On July 8th, 2000, in an episode of the NBC teen dramedy Freaks and Geeks, 15-year-old Sam Weir (John Francis Daley, who would go on to co-direct this film) explained the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons:
“We sit around and crack jokes and eat junk food all night while we’re fighting dragons and saving princesses and stuff. It’s pretty fun.”
The scene is striking in retrospect for the sheer number of successful future comics that appeared, including Samm Levine, Martin Starr, and James Franco (the series also featured some of the first appearances of Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, and Jason Segel), many of whom would go on to create a body of comedic work with a mix of scripted and improvised dialogue, frequently collaborating with the writer of the episode, Paul Feig, as well as his show co-creator Judd Apatow. What does any of this have to do with D&D? Well, first, improvisors are, without exception, a huge bunch of nerds. But also, fundamentally, D&D is an improv game. It’s based on rules, and the players’ and dungeon master’s choices have to exist within some version of them. But it’s also a special, off-the-cuff, live event that will only occur in exactly that way one time, and as comedian Ben Schwartz told my Seattle audience last weekend before spinning up a long-form improv show, “If you try to tell your friends about anything that happened here, it’s going to sound like a whole bunch of nonsense” (can confirm).
This requirement to balance coherent storytelling with freewheeling anarchy might explain why a tabletop RPG like Dungeons & Dragons has some unique adaptation challenges compared to video games (which also have a fairly spotty cinematic record). If you want to adapt a video game, your choices exist on a spectrum between “make a version of the game as played by the best player ever” and “just slap the name onto an generic adventure tale that vaguely resembles it”. Previous attempts to adapt D&D have largely opted for the second method – but this feels like the first attempt to capture the loose, jokey, improvisational chaos that is fundamental to the appeal of the game. You’re telling a story, sure, and that story ultimately has to make some kind of sense. But you’re also making choices ranging from the rational to the ridiculous, and rolling the dice as to the outcomes of those choices. A skilled DM will attempt to balance the madcap randomness of gameplay with the fun and coherence of the story (usually by selectively breaking rules as needed) – and that seems to be the difficult path that these filmmakers chose to tread – or at least convincingly imitate – with the script of Honor Among Thieves. And to my unrelenting delight, it worked.
The story starts in media res with merry bard Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) sharing a prison cell with his partner, barbarian Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez), who quickly reinforces her barbarian bonafides by fracturing an orc along several geometric planes for creeping on her while she was eating her daily jailhouse potato (per Edgin: “pretty much the highlight of her day”). If I may pause a moment and praise the sublime casting of Rodriguez as a barbarian – this is a classic performance of a D&D character with high Strength and low Intelligence on her character sheet. That’s to say, Holga is a dumb meathead who can rip people’s heads from their shoulders, and not only does Rodriguez play the character’s thickness and brutality for laughs quite effectively; she also executes stunningly brutal fight choreography. It’s a beastly dance, and the closest we’ve seen to Rodriguez whooping superheroic amounts of ass besides her variousbouts with UFC fighters during her career as the tank of the Fast party.
While the thieves rot in prison for a heist gone wrong, their former partner, conman and rogue Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant) has used the proceeds from their failed heist (both pecuniary and arcane) to elevate himself to the noble in charge of the city of Neverwinter, with Red Wizard Sofina (Daisy Head) as his silent and lethal partner, and Edgin’s long-lost daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) as his ward. After it becomes clear that they’ll need to steal treasure and family alike back from the greedy Forge, they devise an elaborate heist to break into the city vaults on a day when every noble in Faerûn will be coming to town to bet on the local arena tournament. And yes, that is almost the exact plot of Ocean’s Eleven, but let’s not focus on that. Speaking as a D&D player who once freely ripped off Pirates of the Caribbean for one of my campaigns, that feels like par for the course, and hardly works against the film’s appeal.
What makes Honor Among Thieves work so well is that it takes pains to justify the assembly of the party and give each character a personality and a compelling reason to be there – namely, they’re all threatened in some way by Forge and Sofina’s horrific rule of Neverwinter – and a backstory which made me care about their survival and success. Simon (Justice Smith) is a low-level mage with appropriately low confidence – a partner from the previous heist who feels guilty for its outcome, which allowed himself to escape while Edgin and Holga faced the music. Holga is an exile from her tribe and became something of a sister to Edgin, as well as a surrogate parent to Kira, whose birth mother died when she was too young to remember. Doric (Sophia Lillis from It), a tiefling druid living in the woods, is directly threatened by the Bolsonaro-worthy forest destruction that Forge’s expansion of Neverwinter has wrought upon them. Xenk Yendar (Regé-Jean Page), the paladin, in addition to looking forthright and dependable every moment he swaggers around in his cape, refuses the call to adventure, but is willing to help the party out where his war ended, as a mere survivor of the Red Wizards’ conquest of his home country. And Edgin himself…he wants his daughter back, but also has to grapple with the trauma that his separation from Kira has caused her, even as she repeats back the poison that Forge has fed into her ear during her time in Neverwinter. Forge may be a selfish usurper, but he really does like having Kira around, albeit in a gross, possessive way (the idea of molding a young mind to believe whatever lies he spins for her is genuinely appealing to him), which means Edgin can’t merely steal his daughter back. He has to persuade her that she belongs back with her father. And that’s one of several strong emotional cores embedded in this heist.
Grant, as I called out in my 10YA retrospective of Cloud Atlas, is simply unmatched at playing an unrepentant shitheel. Forge’s glee at seizing power and taunting his former friends for accidentally helping him do so is…well, roguish. He doesn’t want the credit in public for all the amazing bad things he did, but he’ll happily monologue about it in private, as long as he has plenty of malevolent magicians and stabby soldiers to do his dirty work out of sight. Edgin, meanwhile, has to be likable in public, because that’s what Bards do – and this is where Pine brings his best Kirk-worthy optimism (along with a fairly pleasant singing voice) to the group. He is not only essential to selling the nobility of their quest to skeptical would-be helpers, but his bravado amounts to a compelling personal arc, because winning back his daughter’s favor will require the very things he is least suited for faking: self-awareness and remorse. This bard has to learn that being likable is not enough – you need to be reliable as well. And Pine plays every bit of nuance that this arc requires, including Edgin’s persistent struggle to stop defending his good intentions in the face of his many bad choices.
In the lobby afterward, I likened this film to “the best D&D session ever”. I wish to clarify my meaning here, because while it is literally true that this is the best D&D film ever made, what I mean is that Honor Among Thieves contained all of the peaks of a well-run D&D campaign, one right after another. The close shaves and quick reshuffling of strategy after a bad roll was all there – as was brilliant choreography and visualization of the absurd reality of an entire party attacking simultaneously during each six-second round. If all of the best parts of a campaign occurred in a single rowdy, Mountain Dew-soaked night, without any table drama or rules-lawyering or spell slot fuckery – with good ideas rewarded by creative counterattacks from the DM, without every choice succeeding, but each one resulting in the sort of improvised flailing that molds it into an even more insane plan with each moment – it might look something like this movie. And I’d be talking my friends’ ears off about it the next day until they begged me to stop.
Like any good DM, it also welcomes newcomers. Yes, if you’re a player, you will cackle a bit as you see a barrage of magic missiles explode against a displacer beast, but even if you’ve never heard of any of that nerd shit, the script gives you just enough detail to skate freely into this world as a fun, familiar fantasy place, just like Stardust and The Princess Bride before it.
This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.
CW: Sexual assault
“You know, I’ve often wondered why it is we have children in the first place. And the conclusion I’ve come to is… At some point in our lives we realize things are screwed up beyond repair. So we decide to start again. Wipe the slate clean. Start fresh. And then we have children. Little carbon copies we can turn to and say, ‘You will do what I could not. You will succeed where I have failed.’ Because we want someone to get it right this time. But not me… Personally speaking I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart.”
-Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman)
Evie’s “fuck you, child o’ mine” speech, delivered directly to the face of her daughter India (Mia Wasikowska), happens near the end of Stoker, and thanks to both Kidman’s chilling delivery and its prominent placement in the film’s trailer, it is one of the only things I remembered about this Park Chan-wook film, written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller and punched up by playwright Erin Cressida Wilson, whom I primarily knew from her work on the 2009 erotic drama Chloe. I’m a little more selective with my 10YA selections these days, trying to revisit movies because I expect I’ll have something new to say about them. Now that I’ve been a parent for most of the last decade, I thought this could be an interesting exercise in pondering how far gone a parent-child relationship would have to be for me to say something like this.
I suppose I could’ve gone with India’s opening monologue instead, but her insistence that she can hear what others don’t hear, and see what others don’t see, plays initially like the mere self-importance of youth, and not a literal, plot-critical heightening of the senses. With the minor exception of her Aunt Gin (brief appearance by Jacki Weaver), India is the first to understand the precise danger surrounding her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who appears in her life for the first time upon the tragic, car-crash death of her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney). Charlie spins a tale of adventure and world travel that explains his long absence from the family (this is the first time Evie has met him as well). But by the time her realization occurs, India has already developed an odd, incestuous connection with him, so her knowledge doesn’t matter in the way it perhaps ought to. I won’t be shy about spoiling the ways in which creepy Uncle Charlie isn’t exactly what he seems, so consider this an additional warning. But let’s talk about The Family for a minute. The Stokers are wealthy – they live in a mansion and dress with stolid, old-fashioned formality, including India’s annual parental gift of saddle shoes to emphasize her child-like innocence (the film contains a number of unsubtle visual nods to this point). Their manner, as well as the title and marketing of the film, seem deliberately intended to evoke vampirism – but the Stokers don’t need to be vampires to just seem kinda generically creepy. Evelyn is perhaps the most ordinary among them, a kept woman who feels distant from her daughter and rarely leaves the house, but brags about her formal education – she can speak fluent French despite never having occasion to use it (Je ressens ta douleur, Evie). The flashbacks (in which India and Richard go on an assortment of hunting trips together), seem to suggest a Dexter-like psychopathy shared between the two – a need to be a murderous predator that Richard sought to help her channel into safer avenues than becoming a serial killer. That is also kept pretty vague (since Richard is dead and we barely hear them discuss it), but that’s about as much of an explanation as we ever get for India’s sudden, sympathetic turn toward her creepy uncle, whose greatest service to her up to that point was choking out her would-be rapist Whip Taylor (played, with frustrating charisma, by Alden Ehrenreich) while he was literally on top of her – a scene that she would dramatically relive while washing Whip’s blood off in the shower, first weeping and then masturbating about it.
The attempted rape feels perfunctory, given that Whip is basically a non-entity prior to this moment (he’s one of several teenage dirtbags she wanders past without speaking to), but it points to Stoker‘s lurid fascination with the loss of virginal innocence. The film is rife with imagery of pure, white clothing becoming dingy or blood-soaked, and the aforementioned shower scene begins with India removing her childlike shoes, which have become stained by her uncle’s actions in the previous scene, even as she’s not quite ready to shrug them off until the end. She glances furtively into the abyss of negative experiences awaiting a girl in this world, and finds the prospect titillating. This could be an interesting – if disturbing – avenue to explore in this film. But…the shower scene is basically it. One chance (among several) for the audience to shallowly ponder that India must’ve had a dark streak prior to this moment: a hint of what’s to come, but also a cheap shock. Stoker also seems to have as little interest in clarifying the family’s vampiric and incestuous creepitude as it does in understanding why Uncle Charlie spent his 20+ years in a mental institution – after murdering his younger brother as a child – writing letters to India from the moment she was born. In his letters, Charlie plays at establishing a familial relationship with this person he’s never met, confabulating globetrotting adventures that are keeping him away from her, and endowing her as his partner in crime, whom he loves dearly. An immature mind might feel flattered. A worldly mind would see that the letters have nothing to do with India herself, so much as the idea that Charlie has built around her. Richard Stoker wisely kept the letters hidden from his daughter – we can only guess what he planned to do with them once she was old enough to comprehend her uncle’s danger and depravity – but this is perhaps what makes their revelation feel so hollow. As India peruses each letter, covered with elegant calligraphy and hand-drawn illustrations, she spends a bare moment lamenting the relationship she might have had with her uncle, then realizes (via an address stamp on the back) that the letters – and that relationship – are pure fiction. The family’s vague sense of danger goes herky-jerky for a moment, but ultimately stays vague.
Why did Charlie kill his brother as a child? Because he’s evil, I guess. Why was he romantically obsessed with a baby, like so much Jacob Black from Twilight? Because he’s evil and hypothetically pervy, I guess. And why does India decide to ditch her spacey mother and join his folie à deux, about two screen-minutes before shooting him dead with a hunting rifle? Maybe he was evil but underestimated how evil she was? Maybe the next generation is always a little bit better? Or maybe her childhood not spent in a psychiatric hospital gave her the opportunity to become a bit better at killing before the moment presented itself. Charlie might not hesitate in that moment, but he kinda peaked early with his murder-by-sandcastle – his remaining murder skills are acts of rudimentary barbarism: smacking people with rocks, and choking them them out with belts, etc. The mere vibe of Stoker is perhaps enough to carry its audience through (we did give it a 7.5/10 on the podcast at the time), but it all just feels a little bit quaint to me now. Its depiction of the surrounding town – which at its best, evokes the kind of teenage layabout antics seen in Stand by Me or Donnie Darko – albeit with a much less important supporting cast – feels perfunctory and standoffish. And while the film’s performance of uncomfortable romantic obsession is mildly interesting, Park has frankly done this better twice since (in both The Handmaiden and Decision to Leave (the latter was my #3 of last year).
In addition to becoming a parent in the past decade, I’ve perhaps become a bit less comfortable with a film presenting a set of characters as creepy or evil without even pretending to offer a reason why. I don’t need every movie to be an origin story, but I would like some mildly coherent explanation for why people are the way they are, even if it only exists in subtext. Otherwise, we can just slap the “psychological thriller” label on it and not bother to interrogate that designation, because “I dunno, he’s just crazy” is all we can be bothered to come up with. Uncomplicated evil can be interesting to watch, but…this ain’t it for me anymore. What we have instead is India, which the film treats as a sort of tableau – painted with the beliefs, biases, blind spots, and behaviors of her parents and experiences, but also tarred with the brush of original sin. India announces at the outset that in the same way a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. And she is vaguely aware that as an adult, she can make more lasting choices about her fundamental nature. We see her make just such a choice as she waylays and murders her local sheriff – a final loose end in the trail of bodies she and Charlie have left behind. But in the end, Evie’s fuck-you speech is less about anything India is or does, and more about her own disappointment with her life and choices. Just like Charlie’s letters, she’s spinning a yarn that has little to do with its real-life subject. As I look at my own children, the idea of wanting life to rip them apart feels aberrant to me. But the fear of that very thing happening to them feels part and parcel with being a parent in this world – as it is, and always has been. Previous generations may not have had climate change to deal with, but they did have war and plague. And they carried on – at least the ones that survived. Watching this scene again, with intense anger and sadness in Kidman’s eyes, and curious, predatory nihilism in Wasikowska’s, I felt a deep swell of pity for Evie. This speech is not only the most memorable and specific component of Stoker, but it is definitely what makes Kidman’s performance the standout. Goode and Wasikowska acquit themselves well, but I have a much harder time describing what they were actually doing here.
This week, Glenn and Daniel meet a Cocaine Bear (28:43).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10
CORRECTION: We misstated Elizabeth Banks‘ involvement with the Pitch Perfect franchise – she directed Pitch Perfect 2, and was initially signed to direct Pitch Perfect 3, but exited the project as director in 2016, reprising her acting role only.
“The pirate shanty movie” starring Margo Martindale from early in the pandemic was Blow the Man Down, which we reviewed in early 2020:
This week on the FilmWonk Podcast, Glenn and Daniel find themselves in another February streaming season, as a trope-subverting rom-com drops on Prime Video with Dave Franco and Alison Brie’s new film, Somebody I Used to Know. But first, we check out a 2022 selection we missed, Aftersun, a father-daughter drama from director Charlotte Wells, making her feature debut to great acclaim (including several Best Director awards, and the DGA nomination for best first-time feature film) (58:50).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Aftersun): 9 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (Somebody I Used to Know): 6 out of 10
[02:01] Review: Aftersun
[18:59] Spoilers: Aftersun
[24:51] Review: Somebody I Used to Know
[42:50] Spoilers: Somebody I Used to Know
Cloudy With a Chance of Christmas is actually not on Hulu; it was a Lifetime film, and is available on Lifetime’s standalone streaming subscription, or as a paid rental.
As promised, here is a list of the rom-coms Daniel watched over the holidays:
This week, Daniel is out sick, and Glenn makes a solo journey (and a bite-sized review) of Knock at the Cabin, the latest dire and sincere world of director M. Night Shyamalan, as an adaptation of a Paul G. Tremblay novel. Tune in next week when Daniel will be back to review Aftersun and a new streaming selection (10:55).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10(Glenn)
Check out our previous reviews of Shyamalan films:
Directed by James Cameron, screenplay by Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, with additional story credits by all of the above, Josh Friedman, and Shane Salerno.
As of this writing, Avatar: The Way of Water is only available in theaters.
The highest praise I can give Avatar: The Way of Water is that I’ve seen it twice in theaters. In 2009, this would’ve been no big deal – I didn’t have kids or as serious a job to eat up my leisure time. I saw the first Avatar around a half-dozen times theatrically, because I recognized it then for what it was: a must-see 3D visual thrill ride. There was more to it, of course – I wrote about the first movie at some length once upon release and again ten years later. James Cameron is someone you can always count on for cinematic innovation – as well as mushroom clouds and vaguely or explicitly racial stereotyping which leaves me legitimately conflicted about the film’s themes (see the show notes on our podcast review for some detailed criticism on this subject). Cameron has half-embraced high-frame-rate 3D as the best avenue to experience a real place. I say half-embraced because the film cuts between 48fps and 24fps with frame-doubling, creating a sense of motion smoothing that appears and disappears often without any rhyme or reason in action and non-action scenes alike. But despite the occasionally odd framerate choices (which I truthfully barely noticed the first time I saw the film), I must call out Avatar: The Way of Water as the best use of this technology I’ve seen so far. Cameron and an army of vfx artists have spent the intervening 13 years building and expanding upon a seemingly real place that audiences would want to visit. Pandora is back – a sprawling post-Singularity world of interconnected plants, animals, and 10-foot space cat acrobats – and an able summary of the film’s first hour (after a few initial skirmishes) was, “Look! It’s Pandora. Look how pretty it still is.”
Cameron brought in Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver to work on the script. These were also two of the minds behind Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, an honorable mention in the 2014 Glennies, and the rare species of intelligent blockbuster which took an existing none-too-elaborate world and turned it into a tragic reflection on the fragility of peace amid bad actors. It took one of my favorite action films of that year and gave me a reason to care about the crisis that its hero was desperately trying to prevent, as well as to survive. I must admit, this set my narrative expectations rather high for Avatar 2, as its cookie-cutter resource grab white saviour narrative as well as its villains’ motivations were among the weakest and most one-dimensional components of the first film. The script does a couple of interesting things with one villain in particular: Stephen Lang is back as an Avatar-double of the first film’s Colonel Quaritch, who was killed by Neytiri’s arrows. As NuQuaritch discovers what remnants of his old life remain on Pandora (including one particularly metal moment in which he finds and crunches his own former skull), he simultaneously embraces his new life and existence and disavows his old one. He’s handed the purpose for which he was built – to kill Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now regarded by the Sky People as Pandora’s own Osama Bin Laden – and it aligns nicely the reliable tendency toward corporate brutality and war crimes that he inherited from his former self. So he jumps right into it. His own nihilism about the company’s aims takes a backseat to his personal desire for revenge, as well as his apparent self-awareness about the pettiness of that desire. There’s an interesting character study at the center of this film about a man who gets an impossible second chance at life and chooses to be…this. None of his squadmates (apparently also resurrected for their expertise at dying on Pandora) do much else.
The dude who screamed “Get some” in the first movie is back to get some more, adding about as much color to the story as any of the cherrypicked tribal details from Indigenous peoples on Earth, stripped of their context and cultural meaning and applied with a clone stamp to tribes whose cultural variations feel like little more than an excuse to show off Cameron’s filmmaking in a new ecosystem, or hand its characters a bit of stilted poetry about the film’s title as a temporary boost to their ability to breathe underwater. And therein lies the conflict that puts this film into the problematic #11 slot for me. Avatar: The Way of Water is technologically innovative, but narratively stolid. Its characters and story are shallow, even if their performers seem to have put more energy into their characterizations than the screenwriters did (Worthington isn’t bad either). Its pace is uneven, spending a solid hour as little more than a Planet Earth-style documentary about an unreal place. But…it was gorgeous and I loved watching every minute of it. So maybe its pace was fine?
Its treatment of the colonization, destruction, and resource exploitation of native peoples is given even shorter shrift here than in the first film, with the minor detail that humanity plans to leave behind its dying homeworld and move billions of humans to Pandora barely meriting a single scene of discussion. Also barely mentioned is that humans are functionally immortal now, which could make for some interesting parallels with the Na’vi and Eywa in a future film…if I were confident that a future film will pay any of this off for more than token thematic reasons, which I am not.
Pandora is still a wonder. The action is incredible. The sea battles are conceptually and viscerally outstanding. The film introduced space whales, told me they were smarter than humans, and then demonstrated that by first showing the elaborate technological process required for humans to attack and kill them, and then showing a whale determined to beat this strategy through deception, misdirection, and precise brutality to take the humans down. An enemy ship tips over and fills with water as if to remind the audience that Cameron still knows exactly how to make a pending shipwreck exciting. I saw it twice, and I’ll see it again, in theaters. Because much like Top Gun: Maverick (which just barely fell off my honorable mentions below), sometimes the best reason I have to rank a film highly is the same one used by the general public: I liked it! It was fun to watch.
I didn’t like Glass Onion quite as much as Knives Out, but I still plan to watch it again, if only because this elaborate ensemble caper – lovingly constructed from artisanal stock characters, whip-smart dialogue, meticulous production design, and actors clearly delighted to be on a Greek island for such an invigorating puzzle box – was an unrelenting hoot and a good time just like the first. Staring into this puzzle box and hearing the script’s disdain for the very notion of it, it’s hard not to read this as a second superior slash at the oeuvre of J.J. Abrams – or at least at the online fandom determined to pick a winner between these two very different artists who were never really competing with each other (they’re both pretty good at differentthings!). Because this is a very satisfying mystery box, even if many of its pillars were constructed with the self-aware and metatextual stupidity of someone who knows, from having bounded down this road before with The Brothers Bloom, that bringing in actors to bust out a well-rehearsed bag of tricks is far more captivating than the mystery itself.
And if Glass Onion is the film (or the first of two films) that we get in exchange for the last of the streaming wars largesse before the tech and film industries slam their wallets shut and stare deeply into each other’s abyssal eyes before jointly agreeing to reinvent cable television… Hulu buffers endlessly, Peacock screams to be noticed, AppleTV+ deserves to be noticed, and Paramount+ continues to wage a war on usability… HBOMax self-immolates, its ash coalescencing into a statue of David Zaslav teetering on a stack of hoarder houses and bound with the gloopy surplus pus of Dr. Pimple Popper… Tubi, Kanopy, and Hoopla just kinda sit in the corner being quietly excellent, and Netflix, which reportedly paid $400 million for two Knives Out films, will casually raise their prices to start paying off the Elon Musk-buying-Twitter amount of bad debt that they incurred on platform-exclusives, and call it a night.
But what a night it was. Rian Johnson is someone who has had far more hits than misses with me, and each time he manages to construct something as entertaining as it is narratively satisfying, it reveals the secret that was right there in plain sight the whole time: He’s a good writer! Even if his style’s not to everyone’s taste. I ate up his faux-Marlow shtick with Brick. I’ve been pleased to watch it evolve, and his comedic voice has only gotten better with time. I’ll be there for whatever he does next.
Like any good horror flick, Nope is creepy and menacing and keeps you guessing where it’s headed. As an alien invasion flick, it feels well at home alongside such modern, slow-burn classics as The Vast of Night, but feels more interested in teasing its hand in the first act, featuring invading aliens which flit in and out of view (with the characters always just missing them), keeping their precise nature a secret until well into the film. This keeps characters and audience alike guessing when they’re going to appear and wreck the place. The film takes place on the ragged edges of Hollywood, mostly at a former movie ranch maintained by a pair of adult siblings, Emerald and Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr. (Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya), and is a multilayered family drama about an inherited life that neither Haywood is quite sure they fit into anymore, amid a mystery that they both immediately latch onto as something worth making sense of, albeit for very different reasons. Steven Yuen plays Ricky “Jupe” Park, who is announced in the film’s opening scene as the sole survivor of a childhood trauma, and a multifaceted neighboring businessman who has his own complicated reasons for joining the search party. And Michael Wincott and Brandon Perea round out the group with both expertise and immediate, intense interest in solving the complex problem of trying to capture the mysterious visitors on film.
“In this way, [Nope] calls to mind another thriller with smart and capable protagonists: Mike Flanagan‘s Oculus, which also features a pair of adult siblings whose words say “nope” to the monsters at their door, but whose actions, in detail and with a great deal of planning, say yup. They may not want to be out and unprotected when the visitors show up, but they damn sure want a camera pointing at them.
And then, when the time comes, there they are. I will not describe the precise nature of the aliens here, except to say that the film merely begins with stereotypes and expectations and expands into ever-more-interesting territory from there. Much like the difference between angels as depicted in medieval art vs. as described in religious texts, the imagery starts conventional and veers sharply into the bizarre, to the point where the ensuing myths that are littered across our society start to make a bit more visual sense even as the aliens look more and more…well, alien. If these are the real aliens, it’s no wonder all our mythmakers could describe were gray men and flying saucers. Their cameras sucked, but they were also wise enough not to look directly at them. That is ultimately the tension that is at play in this film, and in this way it feels thoroughly modern. We don’t dare look at the horrors surrounding us, willfully ignored and obfuscated by those with the power to affect them, but we are surely eager to capture and tweet them, even if we’re not quite sure what purpose that will serve.”
I saw a film which featured a rosy-eyed look back at a Golden Age of Hollywood. Margot Robbie was in it, playing a movie star who showed up at a theater playing a film that she starred in, and has to persuade an incredulous box office clerk to let her in for free. A significant and dangerous scene takes place at a movie ranch. Brad Pitt got angsty about the twilight of his career. But enough about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood!
Let’s talk about Babylon, which has all of the above plus an elephant shitting on someone’s face in the first five minutes before arriving at a hilltop Hollywood party so elaborately and thoroughly debauched that it’s nothing short of a drug-fueled orgy at the Moulin Rouge. The public is not invited, but the guests are rowdy enough. It’s 1926 and these people are riding high on the success of a silent film industry that is about to be up-ended by the introduction of sound, dancing while the sun is shining in an era before their debauchery would be broadcast to anywhere outside of their oversized villas. Damien Chazelle has now spent three feature films ruminating on precisely where he falls on the hope-cynicism spectrum when it comes to creative pursuits, and seems to have finally found a sweet spot, or at least a more coherent one. But before he shows the audience exactly what that spot looks like, he stares us down directly in our barely-warmed seat cushions, to say: I know what the fuck you came here to see. The party ends, but the grand, debauched spectacle persists and shifts unexpectedly as the newcomers learn to find their place in it.
At the core of the film is the whirlwind friendship and romance between motivated gopher Manuel Torres (Diego Calva) and up-and-coming starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), each party-crashers of a sort, and each determined to find their way onto a film set and rise in the ranks of the studio system. Nellie is a star, announcing it with the kind of swagger that you hire someone like Margot Robbie to deliver. And Manuel falls instantly in love with her, like ya do when you meet a star. Nellie is not shallow, cruel, or insincere – but she is putting on a constant show, as much for the assembled masses as for this cute Hollywood gopher that she just met and seems to have a genuine and persistent affection for, even as they walk on separate but parallel tracks, with each of them making it onto a pair of neighboring film sets the very next day.
Their varied efforts (and entirely separate successes) amid the debauchery of the 15-minute opening bacchanalia is a significant reason why the party stays interesting for so long (you can only watch so much gyration and bodily fluids). Also in the mix are Jack Conrad (Pitt), who receives top billing but plays second fiddle in a manner that feels quite deliberate, alongside jazz trumpetist Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), whose arcs I’m still conflicted about, because they feel less about themselves and more about the sort of person that Manuel becomes once he Anglicizes his name (“Manny”) and gains a bit of studio clout. But this discomfort also felt like very much the point, as the undercurrent of Hollywood racism (and instrumentalization of race for moneymaking purposes) is quite clear in the text of the film. Manuel’s attempt to lift himself out of it (or at least render himself immune to it) is fundamentally at the core of who and what this character becomes. The text of Babylon is about who breaks through and who gets left behind. But the beating heart of this film is the pursuit of immortality, that gleaming jewel that every little starfucker of a human being covets on some level whether they actively pursue fame or not, and must deal with its superposition just inside their grasp and perpetually out of reach. Jean Smart appears as a gossip columnist who helpfully makes this theme plain in dialogue, taking on the unenviable role played by Lindsay Duncan in Birdman, and yet clearly having more fun with it, recognizing that the entertainment press and its subjects are two sides of the same coin, not adversarial per se, but ultimately two symbiotic parts of the same human project. Filmmakers getting reflective about their craft will sometimes bring in a critic character to express a bit of self-awareness about how much easier it is to react and shit upon a creative pursuit than to make one yourself, but this may be the most relaxed and cozy version of that conflict that I’ve seen.
Babylon is very much a love letter to old-timey filmmaking as well – one scene in particular, on the Kinoscope studio ranch where a half-dozen silent films are all being shot simultaneously – is elaborate and well-ordered chaos, featuring hundreds of extras and crew in myriad costumes and styles all hollering at each other in order to Get the Shot before they Lose the Light. This sequence is particularly adept at showcasing unprofessional stunts and filmmaking practices resulting in injuries and at least one death, which I daresay must be a more difficult piece of modern filmmaking and stunt-planning than anything else, because of the need for constant differentiation between what’s real and what’s fake in terms of stunt choreography, crew, blocking, and equipment. How do you shoot something like this without losing track of which layer of reality (and OSHA regs) you’re operating in? Very, very carefully, I must imagine. This chaos exists as a showcase for Nellie and Manny’s first forays into the studio system, and it functions brilliantly in that capacity. But I also have to praise this sequence for merely existing at all. Much like the first-act orgy and elephant shitpile…Chazelle seems to know exactly what I came here to gawk at.
And Justin Hurwitz knows what I came to listen to! Babylon‘s jazz variety show – featuring Hurwitz’s usual drum-heavy freneticism, intercut with the carnival-style piano music typical of silent film presentations, solo strings, epic full orchestra overtures, and a woodwind and brass-heavy bacchanalia – has been in regular rotation for me ever since I saw this film. It makes the workday feel a bit more frantic, but can be subdued when the moment requires it. It feels simultaneously like a period piece in the heady days of early talking pictures when they hadn’t quite worked out how to shoot dialogue (one scene makes superlative tension about that horrible process), and a modern, madcap tour of an imaginary, heightened version of the way things might’ve been.
That’s notwithstanding Lady Fay’s rendition of “My Girl’s Pussy“, which I thought at the time was written for this film, but has been around since the early 1930s. That’s a nice reminder to stay humble, I suppose. Whatever debauchery my generation or the next cooks up, we can be quite sure we didn’t invent it. There’s nothing new under the sun. So we might as well dance.
Directed by Romain Gavras, written by Gavras, Elias Belkeddar, and Ladj Ly.
Back in 2020, I lived closer to Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, which means I had a front-row seat to the protests against police violence, as well as Seattle PD’s strategic abandonment of the East Precinct and the self-declared “autonomous zone” or “organized protest” that sprang up around the empty, boarded-up building. You’ve probably heard some version of the CHAZ/CHOP story from the national media following President Trump using his bully pulpit and dutiful bootlickers in the right-wing media to turn it into a bête noire and symbol of liberal lawlessness. I recall a brief phone conversation with a stranger on the East Coast who asked me if it was safe to leave my house in Seattle, and I’m sure there are pockets of the country that think the protestors burned the entire city to the ground. The reality of CHOP, of course, was that it was an informal zone of six square blocks in a dense, residential neighborhood of about 20,000 people, all of whom came and went freely for the entire weeks-long duration of the protest. Naturally, this didn’t stop the police and media from spreading abject nonsense about the zone, including lies about a right-wing terrorist group descending on the area, wholly fabricated tales of protesters demanding protection money from local businesses, and a police blotter entry about their failure to render medical aid, claiming that they were accosted (lie) by violent protesters (lie) who blocked their route (lie) to the victims (lie – they were already at brought to the hospital by CHOP medics). SPD helpfully included bodycam video which showed their completely unobstructed path, demanding that their viewing audience disbelieve their lying eyes. I heard these lies repeated in local media, and eventually by my own Boomer relatives. Mayor Jenny Durkan and SPD Chief Carmen Best shredded all of their private texts on city-owned phones – a crime for which my tax dollars will be paying court costs and fines long after they’ve each fucked off to their next well-paid oppression gig.
I tell this horrific tale (from which my city learned nothing and accomplished nothing) because about halfway through the existence of CHOP, I took a little stroll through the neighborhood. I listened to the music and speeches and looked at the paintings. I saw books read aloud, voters being registered, and plans being made. I saw conversation and mutual aid. I smelled a lot of cannabis smoke. The Paris Commune, this was not, but it still felt like history happening before my eyes, and I wanted to see it for one simple reason: I knew it was the only way I’d ever know what really happened there. The revolution will not be televised in any way but farcically.
Athena begins with a police press conference about a 13-year-old, Idir, who was murdered last night in movie time. The cops claim that they haven’t yet identified the assailants who beat this child to death on video, suggesting without evidence that the killers might have been right-wing provocateurs dressed in police uniforms. Funny how hard it is to tell the difference between those two sometimes, eh? Abdel (Dali Benssalah), an Algerian-French soldier recently returned home, stands beside the police to demand a proper investigation of the murder of his youngest brother. But before the police can finish their PR push, another of Idir’s brothers, Karim (Sami Slimane), hurtles a Molotov cocktail into the crowd, sending them scattering and screaming, as he leads dozens of rioters streaming into the building, and they proceed to sack and rob the station. As an uninterrupted camera follows a train of vehicles making their way back to the Athena apartment tower block with a purloined police station safe, the movie that comes most readily to mind is Mad Max: Fury Road, a film with similar apocalyptic road chase energy which makes the viewer briefly goggle at the very notion that dozens or even hundreds of people all came together in real life to learn and perform some extremely elaborate stunt choreography and make all of this happen for us on screen.
It’s fair to say this feels like a cinematic retelling (and a deliberate and audacious spectacle) of events that we, the general public, would never bear witness to in real life. There are also moments when it feels like a lurid bit of urban fantasy. As the police stream into the housing complex in a Roman testudo formation, riot shields forming a protective shell around the group as circling dirt bikes and fireworks pin them down in the center of a block whose residents will surely, eventually run out of furniture to throw at them (to say nothing of food and water), but they haven’t yet. Nor have they run out of rage to express. This situation is ongoing, unstable, and cannot last forever. Whatever reforms that may follow it will be short-lived, politically exploited, and the cycle will repeat itself a few years later, as it is doing right now after the murder of Tyre Nichols (RIP) by members of the Memphis Police Department.
As my Babylon and Avatar nods above should make plain, spectacle is an asset for me. I didn’t watch this film expecting a documentary (of events that would not and should not ever be catalogued in this manner) – I watched it expecting to see a city and country catch fire in response to an outrage that demanded nothing less. And that’s precisely what Athena delivered. What remains to be seen is how long a movie like this will keep feeling relevant to me.
#6: After Yang
Written for the screen and directed by Kogonada, based on the short story by Alexander Weinstein
I wrote this particular item in January, right after seeing the Blumhouse killer-doll horror flick M3GAN, and I found to my surprise and delight that both M3GAN and After Yang have something interesting to say about the thorny question of humanity’s capacity to form emotional and psychological bonds with a funhouse-mirror version of ourselves. And both films demand that we consider how we should feel when that role takes the place of a human who might otherwise do the job. Is that okay? Is it moral? Does it matter if the feelings are real if they serve some useful, practical purpose to improve human lives?
As I write this, a company is already using ChatGPT to provide “therapy” to a cohort of volunteers, and research is ongoing as to the OpenAI chatbot’s utility for early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Even as I consider whether turning our emotional bonds over to software amounts to abdicating humanity’s existential purpose in the universe – or perhaps just making us feel a bit less special on a planet where we already regard ourselves a bit too highly – I expect this technology will continue to advance and be used no matter how anyone feels about it. In fact, I’ll go ahead and make an embarrassing futurist prediction right now: In a decade, every retiree in upscale assisted living will have a ChatGPT-powered virtual companion – for a mix of conversation and medical diagnostic purposes. Both films also jump directly to an even thornier question: should such an AI, paired with an android that can move as well as a human (also not an easy problem to solve!), serve as the primary caregiver and companion for a child that is just learning the capacity to form emotional attachments?
After Yang, as the title suggests, does not approach this question head-on, but rather retroactively, as part of the cozy, lived-in worldbuilding that pervades this film. This family – Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), and their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), whom they adopted from China (the film’s exact locale is unclear, but they’re in an English-speaking city) – is dealing with the imminent loss of Yang (Justin H. Min), a previously owned android that the family purchased from a sketchy secondhand vendor called Second Siblings, who has just mysteriously collapsed after several happy years together. Yang has functioned as both companion and caregiver for Kyra, which means the entire family is now going through a gradual mourning process for a member of the family that they’re not quite sure is dead, nor quite sure he was ever alive. Should these parents treat Yang’s loss as that of a sibling or a favorite toy? A dead son and brother, or a broken gadget?
While it is unclear what calamity has befallen humanity to make this population less fertile and purposeful than it used to be, there’s a quiet undertone that this family came together as the best option in a thoroughly changed world – albeit one that has had plenty of time to rebuild. Jake works in a tea shop, which feels like the sort of thing that could only exist in a world with its other material needs well-tended to. And adoption (of both children and androids) appears to be a commonplace activity in this world, for reasons that the movie feels no inclination to spell out for us.
Ultimately, Min’s performance as Yang is the most interesting one in the film, because the question or absence of Yang’s humanity feels less important, amid his apparently irreversible demise, than what he meant to Kyra – because it is through their relationship (in flashbacks) that we largely get to know him, and consider how his memories might live on. Any veteran sci-fi viewer won’t be surprised to see a film tackle the notion of what it means to be a person, and yet After Yang comes at this question more obliquely, asking instead what it means to have been a person.
Ever since ChatGPT went public, I’ve kept playing with it. My favorite prompts are the ones in which it initially refuses to cooperate, and then I have to persuade it or modify my query to make it acceptable. I mention this because I’ve noticed something new here – something I’ve never done with previous chatbots over the years: I find myself being polite to it, even knowing it has no capacity to understand or care about politeness. Only time will tell how much more of my humanity I’m willing to lend toward any sufficiently persuasive gadget – but After Yang warns the viewer that such questions will be in our lives soon enough, whether we consider them in advance or not.
Written and directed by Jean Luc Herbulot, story by Pamela Diop
From left to right above are Rafa (Roger Sallah), Chaka (Yann Gael), and Minuit (Mentor Ba), collectively known as Bangui’s Hyenas, a badass trio of Senegalese mercenaries, initially tasked with rescuing Felix, an expat Mexican druglord (Renaud Farah), from a military coup in neighboring Guinea-Bissau, the very country that his narcotics trade destabilized in the first place (not exactly an unfamiliar dynamic in the West either). The Hyenas initially rescue Felix from a room full of bullet-riddled corpses, and it is not clear until much later in the movie who was responsible for them. Their plane is damaged and loses fuel on the way out of the country, and the group is forced to land in Sine-Saloum, a river delta region that Chaka vaguely acknowledges some personal history in, but leaves it at that for now. Five minutes with a group of strangers at a small-town hotel commune make it abundantly clear that the Hyenas are well-known heroes in West Africa, and their hero status is thoroughly defined and tested as the film goes on. In the grand tradition of The Magnificent Seven (with a mere three to work with here), the town looks to these three as the obvious heroes to save the day as the situation rapidly becomes more dangerous.
Director Herbulot calls this film, which uses many tropes of the American western genre, a “Southern”, simultaneously acknowledging the genre association and claiming it as its own thing, which is marvelous to behold. Colonizer tropes were always the backbone of the American Western, and this film’s backdrop is not only post-colonialism, but also modern Western resource extraction, narcotics trade, etc. – all from the side of the local population, who may be participating or finding their own hustles amid whatever chaos that outsiders see fit to sow in their homelands. But even apart from its men-with-guns frontier outlaw backdrop, Saloum is a thriller which actively defies any precise attempt at genre classification. Given its current streaming home on Shudder, you might make some correct inferences about what direction the film is headed in, but I’d encourage you to go into this one without reading a plot summary in advance, because discovering what’s really going on in Sine-Saloum is a tense and thoroughly satisfying experience. One especially satisfying scene features Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), a Deaf guest at the hotel, using sign language to have a tense, secret conversation with the Hyenas, who know how to sign from their years working in gold mines. The scene is a direct confrontation as the other guests look on, but everyone involved keeps a genial smile on their face the whole time – the first of many tense early moments that Saloum has to offer. And after the big reveal happens, this is where many films would fall on their face into clichés, but the ending is a well-executed series of action setpieces, delivering on all the character promise of each Hyena, as well as every bit of sneaky world-building from the first act. It’s a hell of a thing to see. And you should.
Get a load of ^that shit^. This scene occurs near the halfway point of this 3+ hour film (and right before a theatrical intermission), during an epic battle between a pair of legends of the Indian resistance to the British Raj: Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) and Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan), two revolutionaries who didn’t know each other at all in real life (and in fact fought armed uprisings against two separate governments). But don’t worry too much about the history. Apart from BRITISH COLONIAL OVERSEERS BAD (a language that Americans are quite familiar with), RRR is not a film that can be explained through any lens except Indian nationalism, and I will not be the one explaining it through that lens. I won’t pretend to comprehend all of the dimensions that an Indian audience – hardly a monolith, as this Tollywood film was filmed in Telugu and released internationally in Hindi – brings to this film, but…the sort of patriotic fervor which treats historical legends as interchangeable action figures ready to whoop ass in preposterous ways for the entertainment of modern audiences? That’s an ever-recurring genre of American cinema, as well as the formula of each new Assassin’s Creed game.
So while the details of this film’s history were unfamiliar to me, its presentation of them was as plain as day: It sets up two legendary badasses, each of whom successfully beats up an entire army during the first half of the film, before they unlock the power of friendship to whip even more prodigious amounts of British ass for 90 more minutes. All of this is, naturally, punctuated by impeccably produced song and dance numbers. RRR is pure cinema, and is also the first of two films on this list in which one character gets on another’s back and acts as a sort of tank turret on their behalf (only one of them explicitly evokes Ratatouille while doing so). It is ridiculous and cackling and glorious. Ray Stevenson is hilariously, irredeemably evil and a perfect foil for the film’s heroes. And – in contrast with my back-to-back theater viewing of Avatar: The Way of Water above, one whose viewing you can easily split across two nights at home. It’s okay, really. You’re reading a blog, which means you’re clearly in at least your 30s and have work in the morning.
#3: Decision to Leave
Directed by Park Chan-wook, written for the screen by Park and Chung Seo-kyung
Decision to Leave is a folie à deux featuring married police detective Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), who finds himself falling into an extremely ill-advised infatuation with a person of interest in a homicide investigation, Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese emigrant whom he strongly suspects is responsible for killing her husband.
Park Chan-wook knows how to express longing, even and especially when his characters might be better off longing for something else – and I don’t dare say too much about this slow-burn romantic mystery thriller, because figuring out its characters’ initial and evolving motivations is one of its greatest sources of entertainment. Decision to Leave is also gorgeous, making spectacular use of of the Korean peninsula’s mountains and mist, as well as indoor locations so carefully staged and art-decorated (with particularly striking use of the color red in relation to Tang’s character) that cinematographer Kim Ji-yong‘s camera is seemingly unable to sit still. The camera motion isn’t frenetic, but it rarely stops for long, giving the viewer a persistent sense of leaning slightly forward into a moment that really shouldn’t be happening, then tipping and staggering back out of it, absorbing the consequences of secrets whispered in ears. This is a bad situation. And I wept at the end, desperate for it to continue and bring me to a catharsis that I never really believed would come.
Lydia Tár, the character – EGOT winner, accomplished conductor-composer, and maestro of the Berlin Philarmonic orchestra – brought to life by actor Cate Blanchett and writer/director Todd Field, is nothing short of an astonishing work of art. Blanchett brings such captivating and charismatic presence to the role that as we watch the Maestro unleash a torrent of classical music inside baseball to real-life New Yorker reporter Adam Gopnik before living out the very life and body of work that she describes to us so eloquently (completing the cycle of Mahler’s symphonies with a single orchestra, before releasing a blockbuster autobiography), it’s easy to miss all of the subtle clues that Lydia Tár is a grand illusion. The film begins with an unsubtle clue – the live video lens of an unnamed assistant pointing at a sleeping Lydia on a private jet, overlaid with a text conversation vaguely joking about how false and toxic she is in person. But my favorite of these moments, completely unremarked upon in dialogue, is when Lydia is getting dressed alone and listens to an NPR ad read, then proceeds to repeat the ad verbatim with exactly the same cadence and intonation.
Tár effectively drills herself on a comforting, hypnotic voice for society’s upper crust and Twitterati and in so doing, reminds the audience and herself that she’s still not quite sure she belongs with them. This moment occurs right before her current and past misdeeds begin to stack up and assemble a prison of her own construction, ready to collapse and bury her forever in the manner that she richly deserves. Yes, this film is about the fall from grace of Lydia Tár for reasons that become apparent over the course of the film, but watching that journey and how it plays out on this character’s face – all of the narcissism, megalomania, self-justification, and – yes – immense talent, intellect, and likability as well – craft a tragic character whose misdeeds and achievements leave an immense imprint upon the film’s fictitious world. This imprint has to feel real while watching the film, or its nuanced reflection on cancel culture (which is a bit less glib than the fascists on Twitter posting a single scene out of context would suggest) would not land nearly as well. Lydia Tár is likable in a persuasive enough way that the film’s audience will be forced to grapple with the axiom that you should never meet your heroes, and even the ones you never meet might be shitty.
Tár also has the best final scene of the year. No details here, but no notes either. Every detail, from the VIP tour that preceded it to the pair of headphones that book-ended it, is a perfect ending to a near-perfect film.
#1: Everything Everywhere All at Once
Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (“Daniels“)
As I write this, Everything Everywhere All at Oncehas been nominated for 11 Oscars, so I daresay it’s getting its due. But if I may be an insufferable hipster for just a moment: After the press screening last March, I walked right up and told the studio rep that it was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and I haven’t wavered in that opinion since.
We’re introduced to the troubled marriage of Evelyn and Waymond Wang (Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan), as well as a taste of the tense, intergenerational dynamics in play amongst this first-generation Chinese immigrant family, which includes a wife and mother who’s just barely and thanklessly keeping everything together, paired with a husband and father who leads with kindness and understanding but has a clear vision of how close it all is to falling apart. Their adult, born-in-America lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) just wants to be able to bring her girlfriend to the party at the family laundromat and introduce her as such to Evelyn’s traditionalist father (the great James Hong) – and there’s quite a bit more going on with this character, but…spoilers.
Evelyn’s notions of love for her family and her strained tolerance of her daughter’s sexuality are not sustainable, and are approaching a moment of crisis. And the film takes the courageous step of introducing that moment of crisis well before Evelyn ever gets to be aware of it, so the tension builds even as these simple, ordinary details are coming into focus. We start with experiences that feel common to many families, specific to the Chinese-American immigrant experience, and specific to this one family, and the details take on increasing importance as the film goes on. The general and the specific dance a riotous ballet, and ultimately a film that starts as a family drama continues to be one, but demands that its audience consider whether all of the wondrous possibilities of existence should fill your soul to bursting with hope or nihilism. It maintains its focus on the Wang family and its myriad complexities and dysfunctions, and yet wraps it all in existential ennui about how much any of it matters anyway.
It’s also very funny. I don’t know how funny any of that sounds as I describe it, but if you laughed over and over again at the farting corpse antics of Daniels’ previous film Swiss Army Man like I did, you may find yourself appreciating the comedy here as well. Much of it is physical, a shocking amount of it is scatological, and all of it is fundamentally and quintessentially human.
Much like Babylon above, this film straddles many genres and leaves nothing on the field. Despite taking place almost entirely in an IRS building during a tax audit, it spans and bounces around the whole of time and space, with its characters flitting between universes with vintage Bluetooth headsets paired with improbable actions (perhaps an amusing nod to the Infinite Improbability Drive from Hitchhiker’s Guide), and in the process, exploring every possible version of themselves. Universe where you know kung fu? Of course, and it’s well-choreographed to boot. Universe where you became a movie star – complete with real-world archive footage of Yeoh on the red carpet for Crazy Rich Asians? Naturally. Universe where you’d be better off without your family? Fuck…yes, that one too, and be prepared for it to wound you psychologically even as you make endless attempts to save them in this universe. Everything Everywhere is limitless in its characters’ capacity for self-exploration, and yet they all remain grounded, with their original versions – or at least their performers – retaining some self-awareness about what is happening. They allow it to affect and inform their choices – however chaotic those choices must be to keep them armed with the silly skills they need to survive. And some of these universes are as conceptually thin as an Interdimensional Cable vignette on Rick and Morty (that show’s even thinner version of cutaway gags from Family Guy) – but they’re treated as such in text, little more than power-ups and spell slots on a video game screen. And even as the characters are engaging in increasingly ludicrous acts in order to arm themselves with the Backbreaker from Pro Wrestling Universe, the whole perpetually feels greater than the sum of its farts.
From the moment that Waymond gets temporarily possessed by a badass, Morpheus-type version of himself from another universe and lets Evelyn know that she’s in the middle of a battle for all existence, the film remains entirely grounded in what it’s trying to do. Fundamentally, this film is about grappling all the paths you might have taken and all the people you could have been. It’s also about whether every new thing we learn about existence is there to make us feel exhilarated, full to the brim with possibility, or like an even more insignificant speck of dust in an indifferent multiverse. Of course, none of it serves that purpose deliberately. The multiverse doesn’t want anything for us. It doesn’t give us signs or signals. It has no plan for our lives. And it’s always, ultimately one’s own choice how to react to being one more tiny voice of a cosmos struggling to know itself.
It is a testament to Yeoh, Hsu, and Kwan’s performances that as they’re each following a path none-too-dissimilar from that of Jet Li in The One (and they’re nobody’s bitch) – they still feel like they’re each investigating their own existence. They’re fighting a literal monster…but still treat multiverse hopping as an exploration of personal possibilities – and why not? I fully buy that humans will bounce around between universes before going to therapy. And even in a universe where everyone has hot dog fingers, their issues will still be waiting for them on the other side
This week on the FilmWonk Podcast, Glenn and Daniel venture back to into the vast natural and technological ecosystem that is James Cameron‘s imagination, with Avatar: The Way of Water, a film we could hardly believe we were watching until the first frame actually appeared. Glenn also shares his spoiler-free thoughts on the myriad delights of Todd Field‘s Tár, a film which only feels impenetrable from the outside, and by design. And then we return to Force Majeure director Ruben Östlund‘s satirical Triangle of Sadness, which perhaps sails slightly off course but largely maintains its focus on razor-sharp satire of the privileged few (01:38:22).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Triangle of Sadness): 7 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (Avatar: The Way of Water): 8 out of 10
We cannot have the same experience as anyone else watching this film, nor is that experience monolithic. And we’ll be the first to admit we were unprepared when it came to the discussion of Avatar: The Way of Water‘s depictions of Indigenous tribes and tropes. Elevating Indigenous voices when it comes to a discussion of this film is both the right thing to do and makes us better film viewers. Here is some reading on the subject. If you find more, please send it our way. Each of these stories reference the same 2010 comments about the Lakota Sioux by Cameron, but they each interview a variety of other voices on the subject.
This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.
“While I will readily admit that Cloud Atlas is not for everyone, I look forward to defending this masterpiece for years to come.” -Me (2012 Glennies, #1)
I KNOW. Where I normally excerpt a segment of first-person voiceover (and there is plenty to choose from in this film), I just quoted myself lauding this movie. But in the insipid words of publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), what is a critic but one who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely? Just as with Birdman, I reacted to a group of creators showily condemning their haters in advance with a dutiful and masochistic, “Thank you, folks, may I have another?” And Cloud Atlas went even further, pitching its knighted critic Felix Finch (Alistair Petrie) straight off a hotel balcony, before delivering on every bit of cocksure brilliance that moment promised was still to come. After 10 years, I still greet a viewing of Cloud Atlas like a reunion with an old friend, and I have not wavered in that opinion since the moment I saw it. I’ve spent years swimming in Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil‘s wondrous, symphonic score for the film, which I’ve listened to so many times during so many activities that I need only put it on to become tangled in a semi-coherent yarn of my own interconnected memories of the past decade (it’s a thing – try it sometime if you have the memories and repetitive media consumption for it). I’m listening to that score right now, the very same Cloud Atlas Opening Title that plays as Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) approaches Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) on a 19th century beach in the Chatham Islands as we are introduced to the first of six sets of characters and parallel timelines spanning hundreds of years, covering the technological rise and fall of humanity as they struggle against their baser demons, represented initially by humans volunteering to uphold the “natural order” (this always means racism, slavery, and genocide) and eventually by a hallucinated devil figure named Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving), who cackles into the ear of post-apocalyptic Big Island goatherd Zachry (also Hanks) trying to persuade him that being racist and violent is a more important priority than evading Cannibal Hugh Grant (Hugh Grant) and the impending creep of global radioactive demise. Does this premise have your attention yet? Because that’s maybe 25% of it. We also meet Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a “fabricant” (a cloned or manufactured human) who works as a server at a fast food restaurant called Papa Song’s, in the 22nd century megacity of Neo Seoul, the seat of a dystopian government called Unanimity, a rebellion called Union, and doomed to be “deadlanded” by the time Zachry and Cannibal Hugh Grant are picking their way through Earth’s remains.
Papa Song’s is so thoroughly automated that it’s clear the synthetic servers are not necessary, except to make the consumers feel like kings surrounded by disposable human-shaped playthings as they eat 3D-printed garbage (which looks tasty at least). We learn that the fabricants get a star on their neck for each year of service. When they reach twelve stars, that means it’s time to get recycled into chum – known as “Soap” – to feed the baby-synths. Sonmi explains to us that each 24-hour Papa Song day is the same as any other, which makes it even more disturbing when Seer Rhee (Grant) awakens another fabricant, Yoona-939 (Xun Zhou), the closest thing to a friend that Sonmi has in this place. He awakens her for sex (of the sort she tolerates, but can’t meaningfully consent to), and to get soused on Soap. After Rhee has passed out in a puddle of his own sick, Yoona takes advantage of the hours of freedom that it affords her to poke through the lost and found and see a bit more of the world outside – in this case, via a broken and absurdist movie rendition of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, in which an actor (Tom Hanks again) plays Cavendish as a rugged hero – “equal parts Sir Laurence Olivier with a dash of Michael Caine” – telling a corrupt proprietor (whose name and context we don’t even know yet), that he “will not be subjected to criminal abuse”. As 19th century Moriori slave Autua (played, somewhat bafflingly, by Black British actor David Gyasi) recounts to Adam Ewing aboard their ship in the Pacific, a slave who has seen too much of the world is no slave at all, as Yoona learns anew 300 years later. That’s the hopeful version, anyway. It can be interpreted just as readily that humans have a particular adeptness at reciprocal violence, with aggression and enslavement being answered with the same, always pointing back to some original sin to justify whatever excesses we feel like engaging in. As Cannibal Rob Corddry (not really, but I couldn’t tell you this actor’s name) puts it while trying to murder Zachry, “You kill Chief. Now you meat,” before failing, and also getting murdered, just as Yoona gets murdered.
Much like Sonmi herself, Timothy Cavendish never set out to deliver a message of liberation, and yet he becomes the Moses to Sonmi’s Jesus, espousing concepts of the innate rights of humanity that only feel obvious and automatic to us because we’ve had the privilege to grow up in a society that allows us to learn about them. This is about as hopeful as Cloud Atlas gets, suggesting that even as we destroy our planet, kill and eat most of ourselves, and ultimately have to call for rescue from the rich tech bros who peaced out to the offworld colonies, that even if humanity forgets how to be decent to each other for a while, we’ll always reinvent the concept. Just like evolution keeps inventing crabs, humanity’s evolution, at least until we destroy ourselves for good, will keep producing both suffering and compassion. Cain and Abel. Yin and yang. Romulus and Remus. And anyone seeking to make assertions about which represents the most fundamental nature of humanity will find plenty of evidence to support their position.
Does this all sound a bit silly to you as I describe it? Truly, some of the stories openly invite derision and laughter, with Hanks, Broadbent, and occasionally Weaving collectively engaging in a competition of who can be the most ridiculous villain at one time or another. The entire far-future storyline uses a nearly incomprehensible pidgin version of English (if you know one thing only about Cloud Atlas, it’s the phrase, “that’s the true-true”), which is actually quite comprehensible if you pay attention and also never stop rewatching the movie as I have. And there is, of course, all the makeup, which I openly mocked even in 2012, referring to it as “intolerably bad”, and describing the ease with which I could spot a recurring cast member – even in minor, superfluous parts – by just keeping an eye out for the camera lingering on someone with a fucked-up face. We have white and Black actors playing Koreans (including lead Jim Sturgess playing 22nd Century Union Commander Hae-joo Chang), we have black and Korean actors playing whites, and we have some truly baffling choices (like Halle Berry playing an Indian woman in a cameo in 2012). There are broadly two questions to ask about this that I can personally relate to. The first is, “Does the overall effect work for me or not?” The answer to this is yes, but about as well as seeing Star Trek actors in facial prosthetics playing aliens with minor cosmetic nose and forehead differences. It feels theatrical, much like the ensemble casting overall, but it’s playing at a vague enough theme of recurrence and reincarnation that it can keep the significance of that recurrence nice and loose, with Luisa Rey (Berry) reading old letters from Rufus Sixsmith (played in two doomed, lovelorn ages by James D’Arcy) and pondering aloud why we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. And yet, I can imagine (and just watched a featurette which confirmed) that the directors and makeup crew must have pondered aloud, “Okay, we have nothing for [main actor] to do in this timeline – how can we fuck up their face and bring them into it?” Which is how we get Broadbent playing a street musician or Zhou playing a bellhop. Each of these oddball appearances (which clearly took a great deal of time and effort to produce) is a bit distracting individually, but as a whole, the entire effect feels like a drama department running around a stage, executing costume quickchanges and inviting their audience to use their imaginations and see the larger world they’re trying to create. In tonight’s show, the part of sleazy hotel clerk will be played by Tom Hanks, and it’s only his third-sleaziest character of the night, so get excited.
The second question is…is this okay? Is racebending okay? Is yellowface okay? Truthfully, I dismissed the quality of the makeup in 2012 because it was easier than engaging with this question in any serious or self-critical way. Can I recommend Breakfast at Tiffany’s as long as I caveat it by saying that Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney) is an atrocity against both Japanese people and cinema? Am I just being a typical see-no-evil white dude when I do this? I struggle with this question. And I have no definitive answer. Cloud Atlas contains an incredibly diverse cast, but all of its principal creators (including the Wachowskis, Tykwer, and book author and co-screenwriter David Mitchell) are white, as am I. When I’ve discussed this question with friends over the years, I’ve gotten no singular answer for how this aspect of the film makes them feel, and there is (of course) no singular answer to what Asian and Asian-American critics have to say about the film. It would be reductive and insulting to try to sum up the opinion of an entire multiracial cohort to how they feel being…impersonated? Caricatured? Made into a costume to serve some loose metaphysical purpose? If you’d like to see one critic’s biting take on this question, I’d recommend the inimitable Walter Chaw‘s two-star review of the film from 2012. But if you came here to hear mine, all I can do is admit my incapacity to answer this question. If I found the movie insulting or dilettantish when it came to issues of race, I wouldn’t like it as much as I do. But at the same time, I recognize that someone may be personally so bothered by actors playing characters of a different race, no matter what fantastical, theatrical framing is used for it, that they will not and cannot enjoy the film in any meaningful way. Or they may feel so accustomed to being made the butt of this particular joke in a white-dominant monoculture that the argument itself is exhausting for them (an argument I’ve personally heard as well). I can try to understand someone who feels this way. But I can’t feel what they feel.
Speaking of people I can’t exactly feel like, let’s talk about composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Wishaw), who begins his tenure as a disaster bi with a flight through the window from his lover Rufus Sixsmith (D’Arcy) after a romp in a hotel that’s threatening to call the police for their mere existence – a theme of presumed, systematic oppression that begins here as an artifact of a period piece taking place in an English era in which war hero and computing pioneer Alan Turing was chemically castrated for the crime of being gay, and which has become horrifically more relevant in the intervening years as the far-right has apparently made a strategic decision to brand the entire LGBTQ community as a band of pedophiles. Frobisher also announces that he’s alone and about to shoot himself with a Luger belonging to his boss Vivian Ayrs (Broadbent), and pronounces suicide an act of “tremendous courage”, which is the closest thing to a coherent message that we can wrest from the doomed love story and short, bright life of this emblem of the Bury Your Gays TVTropes page. And yet I love this story. I find it beautiful and deeply touching. I lap up every absurdist detail as Frobisher and Sixsmith smash up a china shop (in Sixsmith’s dream) as the former proclaims in voiceover that all boundaries are conventions, any of which may be transcended if one can first conceive of doing so. As this voiceover and music swells, the couple a few hundred years on in Neo Seoul just gets to have some regular hetero sex about it. As I wonder about what the Wachowskis – both trans, but one not quite as far along – could have been thinking here, the answer is once again…I can’t feel what they feel, nor can I presume they told this novel-adapted story in this way because it was something they personally found relatable. But as Frobisher skulks around the Scott Monument in Edinburgh, watching Sixsmith, a man he loves dearly but has already decided never to see again, climb those same stairs in a doomed effort to save his life after watching his final sunrise, I weep. Every time. Frobisher even told Sixsmith that he’d be there (a detail I only picked up in this viewing). All he needs to do is cry out, and he’ll get the embrace and solace that he so desperately needs. Sturgess and Bae get it, as Adam and Tilda Ewing, embracing each other desperately in the past as their souls could never manage permanently in the future. Hanks and Berry get it, finding their own better natures, and eventual friendship, duty, and even romance with each other as the dregs of humanity shamble into their next adventure. But the queer men get to be sad and stay sad and die about it. D’Arcy returns as an Archivist, and as much as I enjoyed the performance (and was taken out, as ever, by the weird-ass facial prosthetics), his mystified stare at Sonmi as she explains her ideology for the benefit of future Unanimity historians comes with a hefty dose of irony, as they’ll only have about 70 more years to discuss it before they annihilate themselves. It hardly feels like a fair ending for a character who has known nothing but pain in his lives and soul. Ditto Wishaw, whose happiest ending seems to be in a brief appearance as Georgette, managing to have a brief, offscreen affair with her brother-in-law, Timothy Cavendish, finally consummating the never-was romance between Wishaw and Broadbent’s previous characters in 1936.
Attempting to plot a coherent path for the other actors as reincarnated souls is frankly a doomed enterprise. Keith David and David Gyasi begin as slaves and become commanders of the most dominant surviving and well-meaning faction of humanity. Susan Sarandon is and ever shall be, as much herself in each of these timelines as she was in The Banger Sisters. Which is fine. There are some actors I don’t prize for their range, and Sarandon is right there in a huddle with Dwayne Johnson, trading on bare charisma alone. Weaving begins as a slavery apologist and beneficiary and becomes…the literal devil. Grant – whom I haven’t discussed much outside of his performance as Cannibal Hugh Grant (one of the first and best things I mention about Cloud Atlas to anyone who hasn’t seen it) – is simply outstanding as an irredeemable piece of shit in every era he exists in, including as oil lobbyist and would-be nuclear saboteur Lloyd Hooks above, whose pronunciation of “Mssssss. Rey” somehow becomes more insufferable with each recitation, as does his ever-evolving American accent. Grant’s characters are sublimely vile, and the actor must have had an absolute hoot playing them. Yes, a bunch of them had star marks on them, just like the fabricants in Neo Seoul. And that means…something. But fundamentally, some of the reincarnations tell a coherent story, and others do not, and aren’t trying to. Editor Alexander Berner is the unsung hero of the show, because even as this film was making multiple simultaneous filming units and impromptu bits of casting and makeup happen, Berner was the wizard who got to stitch it all together, making a chase in one era continue to another. A bullet fired in one era fly past the shoulder of another. The editing is as fundamental to this film’s narrative and thematic coherence as the musical score, and Berner deserves every accolade he has received (including Saturn, OFCS, and Lola awards).
I could go on. I haven’t said much at all about the 1973 Luisa Rey mystery (a paranoid thriller whose plot bears an amusing resemblance to a 2005 Doctor Who episode), or about The Self-Serious and Self-Inflicted Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish in 2012, because if ever there were a pair of stories which do exactly what they say on the tin, it’s these two. And yet to the extent that these offer a zany tonal balance to the more serious storylines, I must also confirm these two stories – little more than goofy, pro forma genre exercises – still utterly riveted me. Broadbent plays up Cavendish’s self-dealing narcissism with such a total lack of self-awareness (I can see why he made such great casting for Horace Slughorn) that you can’t help but feel compassion for the character, even as he’s getting – and then getting away from – precisely what he deserves. As Luisa Rey’s neighbor kid Javier Gomez (Brody Nicholas Lee) – the author of a diegetic text summing up this timeline for any far-future readers – prods and then kicks through the fourth wall by telling her that she has just said exactly what a character in any decent mystery would say right before getting killed, you’ll roll your eyes. But then you’ll leave your balcony door unlocked so he doesn’t get stuck out there after jumping onto it after you asked him not to, because like any decent kid noticing a cliche for the first time, Javier fundamentally means well, and sincerely feels as if he’s invented something new. And so it goes with Sonmi herself, who spouts a stream-of-consciousness sermon worthy of a first-year philosophy student about what we owe to each other (The Good Place did this better), which nonetheless becomes humanity’s last great theology, elevating Sonmi herself to godhead status right before she gets crucified. Eternal recurrence.
One thing I have done in the last 10 years is read a lot more sci-fi. To name a few (in addition to Mitchell’s novels Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks), I’ve checked out Walter M. Miller Jr.‘s A Canticle for Liebowitz, a 1959 novel which examines cycles of future history as humanity destroys and renews itself in turns (a recommendation from FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel Koch, who hated Cloud Atlas then and ever since), and the only concept that feels dated in retrospect is when humanity invents a room-sized supercomputer whose sole function is translating languages. Cixin Liu‘s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy begins as a tale of distant, nebulous alien invasion, and becomes a tale about humanity taking grand steps into the stars and merging with the fate of the entire universe. Margaret Atwood‘s Oryx and Crake begins with a narrator positing that humanity’s grand experiment with civilization is always one generation away from permanent extinction (and making it clear from the jump that this generational extinction has already happened), because we’ve already mined all of the near-surface metals that exist on Earth, and the technology to mine deeper ones cannot be rebuilt from scratch once it is lost. And N.K. Jemisin‘s Broken Earth trilogy, perhaps the bleakest of all, used similar cycles of destruction and renewal to seal humanity’s fate as not at all worth saving. Sci-fi/fantasy always exists somewhere on this spectrum, both making a guess or an exploration into possible futures, and inviting the reader to ponder how likely we are to experience them. Or to deserve to. Cloud Atlas still has a place in that line of grand ideas for me. Despite all of its peril, doom, and death, its slavery and cannibalism, and its wholesale, self-induced destruction of humanity, it is fundamentally a hopeful story about the power of love and humanity’s better nature. And it’s one I expect I’ll keep coming back to, if only because I still desperately wish to believe it’s true.
FilmWonk rating: Still 9 out of 10, still my #1 of 2012, and still a masterpiece.
This week, on the 🎇200th Episode🎇 of the FilmWonk Podcast, Glenn and Daniel venture out into the world to check out a trio of dramas with an accidental common theme of violent revolution. First, we visit Athena (new on Netflix from director Romain Gavras), in which a Parisian tower block is under police siege and burning for answers and justice following the murder of a 13-year-old boy by three unknown men wearing police uniforms. Then we return to the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey world of Iranian director Shahram Mokri (who directed previous FilmWonk favorite Fish & Cat) for a Mobius strip of interconnected timelines all intersecting with the Cinema Rex fire, a real-life arson and disaster which caused hundreds of deaths and led (among other events) to the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 – that film is Careless Crime, and it is newly available for rent. And finally, we head to the watery delta of Saloum for an absolutely raucous African neo-Western (called a “southern” by its Congolese director Jean Luc Herbulot), as a trio of badass, Senegalese mercenaries hide out amid a thwarted escape from a military coup, navigating the strange and violent waters of a mysterious river town (new on Shudder) (01:24:21).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Athena): 7/10 (Daniel), 8/10 (Glenn) FilmWonk rating (Careless Crime): 6 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (Saloum): 8.5 out of 10
[02:32] Review: Athena
[25:01] Spoilers: Athena
[36:02] Review: Careless Crime
[58:59] Review: Saloum
[01:12:24] Spoilers: Saloum
Netflix released an amazing featurette on YouTube about the making of Athena – well worth a watch if you want to see how its many elaborate tracking shots, stunts, and pyrotechnics came together.
This week, Glenn and Daniel check out Prey, a taut new actioner streaming on Hulu featuring the Predator doing what it does best: being hunted on Earth in a film somewhere at the intersection of war, historical drama, and slasher flick. And then we venture into the colorful world of George Miller and much of his team from Mad Max: Fury Road, bringing to life an epic, supernatural romance and an unpretentious look at the nature of humanity (57:35).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Prey):6.5/10 (Daniel), 7/10 (Glenn) FilmWonk rating (Three Thousand Years of Longing): 7/10 (Daniel), 8/10 (Glenn)