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

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 nourish, 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.

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.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

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…

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Who would want to be stuck in a dream for ten years?

Top 10 Films 2010-19
Now, you may glance down the following and blanche at its apparent Yankophile and populist tendencies. I wouldn’t seek to claim, however, that my tastes are particularly prone to treading on the coat tails of the highbrow. And there’s always the cahiers du cinema list if you want an appreciation of that ilk. As such, near misses for the decade, a decade that didn’t feature all that many features I’d rank as unqualified classics, included Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Tron: Legacy, The Tree of Life, The Guard and Edge of Tomorrow.

Don’t make me… hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m… hungry.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
(SPOILERS) It’s fortunate the bookends of Marvel’s Phase One are so sturdy, as the intervening four movies simply aren’t that special. Mediocre might be too strong a word (although at least one qualifies for that status), but they amountto a series of at-best-serviceable vehicles for characters rendered on screen with varying degrees of nervousness and second guessing. They also underline that, through the choices of directors, no one was bigger than the franchise, and no one had more authority than supremo Kevin Feige. Which meant there was integrity of overall vision, but sometimes a paucity of it in cinematic terms. The Incredible Hulk arrived off the back of what many considered a creative failure and commercial disappointment from Ang Lee five years earlier yet managed on just about every level to prove itself Hulk’s inferior. A movie characterised by playing it safe, it’s now very much the unloved orphan of the MCU, with a lead actor recast and a main c…

The only things I care about in this goddamn life are me and my drums... and you.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
(SPOILERS) The final entry in John Hughes’ teen cycle – after this he’d be away with the adults and moppets, and making an untold fortune from criminal slapstick – is also his most patently ridiculous, and I’m not forgetting Weird Science. Not because of its unconvincing class commentary, although that doesn’t help, but because only one of its teenage leads was under 25 when the movie came out, and none of them were Michael J Fox, 30-passing-for-15 types. That all counts towards its abundant charm, though; it’s almost as if Some Kind of Wonderful is intentionally coded towards the broader pool Hughes would subsequently plunge into (She’s Having a Baby was released the same year). Plus, its indie soundtrack is every bit as appealing as previous glories The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

Mention of the latter highlights Some Kind of Wonderful’s greatest boast; it’s a gender swapped Pretty in Pink, only this time Hughes (and his directing surrogate Howard…