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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The BFG (2016)


This is giant country.

This is giant country.

(2016) Family (Disney) Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Adam Godley, Michael David Adamthwaite, Daniel Bacon, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Gibbs, Paul Moritz de Sa, Marilyn Norry, Callum Seagram Airlie, Haig Sutherland, Shauna Hansen, Denise Jones, Gabrielle Rose. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

What dreams may come are the ones that spark our imaginations and inspire our journeys. No matter how small and insignificant we are, our dreams make giants of us all.

Sophie (Barnhill) is a level-headed young girl living in a London orphanage. Her life is a dull routine of rules (that she routinely breaks) and drudgery. Her only joy comes after everyone is in bed asleep. She then finds books to read, that transport her out of her dreary surroundings to places of luxury, adventure and excitement.

One night, she spies a giant man (Rylance) striding through London. Unfortunately, he spots her and so he plucks her out of her bed and carries her home with him to Giant Country. There, Sophie discovers that her Giant is a gentle one, so she names him (since he has no name) BFG, standing for Big Friendly Giant. She also discovers that there are nine other much larger giants who bully BFG and who are not so nice; they eat human flesh (BFG turns out to be a vegetarian) and are always hungry. They also have figured out how to travel to our world, where they pluck little children away from their homes and eat them. They’re led by the water-phobic Fleshlumpeater (Clement) and include such worthies as Bloodbottler (Hader) and Maidmasher (Olafsson).

The BFG also has an important function; every night while the Giants sleep, he strides over to Dream Country where on a gigantic tree dreams are formed. He captures the dreams (which flit around like multi-colored fireflies) and stores them, eventually making his nightly rounds in London to give people the dreams he’s caught. It’s a very taxing job but one that the BFG seems well-suited for.

Despite being 24 feet tall, the BFG is actually a runt as far as the other giants are concerned (they are at least double his height) and he is bullied endlessly, used as a bowling ball. Sophie knows that the bad giants must be stopped and the only one who can do it is the Queen of England (Wilton) which shows that Sophie can use a lot of work in her civics lessons.

Spielberg alone other than maybe Walt Disney understands how to tap in to the wonder and magic that children see the world as. His movies are classics that understand how to access the child in all of us; what made E.T. such an indelible classic is that he first of all doesn’t talk down to children, nor does he surround the kids in his movies with incompetent, bumbling adults. In fact, he gives credit to kids much more than a lot of the family film makers of the 21st century do.

Some were hoping that this would be a return to E.T. inasmuch as he was using the Amblin Entertainment team that was largely responsible for the iconic 1982 hit. The mood is a bit darker here, although Spielberg remains a master of evoking wonder – the dream tree sequence is vintage Spielberg. However, this isn’t to the level of some of his more beloved work.

Part of why that is may have to do with the difference in my age in Spielberg’s golden years and now. Perhaps I’m just being more of a curmudgeon, but I found myself getting annoyed with the BFG’s constant malapropisms and bizarre words (“figglers” instead of fingers, “strawbucklers” instead of strawberries) that make him sound like he has some sort of severe mental illness.

Barnhill’s character also rubs me the wrong way. She’s been getting much critical praise for her performance, but quite frankly I just felt…annoyed by her. It’s not that she’s doing anything particularly wrong as an actress and the character is, I suppose, well within the parameters that we should expect our plucky British heroines to be. She just felt condescending and sort of twee. I just felt like I’d just had a thousand Pixie Stix poured down my throat at once whenever she was onscreen.

Don’t get me wrong; there is every reason to go see this movie this summer and to take the family with you. Flawed or not, this is still Steven Spielberg and he knows how to make an entertaining movie that inspires amazement. This isn’t his best work, but his less-than-stellar efforts blow nearly everybody out of the water. There is also the possibility that I simply have outgrown him and that might be the most horrible contemplation of all.

REASONS TO GO: It does have plenty of charm and imagination.
REASONS TO STAY: The giant-speak gets incredibly annoying as does Barnhill’s plucky kid performance.
FAMILY VALUES: The very young may find this a bit frightening; otherwise there’s just some mildly rude humor to contend with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the last produced screenplay by Melissa Matheson prior to her passing away in late 2015. The film is dedicated to her memory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iron Giant
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Happening

The Divide


A post-apocalyptic pacifier.

A post-apocalyptic pacifier.

(2011) Sci-Fi (Anchor Bay) Lauren German, Milo Ventimiglia, Michael Biehn, Courtney B. Vance, Rosanna Arquette, Ashton Holmes, Ivan Gonzalez, Michael Eklund, Abbey Thickson, Jennifer Blanc. Directed by Xavier Jens

The real test of humanity comes in situations of great stress. We see the best of the human spirit – firefighters running into burning hills to protect homes and property, ordinary people pulling people out of the rubble of disaster sites and keeping them alive until help arrives.

We also see the worst and that’s pretty much what you’re going to see here although to be fair, that is pretty much true of most movies of this genre. New York is leveled by nuclear detonations; eight residents of a Manhattan apartment tower make their way into the basement to ride out the fallout storm.

Mickey (Biehn), the janitor, lives in the basement and he’s none too happy about having his space invaded by residents Eva(German), her boyfriend Sam (Gonzalez), brothers Josh (Ventimiglia) and Adrien (Holmes) and Josh’s friend Bobby (Eklund), Marilyn (Arquette) and her daughter Wendi (Thickson) and the bookish Devlin (Vance). While he asserts his dominance, it is not without some uneasiness on the part of the other survivors.

Not long afterward the make-shift shelter is broken into by armed men in biohazard suits; they abduct Wendi and attempt to leave but a firefight breaks out and Adrien is wounded while several of the invaders are killed. Josh takes one of the soldiers suits in an effort to rescue Wendi and finds the basement connected to a lab connected by tunnels of plastic sheeting. He finds Wendi among a group of children unconscious, head shaved and eyes bandaged. Unfortunately, Josh’s ruse is discovered and a soldier yanks off his breathing apparatus, exposing him to the irradiated air.

Josh makes it back to the basement and the soldiers weld the remaining survivors into the room, trapping them there. This is called making things worse; the fractured group grows even more fractured. Sexual politics begin to play a role as Marilyn starts sleeping with Bobby while Eva moves away from the indecisive and borderline cowardly Sam and more towards Adrien. When it becomes clear that Mickey has a hidden stash room, a fight breaks out and the balance of power shifts. Josh and Bobby take control and start using Marilyn as a sex slave. Can Eva and the rest survive?

Gens has a history of films portraying a group of people in a hellish situation and showing them to revert to their most primal and ignoble forms. There are those who believe and hope that faced with a desperate survival situation that people will show that they are basically good and act accordingly. Gens is clearly not one of them; in his point of view (and he may well be right) people are inherently self-serving and will throw morality and compassion out the window in a justification to survive at any cost, no matter what it takes.

The tension here is as good as you’ll see in any movie of this type. I like that this isn’t a paint-by-numbers apocalypse with conspiracies and mutants. Instead, we see people gradually grow more suspicious and violent and when power shifts, we see how that power corrupts them, making them monsters. Of course, the radiation poisoning doesn’t help either.

While I like Arquette’s performance as the distraught mom who reverts to using her sexuality to bind her to the alpha males. It is sobering and discouraging to watch but I think it’s a pretty accurate portrayal. As much as I respect women, we come from roles in which women who had stronger protectors were more likely to survive. It’s why even now, women are expected to be more attractive in order to find a mate.

Unfortunately, most of the others in the cast are surprisingly flat and uninspiring. Considering the situation, you’d expect that there’d be more emotion in the cast but you never get a sense of anything other than anger, self-importance and lust. They go right to the base emotions and while indeed that might be what would really happen in such a situation, when we look at situations where civilization breaks down we do see less of that baseness than you see here.

This is a very bleak movie although it is well-made. However you will feel a need for showering after wading through this celluloid cesspool of human ugliness. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth wading through however – the well-made can sometimes outweigh the ugly.

WHY RENT THIS: Gens ratchets up the tension nicely. Avoids post-apocalyptic cinematic clichés.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Misses opportunities. May lay on the ugliness a bit thick.

FAMILY VALUES: It’s not just the violence and sexuality but more the disturbing nature of it. There are also some rough images as well as plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in New York City, the majority of the movie was filmed in Winnipeg.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $130,839 on a $3M production budget; the production costs were not recouped during the theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: On the Beach

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Goon