable aesthetic initially, given the film’s premise. (This is, after all, a movie about a refugee who can fly.) But the film moves quickly toward showboating artifice: floaty nonsense that looks good despite dissipating into a cloud of jumbled tropes.

Before silliness takes over, however, Jupiter’s Moon opens with a sequence in line with Children of Men: A superb extended long take tracks the violent downriver raft journey of a large group of refugees. This brilliant (and disturbing) introduction ends with one refugee learning of newfound ability—he can fly—and it’s here Jupiter’s Moon shines brightest; both character and camera are unhinged from Earth for the first time.

Throughout this opening scene, the approach made sense for what was onscreen: The refugee experience must be restless, unblinking horror. But as Jupiter’s Moon wanes into artistic confusion, my sympathy towards the shot evolved into something more in line with its drone sequences: A gimmick for the sake of gimmick.

A shame—it started so well! A shame, too, how all over the place this movie is: A title card at the top discusses Europa, the title celestial body, as a place where life may exist (so… Europe?). That’s as shallow as the thematic tie-in ever becomes, and when you apply that to its drama about a refugee profiting off his powers—and the backroom attempts to hunt him down—the connection loses gravity, crashing down due to double-dips of air ballet and nonsensical character motivations.

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“TIFF doesn’t make attendance numbers for its Lightbox screenings publicly available, so it’s difficult to gauge exactly how many filmgoers the Lightbox is attracting (or how much money it’s bringing in). But the King Street West venue hasn’t become a significant draw for film enthusiasts. The Lightbox’s attendance has plunged – 49,000 fewer visitors last year, a drop of 27 per cent, according to figures recently reported in the Toronto Star. Its gallery space – designed to showcase the visions of cinema’s most iconic filmmakers – saw most of its exhibitions staff quietly axed this past fall. And its marketing barely escapes the Lightbox’s walls. Unless you are a TIFF member or one of the city’s most avid filmgoers, you could walk by the Lightbox and remain blissfully unaware of a single thing that goes on inside. TIFF “still has a world-class brand,” said Barry Avrich, a filmmaker and former board member, “but it’s going to take some fresh vision from retail, consumer programming and marketing experts, given how the lines have become intensely blurred when it comes to how people watch film. They will have to experiment with programming to find the right blend of function and relevance.”
~ Globe & Mail Epic On State of Toronto Int’l (paywalled)

“I’m 87 years old… I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive… The only fear I have is how long consciousness is gonna hang on after my body goes. I just hope there’s nothing. Like there was before I was born. I’m not really into religion, they’re all macrocosms of the ego. When man began to think he was a separate person with a separate soul, it created a violent situation.

“The void, the concept of nothingness, is terrifying to most people on the planet. And I get anxiety attacks myself. I know the fear of that void. You have to learn to die before you die. You give up, surrender to the void, to nothingness.

“Anybody else you’ve interviewed bring these things up? Hang on, I gotta take this call… Hey, brother. That’s great, man. Yeah, I’m being interviewed… We’re talking about nothing. I’ve got him well-steeped in nothing right now. He’s stopped asking questions.”
~ Harry Dean Stanton