FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #108 – “Keep Quiet” (dir. Joseph Martin, Sam Blair) (#SJFF2017)

Poster for "Keep Quiet"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel jump back to their final selection from the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, Keep Quiet, a documentary about Csanád Szegedi, a former far-right, antisemitic political party leader in Hungary who discovers that he has a (still living) Jewish grandmother, which causes a sea change in his political and religious beliefs. Or…does it? If this film had been a great big pat on the back for tolerance and pluralism, we expect it would’ve been pretty tedious. But like The Imposter before it, this film’s definite strength is its ambiguity. Dive with us into an exploration of this fascinating figure and the skepticism that he (deservedly) faces from both his old community of nationalists and neo-Nazis, and his new community of Orthodox Jews. We’re joined once again by friend of the show, local author Erika Spoden (32:11).

May contain NSFW language.

Keep Quiet is available on Amazon Video, and we highly recommend checking it out. As this film deals in ambiguity, there will not be a separate spoilers section in our discussion. Please consider this both a recommendation and spoiler warning for the entire film.

FilmWonk rating: 9/10 (Glenn/Daniel), 10/10 (Erika)

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Train of Thought“, from the film’s score by Phillip Sheppard.
  • Special thanks to Erika for joining us this week – her memoir is titled Strawberries for 50 People, and it is available on Amazon Kindle.
  • Thanks as well to the Seattle Jewish Film Festival and Smarthouse Creative for helping us cover so much of the festival (for the first time) this year – we’ll definitely be back!

Listen above, or download: Keep Quiet (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Alex Kurtzman’s “The Mummy” – A Movie About a Mummy and Some Other Stuff

Poster for "The Mummy" (2017)

Ladies and gentlemen, your Dark Universe. The Invisible Man (Johnny Depp), Frankenstein’s monster (Javier Bardem), Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe), and saving the best for first, The Mummy (Sofia Boutella). Don’t be perplexed, dear reader, by the fact that every single other monster is played by an A-List dude. Don’t spend too much time pondering Dr. Jekyll, this film’s Nick Furian monster-hunting super-spy, who runs Prodigium, this film’s S.H.I.E.L.D.. Don’t gaze long at the poster, which exclusively features the name of Tom Cruise above the title, despite his role as a soldier of fortune whose only distinguishing characteristic is a punny surname that means “Deadguy”. And think not upon the trailer which literally shows him dying in an almost vertical plane crash and resurrecting in a single piece. Whatever conclusion you may be drawing about Cruise’s prospects of replacing Boutella as a Mummy-themed Avenger by the end of the film is almost certainly not worth the time it took to type it out. Because The Mummy is not just a bad, boring film, devoid of original thought or a moment of suspense. It’s a film by committee, made in front of a corkboard replete with flash cards of ideas from other, better films. The Mummy is a thief, a liar, and a cannibal.

I shouldn’t rag too hard on Crowe, because he is given the thankless job of setting up a framing device for Universal Studios’ hamfisted attempt to create a megafranchise based on their stable of mostly public-domain, but strictly trademark-controlled movie monsters. And despite his dubious motivations, wildly ambiguous plan (see if you can figure out whether being stabbed with a ruby-hilted dagger is a good or bad thing during the last act, the answer may surprise you) and dialogue composed exclusively of self-important trailer narration, Crowe’s performance certainly provided the film’s only moments of levity. His Dr. Henry Jekyll is an amusing pastiche of Willy Wonka and Albus Dumbledore (with a good deal less narrative focus or skill), and his Edward Hyde is a cockney horrorshow. Crowe at least seems to be having some fun, which is a rare thing in this film. Granted, the creature design of Mr. Hyde makes me genuinely worry that Universal’s only look and feel for these monsters will be “shambling, lightly CGI’d corpse”. If you want poorly zombified actors, this film’s got em, and the quality (for a scant $125 million) is easily put to shame by premium cable these days. Hopefully we’ll get a half-decent Wolf Man or Creature from the Black Lagoon out of this Universe before it collapses.

The Mummy herself, on the other hand, with her ashen skin punctuated with black and blue hieroglyphic tattoos, and her strange double-pupiled eyeballs (the second pupil apparently represents eeeeeevil), is at least interesting to look at, even if her plan doesn’t make much sense. Revisiting Stephen Sommers‘ 1999 version of The Mummy last night, I was struck by just how much energy was put into the design and look of Ancient Egypt. Significant modeling (or late-90s CGI) was put into crafting Ancient Thebes, and that Mummy’s evil plan at least started with a mildly sympathetic motivation – forbidden romance between High Priest Imhotep and Pharaoh’s wife, punishable by death or worse. 2017’s Mummy, Princess Ahmanet, not only lives in a staggeringly low-rent version of Egyptian antiquity, consisting almost entirely of translucent curtains, off-screen stabbings, and standing on undeveloped sand dunes looking at distant pyramids, but her plan is incredibly basic and unsympathetic. She was heiress to the throne of Egypt, but then her Pharaoh father had a baby brother who jumped to the head of the line, so she made a pact with Set, the god of death, to allow her to rule the world in exchange for murdering everyone. This plan has some serious problems. Notably, it is incredibly vague what Set adds to this plan, since Ahmanet seemed quite capable of slaughtering her family without divine intervention, and this didn’t elevate her to the throne. Subsequent to this, she was immediately caught, killed, spirited away to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and Syria), and buried in a cursed tomb. In the end, all Set adds to her plan is a proxy – she needs a mortal to embody his spirit, and that mortal will obviously be played by Tom Cruise. But it’s unclear what her role will be after the death god’s avatar takes over.

Still from "The Mummy" (2017) with Sofia Boutella

Back in the present day, we get a depressingly forced action opener featuring soldiers Nick Morton (Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson). Of these two, I’ll simply say that I never bought them as friends or adventurers, despite some strong work by Johnson later in the film (when he’s done dropping audience-friendly gems like, Iraq is a whole different country that’s a thousand miles from Egypt). But there’s really no better way to sap all tension from an action sequence than to give your heroes the ability to call in an instant airstrike, and announce that ability several minutes before it actually happens. But no matter. The Hellfire missile drops, the unspecified insurgents flee, the cursed tomb is unearthed, and their surly superior (Courtney B. Vance) arrives to tell them that the Mayor’s going to have his ass for this, but also assure them that they will face no consequences whatsoever, and a woman named Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) shows up, seemingly by magic, to explore the tomb for a moment or two. Jenny and Nick, you see, had a one-night stand in Baghdad, he stole her map, she impugns his sexual prowess, and that’s the entire basis of what this film laughably calls a romance between these two. They lack any chemistry or even a plausible motivation to care about each other’s survival. And this is a major problem for the film, because the third act – and Nick’s dire decision of whether or not to vaguely embrace evil – entirely relies on buying these two as romantic partners. The Mummy so thoroughly botched its romance that it actually makes me look back even more fondly on Wonder Woman, which shares a number of adventure and romantic plot beats in common with this film, but executed them with a great deal more skill.

I like Tom Cruise. I like him even when he’s playing cocky or unlikable characters, which is more often than not these days. But this character is an utter failure. His “infection by evil” carries no real weight or tension, because The Mummy‘s inept storytelling telegraphs the ending repeatedly from the opening voiceover. The result is a mirthless slog that I struggled to even make it through without repeatedly checking my watch. And I really have to hand it to this film. It takes a lot of work to not only make me not care if any of the characters live or die, but to also make it objectively not matter.
This has easily outclassed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as the saddest (hopefully abortive) attempt to start a megafranchise to date.

FilmWonk rating: 2 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #107 – “Wonder Woman” (dir. Patty Jenkins), “Glory” (dir. Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov) (#SIFF2017)

Poster for

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel are back at the Seattle International Film Festival to check out a lovely Bulgarian political satire. Then Diana (Gal Gadot) shows up to wreck the place by hand and sword, and we can’t complain, because it turns out she’s pretty awesome when not saddled with a lame mystery B-plot (48:06).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from

FilmWonk rating (Glory): 8 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Wonder Woman): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 7/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • [00:24] Review: Glory
  • [17:25] Review: Wonder Woman
  • [35:49] Spoilers: Wonder Woman
  • Music for this episode is the track, “Dance for Tomorrow” by Stop the Schizo from the soundtrack to Glory, and the track, “Angel On the Wing” from the Wonder Woman score by Rupert Gregson-Williams.
  • Correction: Spread the word on this one – we (and many others) have been mispronouncing Gadot’s last name. It’s not French-style, with a silent T – it’s Israeli-style, with a solid T. The actress previously made a video to address the issue (thanks to Dan A. for pointing this out).
  • Correction: Dr. Maru (“Dr. Poison”) was actually played by Spanish actress Elena Anaya. The actress from Force Majeure, Lisa Loven Kongsli, played Menalippe, one of the Amazons, and she’s actually Norwegian, not Swedish.
  • Correction: To complete the trifecta, we made a casual reference to a character played by “Kat Denning” in Thor. The actress’ name is Kat Dennings.

Listen above, or download: Wonder Woman, Glory (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #106 – “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” (dir. Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg)

Poster for "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel take a break from SIFF to return to the swashbuckling world of diminishing returns that is Pirates of the Caribbean, pondering the series’ future, and considering whether if Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) will ever slip his earthly bonds and meet the Fast and Furious crew in space (37:44).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Cruel Mistress” by Flogging Molly, and the track “He’s a Pirate“, from the soundtrack to the first Pirates film by Klaus Badelt, because the series’ various derivative versions of this track have yet to match the original in quality.

Listen above, or download: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

‘Silicon Valley’ Showdown: “The Big Sick”, “Entanglement” (#SIFF2017)

Poster for "The Big Sick"

What I knew going into this film is what everyone will know – that comedian Kumail Nanjiani is finally playing a lead role in a deeply personal story that he co-wrote, about his courtship with his wife Emily (Zoe Kazan). That they would explore the pitfalls and difficulties of cross-cultural romance between a first-generation immigrant whose parents wish him to have an arranged marriage, and an American therapist from North Carolina. What I didn’t know is that following a single act of naturalistic romance (and a bit of that “comedians playing themselves” stuff you see on FX shows and Judd Apatow films), Emily would exit the film into a serious health crisis, and the next courtship would begin – between Kumail and his future wife’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). The Big Sick never ceased to be a comedy, even as it was becoming a harrowing family medical drama. There were multiple jokes that caused me to guffaw for so long that I missed the next two or three lines of dialogue, in between revelations about Emily’s continuing decline and mysterious ailment. This is a story like nothing I’ve ever seen, except perhaps Jonathan Levine‘s 50/50 put through a filter of ‘How I Met Your Mother‘. Every moment of this film felt completely human to me, and that’s what made it work so well. Not the jokes – which were hilarious – nor any uncertainty over the film’s ultimate outcome. The tension of The Big Sick comes from the notion that these are real people dealing with some real shit. 

They meet ordinarily enough. Kumail is performing on-stage, Emily woos him (“WOO!”) when he asks if anyone here is from Pakistan, and he finds her afterward to give her some flirtatious chiding for heckling during his set. She flirts right back, they end up back at his place for a hookup. After, she gets dressed under a sheet, and the banter continues over the absurdity of her getting dressed under cover after they’ve just had sex. I mention this moment in particular because not only does the dialogue never cease to be completely comfortable and naturalistic, but the relationship (which we see in vignette and montage form over the course of the first act) is replete with details like this, that seem too oddly specific or embarrassing to not be true. I do wonder how I might’ve felt about these moments if I didn’t know that these two end up as the married screenwriters of this film, but I’m not sure how many people will have that experience. Many of these moments felt, perhaps, a bit heightened, but all of them felt real. 

And then it gets very ugly very quickly. I won’t spoil the complete chain of events, but Kumail’s family expectations that he’ll marry a Pakistani girl (that they choose for him) butt up against their relationship, the latter takes a dive, and then she gets sick. That plot description usually portends an aggressive turn to the dramatic, but I must emphasize that this never stopped being a comedy. Emily’s friends call Kumail because he has just been her boyfriend, she’s in serious medical trouble, and they’re unable to stay any longer because of jobs, academics, life… He realizes how much he cares, when he is suddenly thrust into responsibility for her so early into the relationship, in the form of a doctor asking him one question after another before Emily is dropped into a medically-induced coma, with his authorization, as her…husband. 

Her parents arrive and are outright hostile toward him, because they know that (as they see it) he broke their daughter’s heart. And yet, they bond. This is some messy, human nonsense right here. There are no clean lines or definitions to these relationships. It is completely unclear to the people involved whether Kumail and Emily will be together at the end of this, or whether these three will have any reason to ever speak again. But still they bond. Because the one thing they all have in common is that they’re all in the trenches on Emily’s team. The parents are a fine portrait of unfathomable worry, but Holly Hunter is particularly masterful. The three make a reluctant foray to a comedy club where Kumail’s show goes delightfully awry (and both parents get shockingly profane for the first time), and they find themselves getting hammered at Emily’s apartment. Kumail and Beth decide to drink whiskey and “stress-eat” after Terry passes out on the couch, and they try to talk about anything but Emily’s impending surgery. Later on, Terry sleeps at Kumail’s place and they chat awkwardly in the dark about the struggles in Terry’s marriage. All of this works. These scenes have time to breathe, and ring constantly true. These people grab onto each other –  not without hesitation – in an impossible situation, and they remain raucously funny as they handle it.

Kazan ultimately plays a side character, and does a fine job with it in the first and last acts. But this is not a choice I would’ve understood coming from screenwriter Emily V. Gordon if not for the specific turns of this story. Ultimately, Gordon’s greatest contribution to the film (apart, presumably, from an insight into how her fictionalized parents should act), is respect for movie-Emily’s agency at the film’s end. This is merely a chapter in the couple’s love story, it’s not one in which she plays a prominent role, and that’s fine. It’s not a fairy tale, and she doesn’t wake up feeling any differently about the issues that drove her and movie-Kumail apart in the first place. This works for the same reason that the relationship between Kumail, Beth, and Terry works- it’s honest and uncompromising, and showcases the best of each of them. 

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Still from "Entanglement"

I kinda want to drop by Thomas Middleditch‘s house and ask if he’s okay. His character, Ben Larsen, begins the movie Entanglement with an elaborate suicide attempt, and then we flash to him brooding (and alive) six months later. I last saw him play lead in Joshy, a film in which his fiancee commits suicide, and then we flash to him brooding (and alive) six months later. This is an actor and comedian that I quite enjoy – his awkward straight-man Richard on Silicon Valley is a classic character who has to deliver some surprising emotional range through the ungainliness of a nerdy developer, and his repeated appearances on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast have shown him to be a talented improv comic as well. Jess Weixler cut her teeth as the lead in…er…Teeth, a horror film with a single, repeated joke/scare that she was a uniquely essential component for, and she has made occasional TV appearances since. Like Anna Camp before her, she is generally a delightful, underused presence. Keep these compliments in mind, because Entanglement is flat-out terrible, and I have a difficult time blaming these actors for it.

When Hanna (Weixler) meets Ben at a drugstore while shoplifting, I realized I may have lost all tolerance for invasive meet-cutes. Perhaps it was Bad Santa 2, in which multiple women seduce Billy Bob Thornton while he is blind-drunk and covered in a urine-soaked Santa suit, that pushed me over the edge, but I just have a hard time buying that so many of these brooding sad sacks are beating women off with a stick. Yes, the scenes are usually fun, and actors are cast for their mutual chemistry (Bad Santa 2 being a notable exception on both counts). But that does not mean that meeting in a random drugstore is still a thing that strangers do in 2017, and the film’s forced whimsy and shallow female characters don’t end there. Ben’s neighbor Tabby (Diana Bang) drops in while he’s out and cleans his apartment, apparently not for the first time. It bugs him, he says he needs to ask for his key back, but she keeps doing it. This irritating pattern only continues as the film goes on. He’s getting therapy from a friend who’s a child psychologist. She points out how weird this is. He’s seemingly only there to banter insultingly with her child patients, one of whom gives him a child’s fairytale book that helps him seduce…I’m getting ahead of myself. Ben’s father has a heart attack, and reveals, on his near-deathbed (which Ben doesn’t seem overly concerned about) that Ben’s parents very nearly adopted a baby girl, right before his mother found out she was pregnant with him, and so they gave her back. This seemingly innocuous factoid throws Ben for a loop for some reason. He could’ve had a sister this whole time! He returns to the serial-killer yarn board in his apartment (where he maps out all of the different events in his life in an effort to see where it all went wrong), and determines that his nearly-sister is the key to his future happiness.

I would’ve been fine with accepting this odd motivation on its own terms, but I can’t overstate how poorly Ben values his hypothetical sister as a human being. Each time he discusses what she might mean to him, it’s always in terms of what she can offer him – she might’ve taught him how to dance, or talk to girls. She might have reminded him to call their mom on Mother’s Day. Somebody buy the kid a smartphone – Siri can do most of that these days. And of course (of course) it turns out to be Hanna. And of course they have a weird romance. And of course it gets whimsical really fast, with the manic pixie dream girl tropes plastered across the camera like paintballs even when they’re not visually enhanced by actual CGI weirdness – underwater jellyfish, faux-stop-animated deer, floating planets on a wall…

Let it never be said that I can’t cherish whimsy – even the sad, brooding sort. Amélie and Eternal Sunshine are my jam. Swiss Army Man, which featured a bromance between Paul Dano and a farting corpse, was in my Top 10 for last year. And I’m sure some will say that this film’s shallow plot twist justifies its excess. Let me be clear: it does not. Entanglement is aggressively bothersome, and no narrative trickery – even the type that attempts to recontextualize the film as a psychological drama – can make that right. Its musical score is a ceaseless, invasive loop of callow piano punctuated seemingly at random by 1950s Americana deep cuts, and its dialogue is a torrent of superfluous, rapid-fire banter intercut with strained, half-understood physics or textile metaphors. And more to the point, there is not a single authentic moment or human interaction in this entire film. Even without such a strong counterpoint as The Big Sick to compare it to, Entanglement falls flat, smashes through, and plunges into a bottomless hole in space-time.

FilmWonk rating: 1 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #105 – “Time Trap” (dir. Ben Foster, Mark Dennis) (#SIFF2017)

Poster for "Time Trap"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel jump into their favorite perennial time-bubble, the Seattle International Film Festival (which opens today!) (20:38).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

There are three public screenings of Time Trap at SIFF 2017, two of them this weekend (Friday 5/19 and Saturday 5/20), and another on 5/30 up in Shoreline. Check out the film’s SIFF page for tickets and details.

Show notes:

Listen above, or download: Time Trap (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #104 – “The Wall” (dir. Doug Liman) vs. “Buried” (dir. Rodrigo Cortés)

Poster for "The Wall" (2017 film)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the latter days of the Iraq War with a lean thriller from Amazon Studios and director Doug Liman, The Wall, and we revisit the 2010 Rodrigo Cortés thriller, Buried. It all looks a bit grim, and while there may be an ending in sight, we’ll figure out which flick handled that ending best (47:15).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Buried"

The Wall is in theaters this Friday, 5/12, and will be available on Amazon video later this year.

FilmWonk rating (The Wall): 7/10 (Daniel); 6/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Buried): 6/10 (Daniel); 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [00:33] Review: The Wall/Buried
  • [24:02] Spoilers: The Wall/Buried
  • Music for this episode is the opening title theme from Buried, composed by Victor Reyes.
  • Check out Glenn’s 2010 review of Buried.
  • Clarification: We stated a figure of 500,000 deaths from the Iraq War, and this appears to be on the high end of estimates, based on a 2011 study in PLoS Medicine, which relied on census-style household surveys, and had an extremely high uncertainty interval (95%), meaning that the study’s casualty estimate was anywhere from 48,000-751,000. The Iraq Body Count project, which relies largely on media reports (and thus may be underestimating), puts the figure at closer to 120,000. The overall point notwithstanding, there does not appear to be a single, agreed-upon figure. See Wikipedia: Casualties of the Iraq War for more information.
  • As promised, according to RF Cafe, the density of dry sand is 100 lb/ft3. A standard coffin is approximately 7 feet long, and 2.333 feet wide at its widest point. If Paul was buried under 3 feet of sand, this amounts to approximately 49ft3 of sand above him, weighing just under 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg). With all respect to The Bride, Paul’s not punching his way out of this.

Listen above, or download: The Wall, Buried (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)