Skip to main content

Say hello to a super piglet.

Okja
(2017)

(SPOILERS) I’d avoided Okja until now, mainly because, while I enjoyed Snowpiercer up to a point, I found its on-the-nose political allegory borderline excruciating. And that was quite beside the absence of internal logic in respect of its premise. Okja promised more of the same, and indeed, Bong Joon-ho’s hammer-to-crack-a-nut approach is entirely less than endearing, such that I was frequently prone to wishing a fate worse than sausages on the adorably titular GM porker and be done with her.


But Bong’s a fine filmmaker, if a much more variable writer (here helped out by Jon Ronson, who acquitted himself much more honorably when he previously collaborated with Peter Straughan on Frank), so it would be unlikely that he didn’t come up with something at least fitfully engaging, and Okja’s certainly that. It’s just unfortunate that it’s humour tends to fall flat, while its message isn’t so much thrust in your face as forced down your throat until you gag on the stream of anti-GM/pro-animal rights/pro-ecology/anti-corporate entreatments (all admirable positions, but assuming most of the captive audience will be on board anyway, they’re at best patronising and at worst lazily vapid). Added to which, its brand of unabashed sentimentality is particularly galling.


Okja’s a super pig, mystifyingly passed off by the Mirando Corporation as a non-GMO miracle piglet (how, precisely, anyone even remotely believes this is never broached; we have to take it on faith) because the company is acutely aware its product wouldn’t go down well in anti-GM environment. More mystifyingly, this “answer to hunger” (possibly an intentionally artificial sales pitch, as the only foodstuff we actually see is Super Pig Jerky, but you can never tell with this unfinessed level of satire/farce) has a ten-year growth period before the slaughter. Not very factory-farm efficient, then, particularly when Mirando makes the decision to cull the entire crop (so what, are they going to start from scratch again, waiting another ten years?)


In Bong’s rush to manipulate our emotions, he entirely ignores earlier introduced plot points. Such as, why have Okja impregnated by a super boar – portrayed, rather weirdly, for all that we accept the anthropomorphic tendencies of the picture, as rape – if she’s subsequently going to be slaughtered? And then, at the end, this is forgotten about, as presumably Bong and Ronson didn’t want to associate any offspring with conception against her wishes.


Okja’s major supporter is Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun, giving a winning, spirited performance), who furiously leaves her mountain idyll in hot pursuit when her non-circumspect grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) hands the beloved porker over to Mirando. She teams up with the dedicated but semi-parodied Animal Liberation Front, led by the patented creepy man-child stylings of Paul Dano’s Jay and including in its ranks Steven Yeu, Lily Collins (I’m guessing she did it for the cause, as she barely registers) and Jay Baruchel-alike Devon Bostick (skipping meals because “He’s still trying to leave the smallest footprint on the planet that he can”).


While being asked to root for Paul Dano doesn’t exactly help a movie, any mixed allegiances are more than compensated for by a – if there’s any justice – career-ending turn from Jake Gyllenhaal as TV zoologist Johnny Wilcox, who has been bought out by Mirando and acts as their spokesperson. It’s hard to express in words just how horrific Gyllenhaal’s comedy shtick is, except to note there’s good reason he has nothing of note in that genre on his CV (City Slickers doesn’t count). Jake appears to be attempting a performance pitched somewhere between Sharlto Copley and Jim Carrey but flounders entirely. I mean, yeah, I know we aren’t supposed to like Johnny, but the dead air permeating the picture whenever Gyllenhaal has a scene of over-exerting says something about his comic chops – they’re non-existent.


Not faring all that much better is the usually reliable Tilda Swinton (okay, she’s much better than Gyllenhaal, just not by her standards), who seems to have plumped for the part on the basis that she was only doing twins last year (see also Hail, Caesar!) Neither of whom are particularly interesting, no matter how many dental appliances and nervous ticks she gives them. Giancarlo Esposito lends a bit of weight as the mastermind behind her CEO/former CEO (Mirando is propped up on nepotism, although I saw nothing otherwise Murdochian about it) while Shirley Henderson, as one of Swinton’s assistants – that is, the assistant of one of the Swintons –  is essentially reheating Moaning Myrtle from Harry Potter.


Pulling off this kind of mix of comedy and pathos, sincerity and cynicism (Mija saves the special pig, but the rest are mincemeat), is no easy task, and Bong sadly isn’t up to it. There are moments early on suggestive of more nuance than is settled for – Mija needs to extract an object from Okja’s foot, and it turns out to be a hedgehog the loveably blundering oinker trod on (GM spelling the extinction of natural species?), while Mija throws back a tiddler fish as an implicit endorsement of sustainable methods – but Bong’s more interested in slapstick Gyllenhaal shtick and Okja shit (literally), and sloppy plotting (how much was her grandfather paid that his gold pig is considered more than valuable enough to ensure Okja is returned to Mija? Surely a big corp would make sure he was rewarded with peanuts?)


Nevertheless, while the characterisation largely sucks, the FX rendering Okja are outstanding, sufficiently photoreal that you don’t doubt she’s there, and imbued with tonnes of heart-tugging personality to boot (Darius Khondji’s photography is also faultless). So much so, it’s almost impossible not to be offended at Ronson and Bong’s manipulation offensive. Okja’s an odd viewing experience, as if the The Farrelly Brothers opted to make an earnest eco-parable. One can’t help feeling, with some judicious pruning, both of tone and F-bombs, this could have been a much more effective, audience-friendly movie, one that sustained its message (albeit, it’s difficult to tell what has gone down well and hit its target demographic with Netflix) with Babe-like consequences in terms of inviting identification and empathy. Instead, we got another Snowpiercer (although, at least that didn’t try to be funny), chock full of crude ham – ahem – handedness and boorish in its message and delivery.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

All the way up! We’ll make it cold like winter used to be.

Soylent Green (1973)
(SPOILERS) The final entry in Chuck Heston’s mid-career sci-fi trilogy (I’m not counting his Beneath the Planet of the Apes extended cameo). He hadn’t so much as sniffed at the genre prior to 1967, but over the space of the next half decade or so, he blazed a trail for dystopian futures. Perhaps the bleakest of these came in Soylent Green. And it’s only a couple of years away. 2022 is just around the corner.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a noirish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.