Paul Manafort ripped from the headlines in GET ME ROGER STONE

So this week’s biggest news has been the indictment of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort.  The indictment comes out of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe of the Russian hacking of last year’s presidential campaign.   Earlier this year, Netflix released the documentary Get Me Roger Stone, and IMDb bills Paul Manafort third in the “cast”, right behind Roger Stone and Donald Trump.

Get Me Roger Stone is an insightful look at the career of political consultant/provocateur Roger Stone, one of the most outrageous characters on the American political scene.  What’s especially relevant today is that Roger Stone and Paul Manafort together invented a new model of lobbying – where the political consultants who help get a candidate elected to high office, then sell their influence over said elected official.

Even without the Manafort angle, Get Me Roger Stone is an entertaining watch, although you might find Roger Stone himself too loathsome to watch.  Stone will do anything – no matter how duplicitous – to win a political campaign.  He will do anything to bring public attention (i.e., notoriety) upon himself.   And he is utterly unapologetic about both.   Stone is the political world’s version of a pro wrestling villain.

Roger Stone is the unmatched master of high jacking a news cycle with a preposterous smear.  The man has a tattoo of Richard Nixon’s face on his back, which tells you a whole lot about him.

Get Me Roger Stone also chronicles Stone’s decades-long quest to get Trump to run for president, and then Stone’s role as an unofficial/official/unofficial Trump strategist.  The documentary also touches on a Roger Stone sex scandal.

Anyway, it’s ripped from the headlines, and you can stream it from Netflix Instant.

OKJA: a girl and her supermutant pet flee from corporate greed

Okja is a master filmmaker’s wickedly biting anti-corporate satire.  It’s an endearing Girl-And-Her-Supermutant story with one of the best comic chase scenes since What’s Up, Doc?.  Okja also carries a strident anti-meat-eating message (see my diatribe several paragraphs below).

Director Bong Joon Ho made Memories of Murder, which I consider a masterpiece of neo-noir and of both the cop buddy and serial killer sub-genres. I have Memories of Murder at #14 on my Best Movies of the 21st Century – So Far. I also loved his affecting drama Mother. As with the sci-fi hit Snowpiercer, Bong Joon Ho got a Hollywood budget for Okja so his imagination could run wild.

And run wild he does.  A malevolent and monstrous corporation has engineered “superpigs” for future human consumption.  In a scheme to “Green wash” the product, they have distributed the least disturbing-looking of these freaks to be raised by indigenous farmers around the world.  One of the superpigs, a female named Okja, is raised on a verdant Korean mountainside by the girl Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn) and her grandfather,  Mija and Okja are best friends.  But Mija will need to find a way to thwart the corporate baddies who have planned all along to turn Okja into mutant bacon.

The chubby and clumsy Okja, created by a first-rate Korean CGI crew, is instantly lovable for her love for and loyalty to Mija – they even spoon at bedtime.  Okja looks and moves  more like a hippo than a pig, which makes the movie’s point about genetic engineering while keeping her adorable.

Most of Okja is pretty funny.  It opens with the artificially happy music of an industrial film (one imagines a title like Your Friend the Manhole).  There’s a slacker Millennial with the worst possible attitude for an employee, sure to be recognized by any boss in the audience. The humor ranges from the sly and cutting corporate satire to the literally scatological comedy when Okja expels manure.

The funniest part of Okja is a cell of sweetly earnest and deluded radical animal rights activists, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), led by Jay (Paul Dano).  One of their members  is so committed to erasing the human impact on the planet that he refuses to eat anything from animals OR plants, and has to be periodically force-fed by his companions when he passes out from malnutrition.  The ALF plans elaborate actions, like repeated rescues of Okja, that play out in mad cap craziness that brings to mind the best of Mack Sennett and Richard Lester.

Okja’s highlight is a chase scene that begins in a tunnel and ends in an underground mall in Seoul.  It’s a triumph of zany thrills.

Tilda Swinton plays twin sisters who are heirs to a vile robber baron industrialist and, with great relish, Swinton depicts them to represent contrasting faces of modern capitalism. One is the corporate leader who wants to make money by exploiting the rest of us, but wants to be loved for it and be perceived as benign; I know a big business leader who continually describes himself as of “the employer community”.  The other is the type of unapologetic, Social Darwinist corporate villain who just doesn’t care what we think – if it has value, she wants it and she will take it.

Seo-hyun Ahn is appropriately steely as the spunky Mija.  Paul Dano is lovable as the clumsily passionate activist leader.  A very broad Jake Gyllenhall plays a corporate spokesman at once despicable, dissolute and ridiculous in his 1970s shorts.

There’s one superb performance in Okja that is escaping critical notice.  Giancarlo Esposito plays Frank, the chief henchman and corporate advisor to both of the twin sister CEOs.   Frank is a master of “managing up”, and one scene in which he spurs a CEO to adopt his idea – and really, really believe that she thought up herself – is brilliantly funny.  In a movie filled with very broad performances, Esposito underplays Frank to great effect.

I do have a problem with Okja’s militant anti-meat perspective.  I advocate knowing where our food comes from, whether it’s the sweet corn that I buy at my farmer’s market from a farmer in Brentwood, California, or the preserved lemons I buy in a jar from Egypt.  Today less than 2% of Americans live on farms, but in my parents’ day, pretty much everyone had experienced firsthand the butchering of meat.

Humans have been eating meat since we could catch another animal (or stumble across one that was already dead).  There is no way to eat meat without killing an animal, skinning and bleeding it and cutting it up.  Even chicken and steers and pigs that are raised free-range, fed organic corn and yada yada still have to be killed and cut up somewhere – they don’t jump into those shrink-wrapped packages themselves.  All that being said, I understand that some people prefer not to see this.

I have toured a meat-packing plant, and the slaughterhouse in Okja is a pretty accurate depiction of the process, although the lighting has been dimmed for a more sinister effect.  I have also seen animals slaughtered for dinner on an All-American family farm, and the slaughterhouse is much cleaner and arguably more humane.

Still, even in Okja, Mija catches fish for dinner, and her grandfather raises – and cooks – chickens.  I respect the members of my own family who choose not to eat animals.  But I think that Okja runs astray by making this perfectly reasonable choice into a moral litmus test.

Some folks will also have a problem with the movie’s extreme changes in tone.  The Animal Liberation Front’s Seoul rescue scene has a very Keystone Kops vibe, where nobody gets hurt.  In the Manhattan chase scene, however, commandos rain down realistic and brutal violence upon the Animal Liberation Front, making the point that corporate forces play for keeps.

I do NOT recommend Okja for children younger than middle school-aged, for whom the slaughterhouse scenes could be traumatizing.

There’s ONE MORE scene at the very end of the closing credits, so stick around.

I saw Okja at a theatrical preview, courtesy of the Camera Cinema Club; most viewers are going to watch this at home on Netflix, but I recommend viewing Okja on the big screen if you get the chance.

Netflix No More

BOB LE FLAMBEUR, one of the movies that I once could only see on Netflix DVD
BOB LE FLAMBEUR, one of the movies that I once could only see on Netflix DVD

This month I did something that was once unthinkable for me – I cancelled my Netflix DVD service.

Let me explain why this seemed like a big deal.  I embraced the early Netflix as the best source to satisfy my insatiable appetite for indie, foreign and documentary films – the kinds of quality cinema that chain video stores didn’t carry.  Not only that, I evangelized for the service – encouraging everyone I knew to subscribe.

In the early years, I was a super Netflix customer, receiving and watching up to 22 DVDs each month.  I used Netflix as a film school, as I studied the entire Francois Truffaut filmography and plumbed the depths of French and Japanese film noir.  If one of those cool Sundance or Cannes festival hits didn’t make it to Bay Area theaters, I could catch it on Netflix DVD.

But, in 2007, Netflix began to move away from DVDs and toward streaming.  The Netflix DVD collection suffered.

In 2008 I saw 130 movies on Netflix. In 2014, after I had gone down to 1-DVD-out-at-a-time, I watched only 13 Netflix DVDs.

In 2006, I saw 36 recent (2005 and 2006) movies on Netflix DVD.  In 2014, I only saw 5 recent movies on Netflix.

Have I adapted to streaming?  Yes, but I haven’t moved completely to Netflix streaming.  I live for the indie/foreign/doc titles, and for those,  Netflix streaming isn’t nearly as good for me as Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.

The 1955 French film noir Bob le Flambeur is a great example.   If you’re into either film noir or French cinema (and I love both), it’s a Must See – and it’s available on a typically superb Criterion Collection DVD.   Just ten years ago, I could only rent Bob le Flambeur on Netflix DVD.  Today, I can also stream it on iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.  How about on Netflix Instant?  Nope.

The way I see it, I’m not so much leaving Netflix as that Netflix left me.

BLOOD IN, BLOOD OUT - the last movie I watched on Netflix DVD
BLOOD IN, BLOOD OUT – the last movie I watched on Netflix DVD


DVD/Stream of the Week: This Is Not a Robbery

After 87 years of abiding the law, J.L. “Red” Rountree robbed a bank in 1998.  In fact, he became a serial bank robber, robbing banks until his final incarceration at age 92.  The documentary This Is Not a Robbery explores how this could have happened.  Spoiler: nonagenarians do not excel at the art of the getaway.

Cleverly structured, This Is Not a Robbery intersperses the modern robberies with biographical segments that finally reveal the arc of Rountree’s singular journey.  We get to see Rountree explaining himself. He’s a kick, but the most revealing comments are from his friends, who relate the pivotal points in his business career and family life.

At only 70 minutes long, it’s a good watch.  This Is Not a Robbery is available on DVD, on Netflix streaming and sometimes plays on the Sundance Channel.