Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” – A bold, beautiful, simple mix

I enjoyed just about every moment of Ava DuVernay‘s bold, relentless, and optimistic film, A Wrinkle in Time, despite a few cracks, which I’ve struggled to define since I saw it. The film is based on a 1962 novel by the late Madeleine L’Engle – a book that I haven’t read, but which I understand owes some affinity to the Christian-inspired fantasy of C.S. Lewis. This was a curious thing to know going into the film. As the young Meg (Storm Reid) gets whisked away on an adventure to far-flung dimensions/planets/wherever, the whole thing definitely had a bit of a Narnia vibe, but lacked the more explicit Christian imagery that appeared in those books and films. Reese Witherspoon‘s Mrs. Whatsit (one of the trio of space wizards that help to recruit Meg) clearly owes a bit to Mr. Tumnus, constantly making awkward jokes, flitting around like a pixie, and generally being delightful. There’s also a scene where Meg and the other kids – Meg’s brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and neighbor boy Calvin (Levi Miller) – are offered delicious food that isn’t quite what it seems by an unnamed devilish figure (Michael Peña), and it all feels terribly familiar. And yet, there is nothing resembling an Aslan here. That’s to say, there is no Jesus-figure coming to save these kids from the evil they must face. They – and Meg in particular – need to figure out their place and save themselves. The space wizards – Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) – feel quite as outmatched by the big evil thing as Meg is. The only difference is that Meg, who initially knows far less about what’s going on than the rest of her companions, is essentially the audience surrogate. And in that sense, this film owes far more to the likes of Harry Potter. Meg is special, the movie assures us, for reasons that she will discover along with the rest of us over the course of the film.

And so it begins in Meg’s bedroom, that iconic cradle of adventure at the top of the house that’s just a bit too big for the kid inside, with a rainstorm raging outside. This imagery is common because it works. It’s the stuff of wandering childhood minds that dream of launching into the dark sky and soaring into whatever lies beyond. And there Meg sits, pondering the four-year anniversary of the day her father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), vanished without a trace or explanation. Meg wanders downstairs to find Charles Wallace pondering the occasion (and the absent father that he barely remembers), and heating up some milk for the two of them. And it’s all very nice. The first 15-20 minutes of this film are all character setup, and this cast pulls it off quite well. This is a family that has suffered some trauma, but they all mean well and care deeply for each other. Alex cared about his children before he vanished. Charles Wallace is a precocious little scamp, at once dressing down a pair of teachers (literally shouting “Shame on you!” in their faces) for chatting about the pair of troubled siblings behind their backs. Precocious is also an apt word for McCabe’s acting, which requires a great deal of the young actor over the course of the film – it really is an outstanding performance.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Alex Murry and his wife Dennys (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – also a PhD of some sort – discovered a means of traveling great distances throughout the universe. We see Murry showing the younger Meg (Lyric Wilson) some basic science at the start of the film – just long enough to provide an emotional and intellectual connection between the two for us to care about – when later that night, he vanishes. And that’s about as far as the movie’s dalliance with science goes. It makes a few vague references toward space-time curvature, before Murry explains – to an assemblage of NASA officials – that no spaceship will be required for the method of interstellar travel that the Murrys have discovered. You’ll just need to use your mind and reach out with love…or something. They rightfully chuckle and murmur and look worried, but that’s really about as specific as the film’s conveyance gets. The way it’s rendered on-screen, images just kind of warp and twist around each other, until the character steps into a translucent opening that doesn’t seem to even be there, and then reappears somewhere else. And that’s where Dr. Murry went – 91 billion light years away (almost the diameter of the observable universe!) – and that’s exactly how his daughter Meg will follow him, somehow. All of this starts out vague and is never clarified, and honestly, that’s another similarity to Harry Potter which is bittersweet in retrospect. The first Potter film sets up an elaborate world of magical powers, but assures us that the main character will have some uniquely powerful command of that world – an assurance that is essentially an article of faith, not well justified in text or screen. Potter – and Meg – are important because the script says that they have to be. But this is actually intended as a roundabout compliment – Reid’s performance really sells the notion that Meg needs to figure out her place and importance on her own, through the course of events. Her father is out there, and she wants to find him, so she’s highly motivated. People tell Meg that she’s special, and Mrs. Whatsit trades knowing banter with Charles Wallace about what his sister can do, but she never really reveals that they’re correct until the critical moment, when she has to save the day. But all of the ill-defined powers in this film feel as if they’ll eventually be explained, and I never felt any doubt that Meg would eventually come out of her shell.

And here’s where I, white male film critic, will attempt (with some humility) to discuss the casting of this film. Meg is played by a young African-American girl, and it seems right to acknowledge that casting a young person of color to be the hero of this story is kind of a big deal (even if a few other examples come to mind). There are plenty of characteristics of Meg – her sullenness and guilt over her father’s disappearance, her shy demeanor and anxiety of being a preadolescent – that seem to have little or nothing to do with her race, at least not in any way that is made explicit. And yet, Meg’s situation is racialized in various ways – when she lashes out at Veronica, a [white] girl in her class, for bullying her about her father’s disappearance, she gets called into the principal’s office to be dressed down for spiking a basketball into Veronica’s face. Now, I’m not going to say a basketball to the face doesn’t hurt, but as the principal – also African-American – is telling her that Veronica’s parents “fear for her safety”, it’s hard not to think that these words would be thrown around much less casually for the idle (and provoked) shenanigans of, say, Calvin. [White] boys will be boys. Students of color get suspended or arrested, because identical behavior from these students is regarded as a “safety issue” that can’t be handled through more mundane and short-lived methods of in-school discipline. None of this is explicitly detailed in the film, but using this sort of language to describe such an innocuous event feels like a conscious choice. It also seems deliberate that Meg is repeatedly given grief (and gives herself grief) for her hair, which is…well, natural for a young black girl. In a note of bitter fantasy later in the film, we catch a momentary alternate vision of what Meg “could be” (also played by Reid), and it notably includes hair that has been straightened and hangs past her shoulders. Beauty standards are arbitrary, capricious, and white-centric, and this is not a new observation. I promise, I’m not trying to pat myself on the back for wokeness here, but these elements were there, and it would feel disingenuous not to acknowledge them, since they felt as earnest as every other detail about this character. It’s the inclusion of these sorts of details – specific to the experience of being a black preteen, or perhaps being from a mixed-race family – that make it so welcome to see a woman of color with at least one excellent film under her belt finally get the mandate and a $100M+ budget to tell this sort of story. A Wrinkle In Time is a sweet, human adventure about love conquering evil, and this film makes the simple – and in no way provocative – point that a young black girl can absolutely be the hero of that story. Representation in film production is important – not because of any unspoken rule that people need to stick within their own demographic lanes when it comes to the stories they tell, but because people are well equipped to bring earnestness and veracity of details to the stories that they know from personal experience.

So Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are on a quest to find Dr. Murry and bring him back home to his family. They get recruited by the trio of space wizards, make a delightful detour to a gorgeous practical set to have their fortune told by the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis), and eventually head off to try and rescue their father from the great big ball of evil in the sky, known variably as “It” and “Camazotz”. And honestly, this is the two thirds of the film that I have the shortest appetite to describe in detail, because it was all very pretty and well-rendered and vague. And this vagueness served to the detriment of the characters at times. When one planet begins gobbling up the landscape with a swirling vortex, Meg deduces that the gyre will throw the group up and over a nearby mountain if they just rush into it and hide inside a stump. It is utterly unclear how she figured this out, or how this fridge-nuking method of travel is supposed to help them survive, so when she turns to Calvin to ask, “Do you trust me?”, I almost laughed aloud. I mean, he came this far for no obvious reason besides a crush on Meg. Sure, I guess? Even as I was completely on board with the emotional journeys of Meg and Charles Wallace respectively (which are noticeably distinct), I was simultaneously impressed and aloof from the fantasy elements and locations. They evoked the same sort of feeling as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – a series of well-rendered locales that intrigued me with their storytelling possibilities, but which were individually pretty hard to latch onto, since it simply felt as if anything could happen at any time, and no one was ever in any real danger. The ill-defined nature of Meg’s knowledge and power contributed to this as well. Reid plays the character as an extreme introvert at the start, which is why watching her confidence grow is so electrifying. But the details of each place she ventures to, while gorgeous to look upon, felt fundamentally simplistic and low-stakes. Those are the cracks I referred to at the start. The cast of this film works. The characters and relationships work. The vistas are gorgeous. Even Mrs. Who’s annoying book of quotations (which include one from Hamilton?) worked. And yet, I’d have a hard time describing exactly how this story was resolved, or what any specific character did to contribute to it. The big ball of evil can only be defeated with love (sound familiar?), and Meg shows love for her family and friends, as well as an acknowledgement and acceptance of her own flaws, which Mrs. Whatsit assures her are an asset. It all feels lovely and inspiring, if a little simplistic. It would be a bit of a facile giveaway for me to say that perhaps this is enough for a children’s film. But that’s a mantle that is often used dismissively, and I have no desire to dismiss this film. As someone who hasn’t read the book, I can’t speak to the film’s effectiveness as an adaptation, but this script – from Disney veterans Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia) – shows as steady a hand with these characters as DuVernay and her FX team have with the look and feel of these worlds. And I’ll reiterate what I said at the outset: I enjoyed nearly every moment of this film. It’s a grand, self-appointed adventure for the kids of the next generation, as much in the tradition of Spielberg’s E.T. as Rowling’s Harry Potter. Whether through better adaptation, a smarter relationship with science, or a bit more coherence to its system of magic travel, A Wrinkle in Time does feel as if it could have been something more. But it satisfies on its own terms.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10


FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #128 – “Phantom Thread” (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Poster for "Phantom Thread"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel, along with special guest Erika Spoden, take a very special Oscar week look back at one of the Best Picture contenders we missed last year (and we covered several!), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (43:04).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks “House of Woodcock” and “For the Hungry Boy”, from the film’s original score by Jonny Greenwood.
  • CORRECTION: We made a reference to the Panama Papers – we were, in fact, thinking of the Paradise Papers. We would simply ignore our misdeed and sweep this errant detail under the rug, but we don’t wish to be like the people featured in these papers.

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

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #127 – “Annihilation” (dir. Alex Garland)

Poster for "Annihilation"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel head into the mysterious world of the Shimmer, hspcp ylelwtp azcexly lyo zespcd pyepc l xjdepctzfd hzcwo zq dnclxmwpo yzydpydp lyo te’d acpeej nzzw lyo hptco, mfe ld td zqepy esp nldp rwpyy wtvpo te mpeepc esly olytpw (34:26).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5/10 (Daniel), 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks “Disoriented” and “The Beach”, by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, from the film’s original score.
  • CORRECTION: The use of white phosphorus munitions is not as clear-cut (from a standpoint of international law or US military regulations) as I suggested. It’s definitely some nasty shit though.
  • We briefly discussed the immortal cervical cancer cell line from Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), known as HeLa, which has been invaluable and prolific in cancer research, with an estimated 20 tons of sample material grown by researchers in laboratory conditions. It’s also part of the unfortunate legacy of dubious or outright unethical medical experimentation on African-American patients (without consent or compensation) that was commonplace in the early to mid-20th century. The book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which Lena is seen to be reading in this film, is a fascinating primer on the case.
  • CORRECTION: Apoptosis is indeed the term for the biologically programmed death of a cell. However, I misremembered this as the subject of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Researcher Yoshinori Ohsumi won the prize in that year for his study of a related, but not identical, process, autophagy, a fundamental process for degrading and recycling components within a cell.

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

Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

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.

Ad exec Will (Ryan Reynolds) wanders through Manhattan to pick up his daughter, playing “the perfect song” for when you’ve just been served with divorce papers: “Everyday People” by Sly & the Family Stone. Let’s agree to disagree, movie. This is perhaps the most generic song until “ABC” the following year, and it isn’t nearly as catchy. My overt hostility this early into the film should tell you what to expect here – this is the first 10YA film I’ve rewatched and found substantially less enjoyable than my first viewing a decade ago. So let’s do this thing. Will’s tiny individual Bluetooth earbuds indicate that he is abundantly wealthy and tech-savvy by 2008 standards (these are still barely a thing). He interacts with a series of New York street people from central casting as the credits play, then wanders up to his daughter’s school.

“Sometimes, no matter how carefully you plan your playlist, there is no right track for what awaits you.”

I normally begin my 10YA reviews with a selection from the opening voiceover, but this is really the first time it’s been this trite and inconsequential. His song is uninspired, his metaphor is now dated, and “what awaits him” is a bit of a cacophony at the school because the kids have just started sex-ed. His daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) explains the mechanics of sex, and asks a perfectly reasonable question – her friend Sammy Boigon’s sister says he was an accident, and how do you accidentally thrust a penis into a vagina? Will shuts her down, telling her to stop saying such accurate words (“say tinkle-part or wee-wee or something cute”) – bad form, Will. Comprehensive sex-ed is better for a reason. She then asks more pointedly, “If they didn’t want to have a baby, why did they have sex?” Will misses a second teachable moment, and says they were rehearsing. He’ll miss another one later when his daughter asks, “What’s the boy word for slut?” One thing I’ve done since 2008 is become a parent, and I really try not to judge how other parents handle common pitfalls. But Will seriously biffs this moment, and given that it’s one of the only consequential moments with his daughter until the end of the film, it seems worth noting.

Anyway, all of this was an awkward lead-in to Maya asking how Will met her mother. Does this premise sound familiar? The CBS series “How I Met Your Mother” was in its third season and largely unknown to me in 2008, although seeing this film may have seeded my interest in it. Now that I’ve seen that whole series, which spawned a skip list and series-end podcast in which I called it “one of the finest sitcoms on television,” this film suffers by comparison, both in the credibility and structure of the story, and the likability of the characters. More on that later. Will agrees to tell Maya the complete story of his adult dating life, but he’s going to change the names, and he won’t reveal until the end who her mother is. Definitely, Maybe does a poor job of justifying its premise. It attempts to lend a sense of urgency and purpose to the story by couching it as Maya’s precocious attempt to “solve” her parents’ impending divorce. And Will makes it clear (to the audience) that he knows this, but never that he’s doing this for some definable purpose, or even against his better judgment. Beyond the appropriateness of the subject matter, this just really seems like a bad idea. But…what the hell do I know, I’ve never been divorced. To call this situation desperate and sad seems a bit obvious, but it’s all I’ve got going in.

The tale begins. In 1992, Will is a volunteer for the Young Democrats of America in Madison, Wisconsin, and we meet Lady #1: Will’s college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks). If I remember correctly, this is Maya’s mother. I obviously didn’t know this the first time I saw the film, but seeing it now, the film definitely pats itself on the back several times for hiding this result. Maya even guesses that it’s never the first girlfriend you meet – which implies that she knows more stories in this “rom-com mystery” genre that I’m unaware of. The only other one I can think of is Extraterrestrial, and the mystery there was “What’s up with the alien spaceship hovering over our one-night stand?”, but no matter. These particular early-90s Democrats work for the Clintons, and Will is leaving for New York to work for Bill’s presidential campaign. Because Will wants to be president. I give the movie kudos for presenting Will’s political aspirations (with a mix of real and fictional politicians) as something admirable and sincere. Reynolds plays Will’s later disappointment with President Clinton’s scandals in a way that feels genuine and devoid of cynicism. Clinton is his idol, and his fall from grace disappoints him. It doesn’t count for much of the film’s plot, but it’s something.

Emily, who is staying behind, sends Will along with a book-sized package to return to one Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz), whom she met on her exchange program at Cambridge. You may be assuming that this means Weisz will speak with her native British accent, and you would be wrong. Emily notes that all the guys wanted to sleep with her, and Will suggests that perhaps she should mail it instead. Whoops. We haven’t seen her yet, but Summer is Lady #2, and Will is definitely, 100% going to sleep with her. Flying into New York, Will looks out the window and sees…what looks like archive footage of the NYC skyline. The WTC towers are visible, but also it looks a bit grainy, which is a strange thing to see in HD. He’s handed a cellular telephone just slightly more advanced than the one Zack Morris carried in ’92, and is sent to get coffee and bagels. When he returns, he wipes out offscreen into the men’s room with a comically huge pile of TP while the campaign manager briefs everyone, and screams “what am I doing here?!” We get it, movie. Shit rolls downhill. This film largely predates the gig economy, but Will’s bitching about his no-future entry-level political job feels petty. Suck it up, intern.

Will meets April (Isla Fisher) at the copy machine, and they flirt. April is apolitical – this is just a gig for her. She’s also Lady #3. Will makes some vague promises about how great Clinton will be for African-Americans and women, and then the Gennifer Flowers scandal breaks. Whoops. The campaign gang goes out for beers, and they spontaneously compare notes on who their romantic “types” are. Will’s type is brunettes with horn-rimmed glasses (neither Emily nor April). He drunk-dials Emily, who correctly concludes that he’s never coming back from NYC. Back in his room, with some prodding from his campaign roommate Russell (Derek Luke), Will rips open the package from Emily and finds…a diary. They decide they can’t read it. Then they read it, it plays as light erotica written by a dude, and it seems that Summer might be Emily’s ex-lover. I’ll go ahead and admit an area of personal growth for me here: This is definitely something that would’ve seemed like a bigger deal to me in 2008 than now – I didn’t really grok the Kinsey scale in those days, and this sort of revelation would’ve made me feel insecure in a more categorical way than the existence of ex-boyfriends. But it’s a personal hang-up that I find silly in retrospect (you’re either confident the person you’re dating likes you, or you’re not), and I’m glad to be past it.

Will heads over to Summer’s apartment without calling first, and finds Kevin Kline in an open bathrobe. He is Professor Hampton Roth. Will asks if he is Summer’s father, and he confirms, “Yeah, I’m her daddy.” Gross. Then – and I’ll pause here to note that it’s about 10AM – he pours some Johnny Walker. The boys get hammered and pass out, and Will awakens to the face of Summer, who introduces the professor as her boyfriend (and thesis advisor). They engage in some flirtatious banter in Weisz’s hit-or-miss American accent. This was a miss. The accent, and the character. She asks if he read the erotica-diary, throws it at him and suggests that he read it when he’s lonely, then follows him into the hallway and kisses him. “Sorry,” Summer says, “I was just curious. Hampton encourages me to cultivate my curiosity.” Ugh. These two met 60 seconds ago. This is utterly bizarre, even in this genre.

Back at the campaign, Will is stapling signs, nearly staples his hand, and screams aloud again, “What am I doing here?!” Each of these complaint beats feels like the failure mode of an “As Seen on TV” commercial. Luckily, the movie has also lost patience with this, and campaign manager Arthur Robredo (Nestor Serrano) realizes he needs someone with a Wisconsin connection to court Madison donors in the NY area. Will now has a desk and a real job, and it turns out he’s an ace at it, selling out an entire fundraiser table. He runs into April buying cigarettes at the convenience store, and the two have a dumb argument about which of their brands is healthier and/or burns faster. Then they proceed to have a competitive smoke-off. During the ensuing chat, we learn that it’s April’s birthday, her musician boyfriend stood her up (on her birthday!). She wins the bet, but declines the payoff, and they haggle their way into attending a party together. They end up on a rooftop, and Will reveals that he plans to propose to Emily when she comes to NYC. April invites Will to practice the proposal on her. He starts with a half-assed “Will you, um, marry me?”, and she gives a solid rehearsed speech excoriating him for it. This is a decent scene – not because of the overwritten rom-com speeches, but because April is not being a ridiculous caricature here – perhaps just a hit heightened. She’s neither manic, nor pixie. I buy that she has a life outside of this moment. They go back to her apartment for tea, and they have a nice chat about a copy of Jane Eyre that her father inscribed and gave her before his untimely death. This’ll be important later. They chat all night about music, politics, travel, etc, and she tosses in a line about how this is nice that they can just sit here and chat and not have to worry about flirting or all the attraction stuff. Then they frantically make out, and then he leaves. It’s a mess. So far, I believe this relationship the most of the three.

Back in the hotel, Emily – Will’s actual girlfriend, remember – has arrived on the red-eye to surprise him in the morning! She takes the elevator, he takes the stairs, and he magically gets to the room…long after she does. Well played, movie. But it’s fine, because his roommate has covered for him. They kiss, and Emily notes a bit frantically that his tongue tastes different. They wander through Central Park, and Will tells a rambling story of how his father ran into an ex on his way to propose to his mother (meta-story!), and it turns out he’s proposing to Emily now, and Emily panics and scream-admits that she slept with Will’s roommate Charlie. So it’s over. And I now remember with absolute certainty that Emily is the mother, so at some point this will all be a double-reversal. Back at the campaign, Bill Clinton has won the New York primary (and three others, including Wisconsin), and it’s party time. April drops by to see why Will is so miserable, and they banter and apologize for the kissing. They have a competitive metaphor-off for how disastrous their hypothetical romance would be, and she wins with “Sandpaper and bare ass (you’d be the ass)”. Then she asks him to dance. I continue to buy this relationship the most of the three.

Will and Russell hit the road to continue with the campaign. And then time advances, montage-style. Once Clinton is elected, the two form their own political consultancy, and they join the [fictitious] gubernatorial campaign of their old boss, Arthur Robredo. Will starts dating again, April dumps her loser boyfriend and goes traveling, and the two become pen pals, and fast friends. It’s 1994 in New York. Will lazily informs us that the internet is getting started, everyone on the street has a large (but not huge) cell phone, and I start to think this movie has Forrest Gump ambitions of being a time capsule for future rosy-eyed nostalgia. It would really need a better soundtrack for that. Will gets invited to a book signing with Professor Roth, and runs into Summer again. Summer is writing for NYMag, and the professor has moved on to dating a pair of college freshmen. Legal, but still gross. And the three of them engage in more preposterous banter. It is utter nonsense that any of these people would remember each other from a single meeting two years earlier (kisses and drunkenness notwithstanding), and all of this feels forced. Summer agrees to write an article about the campaign. She and Will go out for dinner again, flirt like crazy some more, and montage their way into a relationship (much of which is weirdly musically-focused and takes place on the same park bench). They make out on various couches, decide to spend the whole day in bed together, then they’re immediately called away to the hospital to tend to Professor Roth, who has had an aortic rupture (a condition with a 90% mortality rate) and is somehow still alive. Roth is just conscious enough to criticize her for not writing a sufficiently hard-hitting exposé on Robredo’s campaign, seeding the destruction of this relationship, which is barely five minutes old in movie time.

And then April returns. They wander the streets, and she tells a story of bursting into tears after making out with a hot stranger on a Cretan beach, because she realized that she couldn’t see a relationship with this guy going well. And then she realized she simply had to tell someone specific about this, and that someone is right in front of her face- annnnd while they’ve been talking, they’ve walked into a jewelry store because Will is picking up a diamond engagement ring for Summer. Whoops! Back in the present day, daughter Maya recites some subtext: “Weren’t you listening? She came home for you!” Will looks pensive, as if he somehow didn’t realize this. This is where the structure of the movie strains credulity a bit. It’s certainly possible for someone to interrupt a personal anecdote to say, “Hey, you were the asshole there”. But it doesn’t really make sense that Will would tell this story, which obviously emphasizes April as a major participant, if he never realized that April was one of his own love interests. He can tell the story of how he met Maya’s mother, but April is only an important character if she’s a potential mother, and it sounds like Will is supposed to be gobsmacked by this sudden realization.

Back in ’94, he goes to meet Summer. NYMag has asked her to do a followup on Robredo, which she has already written, and it’s a doozy: Robredo abused his political influence to get a friend an early parole from prison. Will says this is bad…that his boss is the “tough-on-crime Democrat”. Then he tells her if she hands this in, “we won’t survive this.” Summer starts to equivocate, and then he makes it clearer. “I’m talking about you and me.” This is the point in the story in which I interrupt Will and say, “Hey, you were the asshole there,” because that’s a hell of a thing to say to someone you’re about to propose to. It’s also the point where I say the same thing to Summer, because writing an exposé about her boyfriend’s campaign…well, I’m no journalist, but it sounds like a serious conflict of interest. And it turns out she’s already handed it in, so the campaign and the relationship are over. The relationship careening off a cliff makes sense, since this relationship was utter tosh to begin with – but politically, this feels quaint in a post-2016 world. This is a mundane bit of patronage, and it’s hard to imagine this scandal would torpedo a campaign today, when every politician with a national profile is gleefully ignoring multiple career-defining scandals each week. The world got weird and ugly. The GOP backed Roy Moore. And this would barely make a dent today.

Speaking of scandal, we flash forward to 1997, when Clinton is about to be impeached, and April finally calls Will back, leading with “Are you watching?” I guess their meta-awareness that they’re in a story is just something I’ll have to suspend disbelief on, because this is a weird way to call someone after a three-year break. They banter. April is quite sure that Bill did it, saying of Monica Lewinsky, “Look at the picture of her! I love her, she’s so his type.” I was rather incredulous at this line – both because we seem to have found the one person in 1997 who was kind to Lewinsky, and because… Well. I’m not going to pretend we (or I) have found some sudden piety on the subject of powerful men abusing their positions to make advances on the women in their employment in the past six months, much less the past decade since I first saw the film. This is an issue we’ll be coming to terms with for a long time as we begin the slow, generational task of reducing the incidence of women being drummed out of male-dominated industries by sexual harassment from men in supervisory roles. That said, it seems worth acknowledging that “she is so his type,” while perhaps a period-accurate statement for someone to make in 1997, is a little fucked up. As if type has much bearing on it when he’s the President of the United States.

Later, Will and April are back in a diner, and they discuss the nature of finding “the One”. April says it’s not a matter of who, but when – you reach a point where you’re ready to settle down, and whoever you’re with then becomes The One. More on this at the end. But first, Will dopily inquires if there’s ever been a guy that made her think, “This is it, this is him.” Isla Fisher kills this moment, because standard rom-com misfortune dictates that she has had this exact thought about Will, but April reveals just enough of this for the audience, but not enough for dunderhead Will. Then she reveals that she’s seeing someone (a dude named Kevin), and Will gets drunk. He’s disappointed with his life, Clinton’s linguistic dickery over the word ‘is’, and obviously the April situation. He checks his answering machine (kids, this was like a Google Home that only worked offline), and finds messages from April about his upcoming birthday, a surprise call from Emily (who is in New York), and April again. He wraps himself in a blue blanket of sadness, and April shows up at his door. This is the second time she has come looking for him when he’s being a sad sack and avoiding a party. This happened to me once in my early 20s, and I also failed to pick up on its meaning at the time. Will fails similarly, falling on his face off-screen as April marvels inconsequentially as his disheveled apartment, and- WHOA. Aggressive smash cut to them arriving at the party, and it really feels like there was supposed to be more dialogue here. I guess the movie was running long.

Here we see most of the minor characters from earlier in the movie. They chat about Bill Clinton, whom Will has genuinely lost faith in, and thinks maybe should be impeached. Will leaves the party, gets drunk (again), and wanders to April’s doorstep, where she finds him and cheekily berates him for missing his cake, which she baked (*sigh*). And hang on, folks, because this scene is quite a ride. He quotes Nirvana. She takes an intimate swig of his beer without asking. He calls her beautiful and she thanks him. He drunkenly confesses that he likes her, then soberly confesses that he’s in love with her. He then projects some insecurity onto her, and she says he’s an idiot. He kisses her, and she pulls away and demands to know why he didn’t tell her sooner, instead of like this, when his “shit is a mess”. And he apparently took the ‘mess’ thing personally because he gets personal, and nasty. Nastier than their friendship can withstand. He insults her life and her career and her choices, and then twists the knife by saying he’s just saying this as a friend. She slaps him and goes inside. Reynolds made his bones playing the loveable asshole, but I’ve seen him play truly unlikeable only a handful of times. It works for the villain at a nostalgic theme park, but not the hero of a romantic drama.

Will wanders past a bookstore and finds the lost copy of Jane Eyre that both he and April were looking for, with the inscription from her father inside. Finding a specific lost copy of a book is a ridiculous plot device, but we’re moving at lightning speed now, and this is the only artifact that can save this relationship. He arrives at April’s apartment to deliver it. April’s roommate answers the door, and she is visibly amused by the torrent of sad sack apology messages he has apparently been leaving on the answering machine, because restraining orders don’t exist in Comedy World. She lets him into their gargantuan apartment, where he finds April’s boyfriend Kevin, who is Model-Hot, and who mentions he lives with her. This means Kevin should also be aware of the apology messages, so he’s either the most chill dude in the world, or he just sees Will as that non-threatening. Will leaves. Oh, and April’s in grad school now, so his abusive rant apparently stoked her ambition. More on this later.

Next up, he’s at a sidewalk café, a waitress brings him a gigantic glass of wine, and asks, “Do you know what you want yet?” “No, ” he responds, with a dumb double meaning. Summer wanders up, and is pregnant. Baby-daddy’s out of the picture, and she invites him to a party to make amends, and – whoa whoa whoa. Back in the present, Maya is now completely freaked out and demands to know if Will is really her father, and I have to say, the movie is being downright sadistic now. He is her father, and he’s a terrible one at that. He says this story has a happy ending, and she demands to know how that could possibly be, when whoever her mother is, they’re getting divorced. He offers to stop, then goes to get her a cup of tea before they continue. She falls asleep. Poor kid. The next morning, they get a bagel and continue the story. Will arrives at Summer’s party, and gives her flowers. She makes niceties, we learn that Professor Roth died alone in his office, and he…accuses her of planning to seduce him. Seriously, this rom-com narcissism is getting tedious. It’s like Will has read the script and knows these women are required to be into him (à la Black Mirror‘s “USS Callister”). She shrugs that off and asks if they can be friends, he agrees, and she leads him across the room to meet an old friend…his ex-girlfriend Emily, who lives in New York now. The two share some easy banter over whether he intended to call her, and he puts her number directly into his Motorola StarTac (I had one of those!) because he actually means to call her back this time. Later, Emily and Will wander in the park, and she makes overtures about continuing the relationship, and reaches up and strokes the side of his head, and BAM – Maya figured it out. Emily (real name: Sarah) is her mother, because she does that head-stroking thing to her too. Do I even need to point out that it would seem a bit odd for Will to include this particular visual detail in a story told verbally? No? Okay, let’s move on.

Sarah (who is Emily, remember) walks up, and they all share a stoic trip to the zoo. They stand in front of the penguins, and Maya teaches them all about lifelong penguin monogamy. It’s sad. We don’t know why these two are splitting up any more than we know why they got back together, so it’s hard to invest much in this scene apart from the grim knowledge that there must be a good reason. Maya leaves with her mother, then runs back to thank her dad for telling her the story. Will says he forgot to tell her the happy ending. He looks his daughter in the eye: “You.” They embrace. It’s a sweet and completely unearned moment. Bless her, Abigail Breslin adds almost nothing to this film. This girl was Little Miss Sunshine, and here she is relegated to a sympathetic sounding board for a midlife crisis. Then Bill Clinton (impersonator Dale Leigh) jogs by with a Secret Service detail, and Will shouts a greeting. Clinton waves, and…Will has closure, I guess? About something?

Will goes back to his office, signs the divorce papers, and finds the copy of Jane Eyre that he located for April, now many years earlier. And it’s happy ending time. He finds April at the offices of Amnesty International, in an unspecified do-gooder dream job. And here’s something I definitely didn’t realize in 2008: the movie is pretty clearly telling us that the torrent of drunken abuse that Will threw at April earlier was instrumental in helping her go back to school and get her life back on track, and this feels deeply unsettling in retrospect. All that we saw of April earlier was that she was confident, capable, gainfully employed, had saved enough money to go traveling (and then did so), and was in multiple relationships that we have no particular reason to believe were unhealthy. Will’s criticism of her in that scene is all the more baffling because it comes out of nowhere, and if the movie intended for him to be wrong or misguided, it does a terrible job of showing it. April laughs at him on arrival (in a “happy to see you” sorta way). They trade details: No one’s dating anyone, no one’s currently smoking, he just got divorced (which she somehow heard already), and the two are maybe finally ready to be together? He gives her the book. She cries and thanks him. He completely unnecessarily tells her that he’s had it for years, and apologizes. She tells him to leave. Come on, movie. Coffee is for closers.

Back home, Maya berates him, and reveals that Summer’s real name is Natasha (“who writes for that magazine”), and asks why he didn’t change April’s name in the story. She tells him he’s not happy. He tells her to get her coat. They head for Brooklyn. This is incredibly inappropriate, and I guess it’s really happening… They buzz April’s apartment, she demands to know who the kid is speaking in the background. He tells her. “That’s kinda cheating, isn’t it? Bringing your daughter?” Yes, April, yes it is. They decide to count to thirty and leave if April doesn’t come down. As April listens to this on the intercom, Maya tells Will he should tell April the story, and “Then she’ll know!”. They reach 30 and start to walk away, and April bounds out the front door, surprising no one, to ask, “What story?” He says he kept the book because it was the only thing he had left of her, and he couldn’t let her go completely. They embrace. Then they go inside for some awkward storytime, but not before the two grownups pop back out to the front step for a huge smooch. Annnnd we’re out. Good luck folks.

At the risk of vaguely spoiling How I Met Your Mother, the series did all of the same things as this movie, and it certainly had its share of redundancy and meandering subplots. It tried to have its ending both ways in a similar manner, giving the main character a happy (but ultimately doomed) romance with one character, only to pair him with another at the end. But what was it all for? Well, in How I Met Your Mother, the explicit message (as narrated by Bob Saget) was that love is hard, but it’s worth it, because it’s the best thing we do. The only thing close to a coherent message I can extract from Definitely, Maybe is April’s speech about finding The One – that at a certain point, everyone just decides they’re ready, at which point they love The One they’re with. It’s a glib message, but it’s one that’s supported by the complete lack of foundation for Will’s romance –
and re-romance – with Emily/Sarah. All we ever saw of this relationship was failure. I don’t know why these two were ever together, apart from the convenience of college geography, and I have no idea why they got back together, apart from quarter-life desperation. But at least they got a nice kid out of it?

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #126 – “Fifty Shades Freed” (dir. James Foley), “The Cloverfield Paradox” (dir. Julius Onah)

Poster for "Fifty Shades Freed"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel take two trips down memory lane – one to the tail-end of the Fifty Shades franchise, which feels like it began a million years ago in 2011, and the other to the site code-named Cloverfield (formerly Central Park), which made a surprise return to Netflix right after the big game this week (47:51).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "The Cloverfield Paradox"

FilmWonk rating (Fifty Shades Freed): 5/10 (Daniel), 3/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (The Cloverfield Paradox): 5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:59] Review: Fifty Shades Freed
  • [12:46] Spoilers: Fifty Shades Freed
  • [26:14] Review: The Cloverfield Paradox
  • [38:23] Spoilers: The Cloverfield Paradox
  • Music for this episode is “Love Me Like You Do” by Ellie Goulding and “For You”, by Rita Ora and Liam Payne, from the soundtrack to Fifty Shades Freed.
  • With all appropriate awkwardness, Glenn made a vague reference to an MTV dating and/or karaoke show from the 1990s. The two most likely culprits are either Say What? Karaoke or Singled Out, but…we can’t be sure.

Listen above, or download: Fifty Shades Freed, The Cloverfield Paradox (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #125 – “I, Tonya” (dir. Craig Gillespie), “Call Me By Your Name” (dir. Luca Guadagnino)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel didn’t even realize that these other jamokes were involved in the story of I, Tonya, which forces them to reexamine a half-remembered media narrative from when they were single-digits old. Special guest Erika Spoden ventures back in time with us, stopping off at a ’90s figure-skating scandal, and continuing with an ’80s romance in Northern Italy, with Call Me By Your Name (59:45).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Call Me By Your Name): 4/10 (Daniel), 7/10 (Erika), 8/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (I, Tonya): 8/10 (Glenn), 9/10 (Daniel, Erika)

Show notes:

  • [01:54] Review: Call Me By Your Name
  • [11:57] Spoilers: Call Me By Your Name
  • [27:18] Review: I, Tonya
  • [39:20] Spoilers: I, Tonya
  • Music for this episode is “Mystery of Love” by Sufjan Stevens, from the soundtrack to Call Me By Your Name, and “Goodbye Stranger“, by Supertramp, from the soundtrack to I, Tonya.

Listen above, or download: I Tonya, Call Me By Your Name (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

2017 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2017)

#11: The Disaster Artist

Directed by James Franco, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

As ever, the #11 slot on my Top 10 list goes to a film that I loved, with some reservations. The Disaster Artist is a thoroughly inessential comic indulgence that is purely for super-fans of The Room. Since I count myself among them, I adored this film (again, with reservations) – but I’ve been doing my very best to discourage others from seeing it unless they fall into that same camp. The original headline for this review was actually, “Fuck it, let’s indulge,” and I went on to say it felt “less like a meal and more like a bowl of miniature Kit Kats”. And that’s honestly fine. Let it never be said that we critics are incapable of taking joy in a film that panders to us so effectively (I did make Hugo my #1 film of its year after all). But you should know going in whether or not this film was specifically made for you.

Check out my full review here:

James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” – Let’s indulge.

#10: Molly’s Game

Written for the screen and directed by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Molly Bloom

It’s probably for the best that I didn’t see I, Tonya until after the New Year, as there’s a good chance it would’ve sparred with this film for the #10 spot. Both films are about aspiring real-life Olympians who get involved in a world of criminality, and Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) is easily as fascinating a persona as Tonya Harding, even if her story is a bit less morally ambiguous. This is just an immensely entertaining crime drama that’s equal parts Rounders-caliber poker flick and taut legal thriller. Sorkin, along with DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen, is a steady hand in his first turn behind the camera, telling a plot-complex and lengthy story in a manner that flies by despite being two-plus hours long, and eliciting four outstanding performances. There are the two you’d expect – Chastain as Bloom, along with Idris Elba as Bloom’s attorney Charlie Jaffey, with the pair spending much of the film debating exactly what Bloom has done, and how much truth there was in her published memoir (which has been written, and is directly addressed in the film). There are also outstanding turns from Kevin Costner as Bloom’s father, and Michael Cera as Player X, an unnamed Hollywood celebrity who may be primarily based on Tobey Maguire. And all I can say about that is…I hope Maguire wasn’t really like this, because Cera effectively plays the character as a voracious sociopath.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #124 – “Molly’s Game” (dir. Aaron Sorkin)

#9: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh now has three outstanding features under his belt – In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and now this – and each of them has demonstrated some maturation of his storytelling. The third act of Seven Psychopaths is almost a rumination on the writer’s own shortcomings, as the characters (including a screenwriter named Marty) wander off into the desert and debate how the story should end. Three Billboards is about a grieving mother named Mildred (Frances McDormand) who erects a series of billboards demanding to know why her daughter’s rape and murder have gone unsolved for over a year. And while it does strive for some notes of bittersweet ambiguity with its ending, this is a much more laser-focused narrative than anything McDonagh has done previously. It has something ugly to say about small-town America, and it isn’t going to mess with that ugliness for the sake of facile redemption. Sam Rockwell – in his least likable role to date – plays Officer Dixon, a drunken, violent disgrace of a cop who retains his badge despite a town-wide consensus that he tortured an African-American suspect in custody. His superiors and colleagues at the Ebbing PD never really question this narrative (although they do tiptoe around addressing it directly), and Dixon never expresses any remorse, or explains or redeems himself. This goes beyond “flawed protagonist” for me. Dixon is a terrible person who is on the edge of being the film’s biggest villain unless he decides to do his job. This is alongside Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is suddenly dealing with Mildred’s PR crisis while simultaneously dying of pancreatic cancer. Naturally, the town turns on Mildred, because she can’t just accept that her daughter’s rape and murder will go unsolved. They’re all on her side, the town priest assures her, just…not about the billboards. Then Mildred gives a cutting speech likening the Catholic Church to a criminal gang of pedophiles, then shows him the door, and I remember why I love McDonagh’s dialogue so much. All of the film’s acerbic little speeches are crafted with theatrical precision – so much so that I wonder if I should be more critical of McDonagh for peppering in quite so much racism. Is he throwing it in because he thinks it’s funny, or because that’s the real world as he sees it? Maybe both? This is the same question I’ve long had about Quentin Tarantino, but he’s perhaps a bit easier to critique when he literally writes himself into his films to rattle off the N-word like punctuation. I saw Three Billboards with a friend – a Chinese-American, as it happens – and she had a blunt answer to this question: “I think it’s fantastic. I’ve had total strangers call me a [racial slur] out of nowhere, multiple times. It doesn’t feel excessive. This is the real world for me.” Fair enough – and in either case, casual racism certainly isn’t the only way in which these characters are nasty to each other.

This film is uncompromising and clever with its plotting, but there’s nothing about it that I would describe as narratively tidy, and that’s exactly what this sad, ugly story needed. And if there’s anything that occurred as frequently as the gladiatorial repartée, it was the surprising flashes of humanity that shone through despite everyone’s posturing. An early scene of verbal sparring between Mildred and Chief Willoughby is interrupted when the latter begins coughing blood (he’s dying, remember), and everything stops, because suddenly, these are just two human beings dealing with one of them having a serious medical crisis. Mildred is no less enraged or committed to her billboard plan, but there is a sudden moment of grace as she embraces the frightened, dying man in front of her and assures him it’ll all be okay. There are multiple moments like this – of people treating each other decently despite having severe and legitimate beefs with each other, and in many cases, having actively made each other’s lives worse over the course of the film – and then suddenly dropping the pretense and just treating each other with honesty or decency, if only for a moment. Mildred’s ex (John Hawkes) repeatedly beats the hell out of her, and they still have multiple semi-cordial conversations. Mildred is strong, but not invulnerable. Willoughby means well, but legitimately fucked this up. Dixon is an almost irredeemable bastard, but manages to do some good. Nobody is a single thing, and everyone in this film retains their flawed humanity – and that’s what makes this story so compelling.

#8: Una

Directed by Benedict Andrews, written by David Harrower (based on his play)

This is a difficult film. Una (Rooney Mara) plays an adult woman who ventures to a remote factory in England to confront her former next-door neighbor, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), with whom she had an illicit sexual relationship when she was thirteen years old. The pair ran away together (posing as father and daughter), until he abandoned her in a motel. At which point she was recovered and returned to her parents, and he was arrested and sent to prison. He is now living under a new name, and she hasn’t seen him since that night 15 years earlier, and she wants to know why he abandoned her. Did I mention this is a difficult film? Absolutely no good can come of this interaction, and Mara and Mendelsohn extract every last drop of tension out of it. The journey that Una has gone on as both victim and damaged adult is put on merciless display through flashbacks as the pair verbally spar in a windowed breakroom at the factory. It feels like court without the courtroom, and the film presents Una as both accuser and disruption. She is a smasher of the status quo who would make everyone’s lives a lot easier if she would just shut up, go away, and deal with what has happened to her without bothering the rest of us, thank you very much. And that is every bit as uncomfortable as that sounds. In the year of #MeToo, the year in which an unabashed predator of teenage girls (with no legal or moral right to call himself “Judge”) was very nearly elected to the US Senate, this film forces us to watch a conversation that probably doesn’t happen nearly often enough in the real world, and without any sense of vigilante wish fulfillment (à la Hard Candy). Like I said – absolutely no good can come of this interaction. But there is something socially rotten at the core of this story, and Una seems like just the right person at the right time to smash it to bits so it can be washed into the gutter.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #121 – “Una” (dir. Benedict Andrews)

#7: Lady Bird

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig

A pair of fine performances by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf bring glorious life to indie star Greta Gerwig‘s solo directorial debut, which began its life with the title of Mothers and Daughters. Lady Bird certainly seems a more appropriate title for what this film turned out to be – the focus is squarely on the waning high school days and coming-of-age of 17-year-old Christine, who styles herself as “Lady Bird” – a nickname she enforces under threat of leaping from a moving vehicle if her mother Marion should refuse to call her by it. There is an honest bite at the heart of this film that propels it forward – Lady Bird and Marion flit back and forth between harsh bickering and protestations of love, sometimes multiple times during the same scene. But the tone of the film never feels uneven or manipulative. I’ve seen the coming-of-age film that’s trying too hard, and it’s called The Way, Way Back (or Boyhood if you’re nasty) – this isn’t it. The film feels like a fundamentally honest recounting of Lady Bird’s life and times, even as the character is certainly striving to put on a show, trying out various personas and plans as her life unfolds. Ronan adds some marvelously subtle notes to this performance, right down to introducing herself to multiple characters (“I’m LADY-Bird!”) with an ever-so-slight vocal twinge of, “Don’t you just love this awesome nickname I thought up myself?!”. There are no people like show people, and I could watch this awkward emotional powerhouse of a drama kid come out of her shell all day. A note on the time period covered here… Gerwig and I are around the same age, and it appears that I’m now vulnerable to appeals to nostalgia for the time when I was in high school (I quite liked the soundtrack of this film, for reasons I can’t entirely explain or justify). Noted.

#6: Keep Quiet

Directed by Sam Blair and Joseph Martin

At this year’s Seattle Jewish Film Festival, we had the immense pleasure of seeing 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. Specifically, he goes from being an outspoken neo-Nazi to an orthodox Jewish convert, with the help of a local rabbi, and goes on a speaking tour to denounce his former hatred. And…if this all sounds a bit sanctimonious to you, let me just say: if this had just been a great big pat on the back for tolerance and pluralism, I’m sure it would’ve been rather tedious. But like The Imposter before it, this film’s strength is its ambiguity. How can we ever believe this man has truly changed? Neither his old tribe, nor his new one really seems to buy his conversion, and that’s precisely the tension that’s at the heart of this documentary. And in light of the resurgence of Nazism (even the polo-shirt, tiki-torch variety) in public life in the past year – it couldn’t be more timely. As of this writing, the film is available to stream on Netflix.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

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

#5: Graduation

Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu

Graduation is the story of a father and his teenage daughter in a small Transylvanian mountain town. The girl, Eliza (Maria Dragus) is about to graduate from high school. She is an excellent student, about to receive an academic scholarship to Cambridge, and her father Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is desperate to see her succeed and leave their town to seek a better education abroad. Eliza, meanwhile, is in a happy relationship with her local boyfriend, and is noticeably ambivalent about her father’s plans for her. Her fortunes change abruptly when she is brutally attacked outside her school, a sexual assault which ends with a sprained wrist that severely hampers her chances of doing well enough on her final exams to qualify for admission to Cambridge. This dilemma, in and of itself, absorbed me straight away and was certainly enough to carry the film. But Mungiu pulls off something far more subtle and complex as the film goes on – an exploration of a deeply corrupt town in which everyone considers themselves to be honest, but regards greasing the wheels and doing illegal favors for one another as just the way the world works.

The generational conflict between father and daughter is essential to this film. All of the greased palms and sly favors are performed between men of a certain age, but the father’s plot (with a local town political fixer) to help Eliza commit academic fraud will ultimately require her cooperation. This is a tale as old as time – Romeo raised his daughter to do what’s right…until the moment it harms her future prospects. And then it’s time to start making exceptions. There are two separate scenes of Romeo attempting to corrupt Eliza in this film, and each of them is as heartbreaking as it is ethically fascinating. He believes in her – believes in her abilities. And yet he thinks her future has been derailed due to an event for which she bears no blame, so she simply must cheat a little to get back on track.

From my review:

They aren’t the corrupt ones ruining life and making the world unfair for all of us regular people. They are us. And for anyone with the power to break the rules for their own benefit, they are making a conscious choice to bend the moral arc of the universe in the wrong direction. And in the moment, it all feels righteous. Coming back to the film’s American tagline, “A father will do anything to save his daughter’s future,” I’m struck by how much Romeo seems determined that his daughter will follow in his corrupt footsteps. He’s not safeguarding her future, per se – he’s teaching her the same set of privileged skills that led him to his own place in life. Society only functions if there’s a common rule set for everyone, or at least, if that’s everyone’s nominal goal. And Romeo is the epitome of replacing that standard with, “What would you do to give your children a leg up over everyone else?”. Graduation revels in this contradiction – and confronts the viewer with the assurance that if that answer is specific and situational rather than broad and ethical, then civilization is a fragile experiment that is all but destined to fail.

As of this writing, the film is available to stream on Netflix

Check out my review here:

Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” – An engrossing tale of societal decay

#4: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Written and directed by Rian Johnson

The only direct comparison that I’ll make between this film and The Empire Strikes Back is that I believe history will vindicate it as one of the best films of the series.

From my review:

And of course, an epic struggle plays out between the nascent Force-users over which of their destinies Snoke will control this week. But looking back, that all feels like the old, childish Light-and-Dark stuff to me. These people – strong with the Force or otherwise – will chase and blast and slice and blow each other up til the end of the universe, and perhaps the only real villain that the series has left for us to face…is nihilism. Rey tells Luke from the outset that General Leia (Carrie Fisher) sent her to see him for hope. If Leia was wrong, she deserves to know why. “We all do,” says Rey. This poor woman is begging a Jedi Knight for his help, and all he wants to do is stay put and die. Hamill’s performance is impressive, bringing a gruff intensity that thoroughly spells out what a disappointment Luke Skywalker turned out to be, for us, and for himself. He is the flip side of del Toro’s unnamed gangster, neither losing nor profiting from the endless war – instead, simply bowing out. If the Force is what binds all things together in perfect harmony, then hope is as fine an emotion as any to invest in it. But what’s on the other side? Not darkness or evil – those are forces to be actively fought. This is despair. Nothingness. Abrogating your power and purpose in the universe and declaring that it can do whatever it wants, because it’s not your problem anymore. This is some dark stuff coming from Disney, and frankly, a great deal more moral complexity than I expected from a Star Wars film.


I’m taking this film’s narrative ambition as a promise to be fulfilled with the next film. If The Last Jedi dares to challenge the duality of the Light/Dark-side narrative by couching it as a matter of perspective; if it dares to ask the question of why we should be invested in the outcome of a struggle between two flagging military superpowers for any reason besides the names and flags they use to denote their respective teams, the next had better answer the question in a satisfying manner. What is it all for? The Resistance, or the Rebellion, fights for what they love (Rose seems to exist solely to spell out this point) – but they’d better have some idea of what the peace will look like. The First Order – or the Empire – fights for blood, vengeance, and the tautological maintenance of its own power, with its association to the Dark Side as barely an afterthought. They fight to control the galaxy, and their resolve is steeled by having a rebellion to crush. Anyone who wants to win this war will need to figure out what winning looks like. What a better tomorrow looks like. What exactly it is that they’re hoping for. But they’ve got everything they need to sort that out.

Check out my review here:

Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” – What is it all for?

#3: The Big Sick

Directed by Michael Showalter, written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon

I’m always pleased when I can place a comedy on this list, especially when it’s one that has already held up to repeat viewing. The Big Sick is written by comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, based on their real-life courtship, which gets derailed initially due to cross-cultural disagreements (Nanjiani’s family wants him to marry a Pakistani woman of their choosing), and then due to Emily having a serious medical crisis. This kicks off the film’s second courtship: between Nanjiani and his future wife’s parents, a North Carolina couple played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who bond as Emily lies in an induced coma.

From my review:

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 awry (and both parents get shockingly profane for the first time), and then 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.

If any marketer for this film is looking for my pull-quote, I’ll offer: “This is some messy, human nonsense right here.” This comedy rings true because it is true, and its level of honesty demonstrates a respect and humility for its characters and story that is often lacking in depictions of real-life romance. Nothing about this was destiny, none of the dialogue is perfect, and none of it had to work out this way. And it’s a beautiful thing.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

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

#2: Get Out

Written and directed by Jordan Peele

This is one of the most tightly constructed horror films and works of social satire ever made – every detail of the life and dangers surrounding Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) serves a dual purpose, as both a deft portrayal of the day-to-day reality of racism faced by African-Americans today, as well as a pillar of the horror-mystery that is gradually taking shape around them. As Chris ventures into upstate New York to meet Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), he starts to realize that something is very wrong with all of the other black people that he meets. They don’t quite speak or act the way he expects. They all seem to have a secret. Something has happened to them…or been done to them. The precise nature of this Stepford mystery is certainly a major component of the film’s appeal, but there’s a lot more to this film than plot revelations. The performances are uniformly outstanding. Kaluuya and Williams sell the quiet moments within this couple with the sort of humanity that is often lacking in horror characters, who will often scream at each other about an impending threat, but fail to ever sell any prior affection in the first place. Keener and Whitford are quietly menacing, Lakeith Stanfield, Betty Gabriel, and Stephen Root have outstanding supporting moments, and a particularly hilarious turn from Lil Rel Howery keeps the film from venturing too far into darkness. As a directorial and horror genre debut, Jordan Peele completely knocks this one out of the park, delivering an intense ride that will keep you thinking long after it’s over.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #99 – “Get Out” (dir. Jordan Peele)

#1: A Ghost Story

Written and directed by David Lowery

The concept of this film is a bit goofy. A married couple’s life is shattered when the husband – known only as C – (Casey Affleck) is suddenly killed in a car accident outside their rural home. The wife, M (Rooney Mara), is left to fend for herself as her husband lingers on in the form of a ghost. Literally. The actor Affleck (purportedly never a stand-in) stands beneath a floor-length sheet for the duration of the film – invisible to his grieving widow and everyone else among the living. Did I say a bit goofy? The premise of this film is overtly ridiculous. It’s almost a deliberate riff on the very concept of supernatural horror. Ghosts? Pfft. Even if you believe in them, they’re just dead humans standing around in sheets. Who cares?

But A Ghost Story manages to pull off two stunning tricks. The first is that it occasionally makes its goofball supernatural horror genuinely frightening. As C hangs around his former house, he gets to watch his wife engage in the ugly process of grieving, and eventually move on. And then the house moves on. Other people live, laugh, and love there – and all the while he waits for something that he can’t quite remember, only occasionally getting angry and breaking things. Life goes on for the living, and this film really highlights for the first time what a conceptually sad existence that the ghost myth really posits. Being ignored, forgotten, cuckolded… These things only matter if you’re alive. The idea of a dead person (even as a dude in a sheet) bearing witness to the world moving on without him is incredibly sad, and this is the most thoroughly I’ve ever felt this sadness woven into supernatural horror. This ghost only occasionally startles its audience, but it never stops being frightening. The second trick is that A Ghost Story is really an existential horror film in disguise. At the tail-end of an insufferably brilliant speech by an unnamed partygoer (Will Oldham), the music swells and time rages on as the ghost stands alone to bear witness. This sequence – which I won’t describe in detail – made me feel the fullness and passage of time so acutely that I experienced what I can only describe as a panic attack in the theater as I watched it. And that’s not a phrase I use lightly, as I have friends who have experienced them in a more diagnostically sound fashion. It felt wrong, and too much to bear – and when it was over, my companion and I left the theater in silence as writer/director David Lowery did a Q&A in the theater behind us. It was nearly midnight. Empty lobby, empty sidewalk, empty block. Thunderstruck, we didn’t speak a word until we reached the car. This film hit me like a ton of bricks and hasn’t left my head since.

When Lowery introduced this film to our SIFF audience, he began by invoking the work of the late, great director Abbas Kiarostami, and said that he found the man’s best work to be like a dream – a free-flowing stream of consciousness that you could easily drift in and out of without losing its appeal. He then said he didn’t mind if we fell asleep during his film. This ominous and cryptic introduction made me glad of the Americano I grabbed on the way in, but I’m not sure what to make of it in retrospect. This is a film that lacks a conventional narrative structure, and I suppose is not for everyone in that respect. It’s framed in 4:3 with lengthy scene edits, which didn’t seem like an arbitrary choice, but rather an invitation to get sucked in and share in the characters’ grief and experiences. Life is for the living, and this film’s essential appeal is in watching life go on. The only unwelcome guest is the ghost standing awkwardly in the corner – essentially watching it along with the rest of us. This film will flow over you like a river, forcing you to feel the fullness and enormity of time and life. I’ve long believed that a primary purpose of art is to distract you from your impending demise, and this film makes a deliberate and merciless choice to direct your attention towards it. How dare it.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #110 – “A Ghost Story” (dir. David Lowery), “I, Daniel Blake” (dir. Ken Loach)

Honorable Mentions:

  • Call Me By Your Name (directed by Luca Guadagnino)
  • Patti Cake$ (directed by Geremy Jasper)
  • Wind River (directed by Taylor Sheridan)
  • It (directed by Andy Muschietti)
  • Colossal (directed by Nacho Vigalondo)
  • Wonder Woman (directed by Patty Jenkins)
  • Crown Heights (directed by Matt Ruskin)
  • Logan (directed by James Mangold)
  • Glory (directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov)

Biggest Disappointments:

High expectations, low results.

  • Baby Driver (directed by Edgar Wright)
    I really hope I’m not getting too old to appreciate Edgar Wright‘s mad music video hijinks. His previous film, The World’s End, demonstrated some definite growth as a filmmaker and storyteller, and I was really hoping to see that evolution continue. Instead, this film was a mixed bag of solid gangster performances (probably the last one I’ll ever watch from Kevin Spacey, and grand turns by Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm), wasted and one-dimensional female leads, a boring soundtrack with a very high opinion of itself, and action that wasn’t particularly well-choreographed, filmed, or plausibly conceived. This was a fine dance film, but it barely resembles the sort of gangster movie I was hoping Wright could muster, and I found the experience of watching it to be physically exhausting. Check out our podcast for more.
  • mother! (directed by Darren Aronofsky)
    From my review:

    These ideas are all over the place, and for much of the film’s third-act Saturnalia, I found myself wondering whether this was an exercise in self-awareness or egotism on Aronofsky’s part. I haven’t said much about Bardem’s performance here, and that’s for two reasons. First is that Bardem succeeded in making Eli both delightful and repulsive to me – a figure who can conjure up the finest words to promote, justify, and reinforce the most despicable acts that the world has to offer. Second is that I don’t really know how much of an avatar Eli is meant to be for Aronofsky himself. Much of the film’s conflict is over whether or not this couple really cares about each other, as Eli’s persistent neglect of Grace in favor of a gang of strangers is repeatedly justified on the grounds that the experience might help him create more art. Talking with these people, Eli argues, is better than talking to her, because at least they’ve got something novel to say. This is Grace’s lot in this film – not merely the put-upon wife who grapples with her husband’s ingratitude and straying affections, but also a flagging muse, cast against her will as a man’s source of creative light, useless and thrown away as soon as that light has faded. And it doesn’t fade with a wimper. I found myself simultaneously reveling in the film’s excesses and wanting to warn others not to expose themselves to it for the sake of their sanity. This isn’t the best rumination on creativity I’ve seen – not even the best this year. And even while Aronofsky is at the top of his technical craft, I still can’t answer definitively whether his latest exercise in creating, enslaving, and agonizing an innocent woman was really worth it.

  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (dir. James Gunn)
    Turns out my limit of self-indulgence for a Marvel film is 90 completely inconsequential opening minutes before the actual plot begins. And this is easily one of the least visually impressive Marvel films. Nothing about Ego’s planet worked for me, because I never bought for a second that the characters were standing anywhere besides a soundstage. More on the podcast here.

Pleasant Surprises:

Low expectations, high results.

  • Okja (directed by Bong Joon-ho)
    Confession: I’m a meat-eater, and I avoided this film not precisely out of low expectations (although Snowpiercer started out middling and has aged poorly in my memory), but because I didn’t want to feel bad about eating meat, and the film’s trailer suggested this might be little more than cute fantasy-animal torture-porn. Nonetheless, this perhaps suggests that I’m aware there’s something to feel bad about, whether it’s the horrors of factory farming or the environmental impact of raising livestock. And yet, the measure of an effective satire cannot solely be its ability to prod the existing insecurities of its audience, and Okja largely succeeded at being a well-made action-adventure blockbuster on top of its subject matter, about a world in which a big evil agribusiness giant (which might as well be called Bonsanto) creates a huge, grey elephantine creature they call a superpig, in order to feed millions at a lower cost and environmental impact. Their CEO(s), both played by Tilda Swinton, sell this as a miracle of nature, born mysteriously on a farm in Arizona after some careful selective breeding (this is a lie that barely attempts to pretend otherwise). Each superpig is sent to live with a small, local farmer around the world to be raised using whatever method they see fit, and the winner – the one that thrives the most under its farmer’s care – will be crowned “Best Superpig”, an award whose value in unclear, and likely comes with a trip through the meat grinder. Okja is raised on a Korean mountaintop, enjoying a carefree life with its human companion, Mija (played by marvelous newcomer Seo-hyun Ahn). Mija’s adventure in pursuit of Okja is beautifully rendered, and the story retains Bong’s signature darkly comedic streak throughout. Who knew that Paul Dano as an Animal Liberation Front paladin would be so compelling? Ditto Jake Gyllenhaal as a drunken sell-out of a wildlife TV presenter. A vegetarian friend asked me how I can call Okja an effective satire if it failed to make me want to change my diet, and I think this is a fair question…My answer was honestly that I don’t think the film is arguing its point effectively for anyone that doesn’t already have ethical qualms about eating meat. A vegan probably sees a 15-minute sequence in which we learn that Okja is beautiful and compassionate and intelligent and a great friend to humans, and thinks, “Yes! That’s why eating meat is bad!”. I suppose a meat-eater sees the same scene and thinks, “Okay, let’s maybe not eat that particular animal.” There’s a bit of criticism of the consumer for this ambivalence – wanting all-natural, cruelty-free meat production without recognizing that such a thing is impossible. The two Tilda Swintons address this in various ways – the “nice” one saying that it’s the consumers’ fault for being ignorant and paranoid about GM foods (which is certainly true IRL), and the “evil” one stating flatly, “If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it,” while not particularly caring about the animals except for their value as commodities. I don’t think we’re meant to take the plausible words of either of these overt psychopaths at face value, but this film’s third act is a hard watch regardless. The slaughterhouse horrors are large-scale and well-rendered, and their production apparently had a profound effect on Bong himself – he says he became a vegan while making it. This is worth a watch and will stick with you – one way or another.
  • Patti Cake$ (directed by Geremy Jasper)
    An incredibly fun hip-hop musical featuring a career-making performance from Danielle Macdonald as an up-and-coming Jersey rapper. This is a better movie about would-be performers than La La Land, and unlike that film, its array of original songs didn’t leave my head the moment I finished listening to them. Great supporting cast as well, including Mamoudou Athie as a weird, awesome dude named Basterd Antichrist.
  • Justice League (dir. Zack Snyder)
    j/k, this movie is not good. But Sigrid‘s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows” is hauntingly beautiful and worth a listen.

Daniel’s Top and Bottom Films of 2017

Everything above represents Glenn’s top (and bottom) picks for the year – but FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel also saw a lot of films this year (we did a record 29 episodes in 2017), and we sometimes disagreed!
Here are Daniel’s Top 5 and Bottom 5 films of 2017.
Top 5:

  1. Molly’s Game
  2. Victoria & Abdul
  3. Keep Quiet
  4. Get Out
  5. A Ghost Story

Bottom 5:

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
  3. Justice League
  4. Fifty Shades Darker
  5. Wind River