Okja


A girl and her genetically modified giant pig; such a sweet picture!

(2017) Fantasy (Netflix) Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Seohyun An, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jungeun Lee, Byun Heebong, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Steven Yeun, Daniel Henshaw, Lily Collins, Devon Bostick, José Carias, Colm Hill, Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Nancy Bell, Jaein Kim, Bongryun Lee, Woo Shik Choi, Moon Choi. Directed by Joon-ho Bong

 

Asian culture can be incomprehensible at times for the Western mind. There is an almost cultish worship of things that are ridiculously cute and a sense of humor that is wacky and broad, yet their comic books and animated features can be crazy violent and chock full of deviant sexual behavior. Some things are best left un-analyzed.

In the near future, food shortages have led the multinational Morando Corporation to develop a genetically enhanced pig. The CEO (Swinton), seeking to undo the damage to the corporate image her amoral sister (also Swinton) did, proclaims the pig to be a miracle; it eats and poops less, provides more meat on the hoof (it resembles a hippopotamus with dog eyes) and tastes delicious. She initiates a contest in which piglets are sent to a variety of farms around the world to see which one is most successful at raising one.

The South Korean entry is sent to the farm of Hee Bong (Heebong) whose granddaughter Mija (An) has developed a bond with her pig whom she has named Okja. When television personality Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal) – a sort of Steve Irwin-like character if Steve Irwin had been a corporate shill – visits the remote mountain farm and proclaims Okja the winner. What nobody has told Mija however is that Okja is to be taken away from the farm, sent to New York for a promotional appearance and then butchered for snacks. When she finds this out, she is not at all pleased.

But she gets a break; the quirky Animal Liberation Front, led by the quirky Jay (Dano) – has kidnapped Okja (maybe pig-napped would be a better term) and hopes to use the creature for his own agenda. However operatives for Morando find Okja and bring her back to New York. Can Okja be saved? And even if she is, will she ever be able to live on the farm again once she’s seen New York?

Director Joon-ho Bong, who gave us the wonderful The Host and the not as wonderful but still interesting Snowpiercer, delivers a great-looking film which is infused with a good deal of unexpected satire on the nature of corporate politics, mass media, obsession, animal cruelty and a little bit of American imperialism (at least one line spoke in Korean is deliberately mistranslated in the subtitles, which is about as subversive as you’d think Netflix would ever get). The satire can be a bit broad but it at least has its heart in the right place.

Just as broad is the humor which can take some getting used to by Western and particularly American audiences. There’s an awful lot of jokes about pig shit and if you find that dopey or distasteful, well, you’re not alone. Fortunately nothing is overtly mean or tremendously gross, so most youngsters will be delighted by the mainly CGI Okja who looks startlingly realistic.

This isn’t bad at all, although again there is a bit of a curve of how much you’ll enjoy it depending on how open to different cultures you might be. While much of this is fairly universal, I found some of it to be bewildering. Still, the cinematography is incredible (particularly in the Korean scenes) and even if the usually reliable Gyllenhaal and Swinton overact shamelessly (Esposito as a debonair corporate flunky is an exception) the movie is a solid choice for a night at home with Netflix.

REASONS TO GO: It’s bizarre and weird but in a good way. There is a surprising amount of social satire in the mix.
REASONS TO STAY: The humor is a little broad for my Western tastes and the movie a bit too long for what it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some violence and plenty of rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Animal Liberation Front is an actual organization that is dedicated to freeing animals in captivity and causing economic chaos for corporations profiting from their captivity.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Babe: A Giant Pig in the City
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie

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Kingdom of Shadows


The price of recreational drug use isn't always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

The price of recreational drug use isn’t always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

(2015) Documentary (Participant) Sister Consuelo Morales, Oscar Hagelseib, Don Henry Ford Jr., Nik Steinberg, Diego Alonso Salazar, Auden Cabello, Leah Ford, Virginia Buenrostro, Luz Maria Duran, Joshua Ford, Dina Hagelseib, Diana Martinez. Directed by Bernardo Ruiz

It is no secret that the drug cartels have turned northern Mexico into a war zone. Violence from the cartels has escalated and in the city of Monterrey, a beautiful municipality that is the center in a war between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel which has escalated so that innocent civilians who have no connection with the drug trade whatsoever are disappearing, murdered by one faction or the other which was unheard of just a decade ago.

Director Bernardo Ruiz looks at the problems created by this violence from three distinct viewpoints from three different people; Sister Consuelo Morales is an activist/nun who advocates for the families of those who have disappeared, acting as a liaison between the families and the police who are perceived to be (and actually are) corrupt – in fact, some of the kidnappings are performed by officers of the law, further deepening the mistrust the people of Mexico have for their own government and its institutions.

Don Henry Ford Jr. is a convicted drug smuggler from Belmont, Texas who worked on his own family farm, but deepening debt forced him into a need for quick cash and there are few instances of cash that are quicker than bringing drugs from Mexico to the United States. Although he was eventually caught and served time in prison, he was already disillusioned by what he saw as escalating violence by new players in the game who disregarded the rules and has since left the life to concentrate on his legitimate farm work.

Oscar Hagelseib grew up in Socorro, Texas, the son of illegal immigrants in a neighborhood that was infected by the drug trade. A cousin’s house was used as a stash location for the cartels and those who entered the trade were far more prosperous than those who didn’t. However, as it turned out, Oscar would go into law enforcement, first with the Border Patrol and later with the Homeland Security Agency. Once an undercover agent but now in charge of drug-related offenses in the El Paso office, he is unafraid to show his face in the media, arguing that he was in less danger than would a snitch or someone within the cartels who betrayed the cartels.

All three look at the disappearances primarily – those civilians who one day just aren’t there. More often than not they turn up in narco kitchens – mass graves. These disappearances haven’t been seen in Latin America since the days of Pinochet in Chile and those at the time were done by government military forces. The corruption is so rampant that nearly every candidate for office in Mexico has to include overhauling their local police force as part of their platform, but few ever get around to actually doing it.

The documentary suffers a little bit from a lack of focus; there is no coherent storyline here, more like a series of interviews entwined together. The statistics are sobering and so are the stories being told here, but because there really isn’t any kind of unification between those stories they are wasted somewhat, floating on the wind instead of being given a larger context. That does those stories a disservice, although they do remain powerful.

It is well-known that the cartels in Mexico are outrageously violent, but we don’t see much of the violence here except for some news footage of bodies being cut down from places where they will be seen as an example of what happens to those who cross the cartels, and one family member of a disappeared one recounts tearfully how her daughter had been raped for three days straight before being executed according to an eyewitness, although she prayed it wasn’t true – you can see in her eyes that she knows that it is.

It is in fact the faces that are the most haunting thing. The end of the movie is simply a montage of faces, faces of the victims and the faces of the families. Some can barely hold back the tears; others can barely contain their rage. Some are stoic, others expressive. Some are young, some old, some in-between. That last montage carries more meaning than almost the rest of the documentary put together; those faces connect the viewer to the story in a powerful way. If only the rest of the movie could be more like that. Still, this is the kind of story that the news agencies in the States isn’t likely to tell and when it does, only in a cursory way. This is the world these people live in, a world we are partially responsible for due to our insatiable consumption of illegal narcotics. If we want to win the war on drugs, that’s what we need to concentrate on.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and haunting. Uses news footage effectively.
REASONS TO STAY: Unfocused and lacks flow.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and depictions of violence, and brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The term “narco kitchen” refers to mass graves in which drug cartels bury those they’ve executed. Prior to burial the bodies are incinerated so that they cannot be positively identified.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cartel Land
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Shameless

The Yes Men Fix the World


The Yes Men Fix the World

Just say Yes Men.

(Shadow Distribution) Mike Bonanno, Andy Bichlbaum, Reggie Watts. Directed by Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum

There is no doubt that the world faces many problems, from economic and political injustice to catastrophic climate changes, many of which can be laid at the feet of the greed of men and their institutions. Not all of these problems exist in the light of day; some require inventive thinking to receive any attention at all.

The Yes Men are what I call guerilla performance activists; in their ten years of existence, they create fake websites for major corporations, trade organizations and government entities, and impersonate representatives of the same at speaking engagements. In these guises they make outrageous claims calling attention to the injustices and corruption that they perceive are taking place.

They first came to public attention via a 2003 documentary, The Yes Men. When they created a fake website for the World Trade Organization, they were startled when it was perceived to be real, and offers for speaking engagements were sent. Being rash, somewhat fearless and possessed of an enormous amount of chutzpah, they went on to make outrageous claims purporting to be on behalf of the WTO. This caught the attention of the media who eventually discovered it was a hoax.

Their latest venture is the first to be self-directed, and follows the two of them as they carry out a series of clever pranks. They begin with Bichlbaum posing as Jude Finisterra, a representative of Dow Chemical. On the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, in which due to the negligence of Union Carbide (which Dow now owns) toxic gasses escaped, killing thousands in Bhopal, India and condemning hundreds of thousands to live with illnesses and birth defects as a direct result of the contamination, the BBC conducts an interview with the Dow “representative” (the BBC had evidently booked him as a result of using one of the Yes Men’s fake websites for Dow).

During the interview, the nervy Yes Man announces that for the first time, Dow was intending to take responsibility for the role in the disaster and would be liquidating the assets of Union Carbide in order to create a $12 billion fund to take care of the affected people of Bhopal.

The news was a sensation. Nearly all of the major media news sources picked it up and Dow’s stock plummeted, a net loss for the corporation of nearly $2 billion in value until the interview was finally revealed to be a hoax. Self-righteous BBC interviewers, perhaps stung that they had allowed the interview to take place, upbraid the Yes Men for cruelly providing false hope to the victims at Bhopal. Bichlbaum responds by pointing out that the pain they may have inflicted on the people of Bhopal was far less than what Union Carbide did to them and what Dow Chemical continues to do; to this day not a penny in reparations have been paid by Dow or Union Carbide to the victims.

While this is the largest and most visible of their pranks, there are several other portrayed here, including appearing as spokesmen for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, proclaiming to post-Katrina New Orleans that undamaged public housing that was slated to be torn down would be in fact left standing to provide affordable housing in a city that increasingly has less and less of it.

They show up at a convention of oil men with a gag that recalls Jonathan Swift; that when conventional petrochemical sources run out, that they were developing a means of refining oil from human remains. They also show up at a seminar of insurance people under the guise of being Halliburton executives touting the “Survivaball,” a ludicrous survival suit that will allow the wearer to survive any global climate catastrophe.

While it must be said that some of the pranks might have caused some discomfort, the truth is that these are situations that need to be covered. In a world where corporate greed is at its apex and that corporate arrogance and disregard for human lives has reached an all-time high, it takes a crusader to point out the consequences of these actions. They may not be wearing suits of armor (cheap suits are more like the uniforms they wear), but they tilt at windmills nonetheless, providing voices of sanity (ironically) amidst the white noise of corporate and political claptrap.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie succeeds in calling attention to issues not necessarily given coverage by mass media.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the pranks have a cruel streak in them – not intentionally, but there nonetheless.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of blue language but otherwise suitable for all audiences to a point – some of the issues and humor may be a little bit more than younger kids can handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The names of the Yes Men are aliases. The real people portraying them are a teacher and a writer, and both have histories of activism prior to the formation of the Yes Men.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Additional pranks and a “how-to” featurette explaining how to pull off a Yes Men prank are included.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Moon