Review: Okja (2017)

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This is a movie that can be taken in a couple of different ways. A lot of people have latched on to its message about industrial farming, using it as an argument for a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle — a view that can be seen as represented in the movie by the Animal Liberation Front, and its most extreme member, Silver, who starves himself out of fear that he’s contributing to exploitation even in agricultural farming systems. But even this hints that it’s also a story about human exploitation, from the way Mija’s grandfather lies to her, to K’s mis-translation of her wishes, to the way Mirano uses her love for Okja as a marketing tool. I absolutely don’t want to take away from the messages about how we treat animals, and about the toxicity of vast agri-business (TOPICAL GUYS), but to me this remained a very human movie. Maybe because it uses an invented creature — that is a fairly adorable pig-hippo-dog mash-up — to tug the heartstrings, maybe because the victory at the end was necessarily limited, or maybe just because the characters were written so well. After all, even within the ALF there are arguments about when ‘the cause’ should come first and when Mija’s wishes should come first.

Okja is a far sweeter tale than Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, but it’s not so sweet that it shies away from the utterly gruesome. Somehow it balances a host of different elements and slightly disorienting casting choices into a coherent, heartfelt whole. Wrangling together Mija’s idyllic, protected upbringing in a remote part of South Korea with the bustle of Seoul, the divided but devoted ALF, and the calculating marketing machine behind an American agri-business is no mean feat in itself, with the movie managing to give each character a distinctive personality and just enough of a backstory or motivation to bring depth to the story. Bong makes good use yet again of Tilda Swinton, who’s enjoyable as ever, but after her scene-stealing in Snowpiercer here she has the rug taken out from under her by Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic, egotistical nature documentary presenter. He’s somehow even more horrifying than the two-faced business-people: they lie about how their ‘super pigs’ are made because they know it’s the only way to sell the meat, but Gyllenhaal’s character, who made his career on the back of his professed love of animals, now turns most cruelly on them in order to cling on to the shreds of his pride. He’s been more effectively absorbed into Mirano than the top brass, it seems. But I think for me the strangest thing was Paul Dano’s turn as Jay, the leader of the ALF. All the cultish charisma and intensity he brought to There Will Be Blood is still there, but it’s softened just enough; nevertheless, the tension between the credo ‘do not harm’ and between the urge to do violence to various humans is, well, never that far from bubbling to the surface. It’s a really effective piece of casting, anyway, because with Jake Gyllenhaal trying to skew the movie’s balance in favour of his scenes, to Seo Hyun-Ahn’s quiet, stubborn heroine, Dano keeps the ALF parts equally strong.

Ultimately, it proves impossible to reconcile Mija’s simple desire to return home and not to join the underlying and ongoing struggle against the corporate giant, however. Mija gets her companion back again — traumatised but still trusting of Mija — and one little addition, but the abattoir remains; Mirano endures under stricter management; and only the sting after the credits gives you any idea of the continuing work against industrial agriculture. In this interview (warning, spoilers for Snowpiercer if you haven’t seen it), Bong talks about the underlying problem when it comes to environmental damage and animal cruelty being capitalism. It’s far easier to read this movie as a lament about the exploitative nature of multi-national corporations than as a direct call for veganism: Okja lives ‘free range’ with Mija and helps her harvest persimmon and fish, also contributing to the fertility of the ecosystem. Mija and her grandfather live remotely and grow what they need to sustain them, including chickens. But Mirano’s local contact Mundo must be almost a family friend, a trustworthy face familiar with the local terrain, and a bridge between foreign corporate interests and the perceived naïvité of the local farmers. It’s a naïvité that K in the ALF also exploits, telling Mija she should really learn some English after he mis-translates her wishes to the rest of the group. The movie isn’t just interested in animal rights, but in human rights, and in the colonial inheritance of globalisation.

There’s even more going on at a minor level, including themes of family that I don’t think I’ve quite managed to wrap my head around yet. Tilda Swinton’s Lucy is haunted by the legacy of her sister and her father, who were recognised as cruel and untrustworthy, even though they were still successful business-people; consequently, she is the dangerous mask of ‘friendly’ capitalism, terribly sad that she has to lie to her customers, but resigned to the fact that it is necessary. Mija, on the other hand, lost her parents at a very young age and latched onto Okja as her family — as Jay recognises when he gives her the choice of whether to help them or not. But her grandfather does not recognise the importance of Okja; an older, more conservative generation, he supposes that Mija has more of an attachment to the parents she can’t even remember, and thinks that the loss of a pet is just a part of a coming-of-age story where she can now move on and start thinking about meeting boys. I don’t think Mija’s story is a coming-of-age story at all though: if anything, it’s a rejection of it when she finally hands over what would traditionally have been a wedding gift in order to get her beloved Okja back.

Perhaps in the end there are a few too many balls in the air. Although the movie is a coherent whole, I’m not sure how much it needed Lucy’s personal motivation for her brand of friendly capitalism; it felt like a loose thread that was there to give Tilda Swinton more to sink her teeth into. The public, whose hearts and minds are the ones both the corporation and the ALF need to win over, are oddly absent, but there is too much awareness of the bigger picture for everything to focus in satisfactorily on Mija’s return home. It’s a victory, and it’s a happy victory, but it seems very small by the end. Nevertheless, I think this is a movie that will absolutely benefit from multiple viewings, with more emerging on each one.

Review: Pryor Convictions (Richard Pryor and Todd Gold)

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My main experience of Richard Pryor before reading this autobiography was ‘Live in Concert’, filmed in 1978. It’s a pretty damn perfect introduction to the variety and humanity found in his performances — though of course, do remember it was the ’70s. Elements, like the Chinese waiter with the stammer, might not have aged well; but a lot still stands either because it’s universal or because, more depressingly, it’s still accurate. There’s a lot in Pryor Convictions, and Other Life Sentences that’s universal too — and even more that’s uncomfortable reading but still holds true. The tension between these elements drives both the comedy and the tragedy or Pryor’s work and his life: no matter how many times he tries to come back to the idea that we’re all just human, just the same, he’s pulled back into the realities of inequality and racism that continue to dog society.

The book reads as a kind of therapy, set down and published during the 1990s as he struggled with the increasingly unpredictable effects of the MS he was diagnosed with in 1986. Although he seems to reach an acceptance of life by the end of the book, it’s never really clear how far he ever got with the occasional bouts of actual therapy: he’s self-aware, but remains fearful of confrontations throughout, not least when it comes to how his childhood informed his adult anxieties and addictions. This means it’s a book without very much closure: even the afterword in my edition, written by Jennifer Lee Pryor*, provides little of this kind of resolution. I’d been looking forward to hearing Jennifer’s side of things, too; Pryor is open about the violent, cruel side of their relationship with each other, offering neither excuses nor apologies, just context; but beyond his interpretation of Jennifer, all I got from her afterword was a sort of hardness amounting to protectiveness, but little more to help me understand her. But, to be fair, this isn’t her autobiography, it’s Pryor’s.

This is the kind of book where you’ll find yourself laughing along at an anecdote at the top of the page, but a couple of paragraphs down your jaw has clenched and you feel a bit sick, or wonder whether you should now feel guilty about laughing at what just came before. But, as Pryor makes clear, he was happy to use his own mishaps and mistakes for laughs from the beginning. Attention, any and all attention, is what he craves, from the moment his family laugh at him slipping in dog poo, to the fearful urge to be married at the time of his death — so there’ll be a woman to cry for him afterwards. Nevertheless, he lets a bit more context seep into his autobiography than he does his comedy — context and consequences. For instance, the ending to the skit about his relative’s Great Dane trying to hump his Shetland Pony: the dogs are left unsupervised in the backyard with the pony and they eat it, much to the horror of the housekeeper. It’s rather more gruesome than tragic, as in the vein of his self-gassing squirrel monkeys whose deaths do make it into his stand-up. Good comedy is as much about the pauses, the gaps, about knowing what to leave out, as well as knowing what to put in … but it’s not like life always ends on the punchline.

Above all, there is a good-natured, hopeful kindness to Pryor’s comedy and to his autobiography. Even the uncomfortable stereotype of the Chinese waiter I mentioned above isn’t meant to be nasty; he speaks of ex-wives and of the grotesques he grew up around (pimps and whores and thieves and fighters and more) with a fondness and a love that allows you to understand (or to come close to understanding) why he remains so loyal to people who had little use for him as a child, and seem to be primarily interested in his money once he grows up. There’s no judgement from Pryor — well, what precious little there is he reserves for the man who abuses him as a child, and even then Pryor chooses rather to present a faintly ludicrous scene, where the man later arrives at Pryor’s trailer asking for an autograph for his son. Pryor is torn between terror at seeing him again, and hope that the man’s child isn’t now suffering at his hands, but he simply signs the autograph and leaves it at that. He presents the scene, but he doesn’t delve into its depths: they’re there for his audience to see, should they wish to look.

This might again be why Jennifer Lee’s afterword is so jarring: she (rightly, it seems) has no patience for the hangers-on (‘locusts’) she finds taking advantage of him when she returns to him in 2001. She judges them plenty, and it highlights the fact that Pryor doesn’t mention this aspect of his care (there may be a bit of a time lapse though), reminding us again of the ever-present need to be wantedlovedlaughed at; to avoid confrontation at all costs. The closest his own words ever come to such bitterness is the way he talks about his time working on the script of Blazin’ Saddles, and you can tell it always rankled that he suspected Mel Brookes didn’t fight for him to stay involved once filming started.

It might sound weird to say that Pryor avoids confrontation, given his reputation as a brash, sweary and dangerous performer. But I’m thinking particularly of his reaction when he received a backlash for the realisation he came to after a trip to Kenya. How shocked he was to find out that plenty of people could not see things from his point of view, and how they claimed his identity as public property, not only his to define how he wanted any more. So he sank into depression and stayed away from the limelight for a while rather than engaging further. You might say the divorces amount to the same; rather than look too closely at himself, he moved on to the next relationship. See also: substance abuse. So rather than scrutinising his life up-close, he side-eyes it through the autobiography as he does through his comedy.

Throughout parts of this autobiography I found myself wondering what sort of influence it might have had on Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, which also began life as stand-up-comedy-cum-therapy. Her love for her dysfunctional family, her recurring addictions and her underlying insecurities all echo themes in Pryor’s autobiography. But then maybe they’re both just products of America in the third quarter of the twentieth century.

In any case, Pryor’s whip-smart intellect shines through it all, and he’s justly proud of the hard graft he put into his comedy. This book is eye-opening but not sensationalist, socially aware and angry, but not preachy. The success with which Pryor projects himself into other characters in his routines, into people of all kinds, as well as different kinds of animals, speaks to his ability to turn a situation around and empathise with others — at least when he has the distance to do so. No matter the proximity or the distance to his life(style), every reader should find something to empathise with in this book then, just as in his comedy.

*His fourth wife, 1981–2; they remarried in 2001 and she remained with him until his death in 2005.

Review: Spider-man — Homecoming (cinema)

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Well, that’s Blitzkrieg Bop stuck in my head forever now.

I was pretty ambivalent about seeing this beforehand, but I need to get better use of my cinema membership, and I want my local cinema to be used more so it stays open, so… it appealed more than Cars 3. And it bucked the trend regarding my waning interest in Spider-man movies! I only saw Sam Raimi’s 1 and 2; one Amazing Spider-man was enough for me; and despite everyone telling me he was the best thing in Civil War *whispers* I still haven’t see Civil War. But I’m actually quite keen to now, which is an outcome that way outstrips my expectations for how much I’d enjoy this movie.

Right, sorry, enthusing, yes!

The first sentence was my way of saying this has a great soundtrack. I don’t need to reiterate what everyone’s already said about Peter Parker actually being allowed to be a kid in this, but it does make the movie much more refreshing, not least when it manages to combine his unpopularity with a believable level of nerdiness. It was about time we ditched the skateboard, frankly. And it probably helps that we don’t need to see his transformation from unhealthy super-nerd to … super-nerd with a six-pack. Nuance — shock! — is brought to the dynamics of the American high school (well, the academically prestigious New York high school anyway), because the love interest is also a nerd; the weird outsider is a nerd; the bully is a nerd … and I’m getting sick of the word ‘nerd’. Nerds are great anyway. Basically, Spider-man — Homecoming builds on some of the successful alterations of The Amazing Spider-man but casts a guy who can plausibly play a teenager in the main role. And — praise be — Uncle Ben didn’t even need to die onscreen or within the narrative timeline. Not even the man with the nice sandwiches needed to die!

In fact, no one died!

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The Day Today – in 1975, no one died…

I really wanted Michael Keaton as Tooms not to be Michael Keaton, but to be Doug Hutchison, who played Eugene Tooms in two of the creepiest X Files episodes ever. Anyway, I guess Michael Keaton was pretty good. His Tooms was the kind of antagonist you’d expect from this movie: a cross between the archetypal Spider-man antagonist (surrogate dad figure, is confused about his priorities, thinks he’s just helping his family but is in love with Mad Science) and the archetypal Iron Man antagonist (Tony Stark killed his family/dog/job/blew up his country/stole his science etc etc). It was a combination that worked surprisingly well, and Spider-man — Homecoming isn’t here for any of your usual Spider-man déonouement clichés: the set of scenes in which Peter and then Tooms recognise who the other is is done brilliantly. The atmosphere is claustrophobic from the moment Tooms opens the front door, letting us suspect (along with Peter) for a good while that this is a set-up, that Tooms has restrained the house’s occupants and brought Peter into a trap. But then a supremely awkward feeling takes over as it’s revealed to be the cozy family home of the villain. And normally this kind of thing is done in such a tired way that it really bugs me, but Tooms’ daughter* and wife keep the lightness of domesticity about it, particularly in the car journey where teenage exasperation meets sinister scheming. In the end, Peter’s not made to have the weight of anyone’s death on his hands, and complications are avoided because Tooms’ family moves away, with no suspicion of Peter’s involvement.

Avoiding creepiness as a male is a recurring theme in the movie too, and Peter treads a believable line between longing after Liz but not wanting to be a jerk about it. From Stark’s early ‘wait, that was creepy, wasn’t it?’ — his usual brand of admitting problematic behaviour out loud as though all he has to do to make amends is acknowledge that it’s wrong, without doing anything about it — to Peter’s baffled rejection of ‘suit lady’ Karen’s advice, Peter Parker shows he’s a hero without a sense of entitlement. Marissa Tomei’s Aunt May is also a refreshing take on the character, both relaxed in a New Age-y kind of way, and yet clearly worried about her ability to single-handedly raise a teenage boy. The scene where she and Peter try to figure out how to tie a Windsor knot using Youtube says it all, really.

Of the other MCU movies the one it most resembles is Ant Man (which I also thoroughly enjoyed). It skirts the big stuff, doing another nice job of showing the fall-out of the Chitauri invasion and, like Ant Man, it’s a story in which the new hero, manipulated by an older hero (even one with good intentions) needs to learn how to define themselves and to stand up for their own position in, or around, the team. Peter starts off on the outside, longing to be on the inside, but this is about the Avengers, not about who he hangs out with at school. Along the way he misses out on the kind of formative teenage experiences that previous Spider-men have pined over, and the ‘tough love’ that Stark tries to claim as the making of him as an Avenger is ultimately the making of him as a more rounded, normal teenager. That Stark still doesn’t understand what it entails to ‘be better than [him]’ is clear from the scene in which Peter surprises him, Happy and even Pepper.

So, a feel-good Spider-man movie; a Spider-man who longs for something, but who is mature enough to realise when it’s handed to him that it’s not something he needs right now. For his own sake, it can wait. There’s no great self-sacrificing moment where he must interalise his angst in order to protect a Gwen or an MJ; by the end of the movie quite a few people know his secret and he’s much better off for it.

*Referring to her as this to avoid getting too spoilery.

Review: Guardians of the Whills (Greg Rucka)

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Inevitably, I’m going to compare this with Rebel Rising. Inevitably, it does far better. Also — no doubt equally inevitably — it sadly does not confirm anything about the nature of Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe’s relationship. But it doesn’t deny anything either. Probably the best we can hope for from Disney’s Star Wars right now.

This is a book aimed at a slightly younger than young adult audience, and is interspersed with black and white illustrations of Chirrut and Baze with Very Serious expressions on. Despite the po-faced presentation, Rucka conveys the characters’ dry humour well; the finest moments are when the two of them are left to bicker and bounce off each other. Much of the book is simply scene-setting on Jedha, explaining how life in the Holy City deteriorates once the Empire takes an interest in the moon’s kyber crystals. A plot emerges subtly from the side-lines about three-quarters of the way through, tying together characters and details encountered earlier. It’s simply done, and it’s nicely done. Let’s be honest: few stories of the cast of Rogue One are going to be happy stories, and I did find myself fearing a different ending at some points. But Rucka lets our heroes get away with their sheer chutzpah, allowing us a glimpse of one hopeful moment in Jedha’s grim period of occupation.

It’s been pointed out in fandom already that what unites Rogue OneRebel Rising and Guardians of the Whills is the presence of Saw Gerrera. Initially I felt like relying on Saw in Guardians of the Whills was something of a cop-out; aren’t there enough stories to tell of the Holy City that you could use original characters? But Rucka does a good job of showing how Gerrera’s actions affect life in the city, of how he manipulates those who are already fighting back in their own way, and how he will seek to turn any situation to his advantage. His Gerrera rings far more true to me than Revis’ — though she did have the more complex task of showing how he changed and his paranoia deepened — and Rucka paints him in plausible shades of grey in his private meeting with Baze. Baze and Chirrut’s reactions to Gerrera are muted and knowing, grimly accepting of what is necessary but also wary of Gerrera’s methods. As a direct lead-up to the situation as it is in Rogue One it’s a rich, detailed character study that works nicely as a complement to the film.

Original characters who are introduced include three women — none of whom are in Saw’s team, which is something I’m still pondering on. Killi, Kaya and Denic are supporting characters who are just rounded out enough to make an impression. Their individual personalities shine through the brief encounters we have with them and each one tells us something about the Holy City’s past and the difficulties of living in its present. No romance is foisted on the reader (*side-eyes Rebel Rising again*), but the respect between Baze and Chirrut and these women is palpable, and there’s real emotional heft in the siblings Kaya and Killi’s relationship.

As for Chirrut and Baze, well, we learn little more of their youth, but it seems to me that one could infer quite a bit from the final word of the novel in reference to them: ‘together’. They share a small room, Baze cooks, they drink tea that Baze hates, they snark and snipe affectionately, they worry for each other without it undermining the respect they have for each other, and they agree wordlessly on plenty.

Rucka hedges with regard to Chirrut’s Force abilities, allowing him some measure of Force-awareness, but backing it up with an echo box to help him navigate the city. It’s a compromise that works well; if he’d tried to convince me that Chirrut was in no way Force sensitive I’d have rolled my eyes out of my head. As I said in my post on re-watching Rogue One, the depiction of the Whills and of Jedha was one of the things I appreciated most about the story. It took the Force away from the Jedi, freeing it from their hierarchical system once more; Guardians of the Whills builds on this with interspersed ‘extracts’ from the sacred texts of the Guardians, hinting at all the different ways people have interpreted the Force. You don’t need to be a Jedi to be Force sensitive, and Chirrut’s persistence in developing his limited connection with it shows another side to interactions between the Force and its users. (I’m speaking here in ignorance of the animated series and most new EU novels, to be fair, but I’m still bitter about the prequels’ depictions of the Force and the Jedi).

If I have one regret about Guardians of the Whills it’s that Disney chose to aim it at such a young audience. And it feels churlish to regret this, but when we’re never going to get sequels to Rogue One it’s frustrating that all the prequels are aimed at teen audiences and younger. I’d love to read Rucka’s take on Chirrut and Baze’s youth, on life as a Guardian when that still meant something on Jedha: something with more depth and detail than you can fit in a book aimed at younger audiences. I mean, when I was the age this book is aimed at, I was discovering Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy for the first time. And I’m not saying Star Wars shouldn’t be marketed to kids — that’s how it all began, of course — but I’d like to see it complemented by some heftier works. Still waiting on that Tales from the Holy City, Disney. Come on, get to it.