Okja’s performative histrionics don’t mask its muddled message

Despite being clearly an auteur work, a result of Netflix letting Snowpiercer‘s Bong-Joon Ho off-leash, Okja feels weirdly like reverse-engineered weirdness. The bare storyline is actually pretty dry, so a lot of showy performative flourish gets added to try to make it pop, but it rarely does. Jake Gyllenhaal, in particular, goes way over the top as a version of Tracy Morgan’s Brian Fellows on even more cocaine, but even Tilda Swinton gets sucked into it, trying to add any life into a dull corporate family sideplot and only succeeding in the pretty riveting opener. At its heart, Okja is about a girl and her superpig, which makes for a decently charming opening twenty minutes, where super-pig Okja is established as a caring and smart presence. But the main creature turns into a plot device rather than a character after she’s taken to New York by a Swinton’s Monsanto stand-in, and the charm of the film goes with it. The addition of the Animal Liberation Front helps insofar as Paul Dano is a lot of fun as a ski-mask wearing freedom fighter, but the movie seems to use them to push against GMO-based superfarming without offering anything approaching a nuanced critique . I’ve got nothing against giving Monsanto bad press, but Okja‘s critiques are shallow straw-man arguments, where Swinton is bad because her attempt at sustainable farming is a lovable, delicious mutant, I suppose? Pass the salt.

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C-

Okja (2017)
Directed by Bong-Joon Ho
Starring Seo-hyeon Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhaal
Rotten Tomatoes (86%)
On Netflix

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Okja’s performative histrionics don’t mask its muddled message

A Bigger Splash is a movie only a tourism agency could love

Cliffs leading into isolated grottos, the odd European ruin, patio restaurants overlooking twisting roads, slightly cramped kitchens filled with the scent of fresh ricotta. A Bigger Splash certainly makes the Italian island of Pantelleria look like a marvelous place, and as the movie centres around what a rock star and her circle get up to on vacation, it better look like paradise. But aside from beautiful scenery, A Bigger Splash has nothing going for it, a trite tale of uninteresting characters doing uninteresting things but trying really hard to make them seem interesting. If the talented cast assembled took the gig solely to bum around the island, I can’t blame them, but the product just doesn’t work.

The plot concerns a couple on vacation. Marianne (Tilda Swinton) is a Bowie-esque rockstar of international fame and supposed importance; however, the one time we hear some of her music, its standard folk with the least cutting or original lyrics ever written. She has recently undergone throat surgery and is unable to speak above a whisper throughout the movie, because irony. Paul (Matthias Schoenarts) is a recovering alcoholic who survived a suicide attempt fairly recently. Their vacation is interrupted by the arrival of their old friend (and Marianne’s ex) Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his college-aged daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Harry is physically unable to stop talking, and enthralls people with his ability to talk about how he knows the Rolling Stones, and Penelope observes everything from a distance but is unafraid of using her sexuality to get what she wants.

Paul and Marianne have a great sex life, Harry wants Marianne back, Penelope takes a shine to Paul, and the plot goes as expected from there. I suppose this could all be characterized as an erotic melodrama (complete with equal-opportunity nudity), but the key parts of it are obvious from the start and it doesn’t build much from there. There’s a bit of a neat trick near the end when information is held from the audience for once (usually its given out explicitly and repeatedly through flashbacks), but its rendered irrelevant within five minutes. It doesn’t help that none of the characters are interesting in the least, and their actions designed to allow for any amount of plot development rather than natural to the performance. Swinton at least gets to act, mostly robbed of her voice and her eyes (constantly hidden behind sunglasses) but remains expressive through body language. Johnson’s character is a complete mess, a vague sociopath whose great mysteries are incredibly petty. Fienne’s Harry gets it the worst, and while his hammy performance at least keeps the energy up, his character has one note from start to finish, and why people outside of Marianne find him interesting (such as during an awful karaoke scene), I haven’t the foggiest.

To distract from the blandness of the characters, the camera is constantly trying different things, with bobbing zooms and car-following one-take scenes that would be incredibly distracting if there was anything worthwhile to be distracted from. It has one good trick admittedly, where the mirrored film on Marianne’s sunglasses allow us to see multiple angles at once. Everything else feels dragged in from a pulpier movie, and the editing is overprone to jarring cuts that seem to serve no purpose. One particular scene sees Fiennes dancing to the Stones’ Emotional Rescue, and was clearly filmed as if it was expected to be thought of as an instant classic scene. Instead, its embarrassingly cheesy, in the throw-spoons-at-the-screen kind of way.

At the end, it takes a turn that changes the mood a bit, but doesn’t mine that for anything notable really. It makes a quick point about white privilege through the lens of refugee paranoia, but doesn’t seem to say anything about the people at the centre of the story. A Bigger Splash is occasionally pretty, but is really just full of hot air, just like the bearded powder keg of swagger at the centre.

D

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A Bigger Splash (2016)
Dir. Luca Guadagnino
Starring Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenarts, Dakota Johnson, and Ralph Fiennes
Rotten Tomatoes (89%)

A Bigger Splash is a movie only a tourism agency could love