This week, Glenn and Daniel check out Miranda July‘s latest, Kajillionaire (in theaters now, on VOD 10/16), which – like a hot tub at 29% APR – is an oddball gift that keeps on giving. Then we venture into a deep, dark, dire pit of the American South with Antonio Campos‘ adaptation, The Devil All the Time (Netflix). And finally, we check out Daniel’s pick for our first foray into Hindi-language films (and the Bollywood equivalent of an indie darling), the outstanding debut sci-fi feature from director Arati Kadav, Cargo (Netflix) (01:25:13).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Cargo): 8 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (Kajillionaire): 7 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (The Devil All the Time): 7.5 out of 10
This week, Glenn and Daniel (and special guest Erika) dive into the first Disney live-action remake Glenn has felt any desire to watch, Mulan, a film as American as apple pie and jingoism. We also check out a pair of smaller films – a thriller melodrama debut from director Kevin Del Principe, Up on the Glass (now available on VOD), and a slow-burn romance from trans Filipina director Isabel Sandoval, Lingua Franca, now available on Netflix (01:36:58).
CW: During our review of Lawrence of Arabia, we discuss an incident of sexual assault from T.E. Lawrence’s biography, as discussed by his biographers, and as depicted in the film.
This week, Glenn and Daniel reflect on ten years of the FilmWonk Podcast, and review two cinematic blindspots from the AFI’s Top 100 list – Lawrence of Arabia and Raging Bull(01:48:15).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Raging Bull): 7 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (Lawrence of Arabia): 10 out of 10
[00:21] Intro: Ten Years of the FilmWonk Podcast (Thank you for listening – feel free to skip this!)
[03:50] Review: Raging Bull (1980)
[20:17] Spoilers: Raging Bull (1980)
[40:26] Review: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
CORRECTION: We mispronounced the last name of Raging Bull editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who is still editing films at the age of 80, including The Irishman just last year. We wish her well and regret the error.
South Park got old. Hell, it even admitted it. More to the point, while it has taken various stances over the years (anti-religion, anti-sacred cows, anti-taking climate change seriously – whoops), there was always an undertone of “LOL nothing matters,” and the assumption that only nerds care about political outcomes. It’s a very 90s, Gen-Xer stereotype version of what it’s like to be a counterculturalist, and this is perhaps why Trey Parker and Matt Stone speak more frequently through the grown-up characters in the newer seasons. I have no idea what the kids are up to these days (apart from taking climate change seriously, whoops), but I know that millennial political cynicism tends to be a bit more outcome-oriented than its immediate predecessors. While I could heap pattern-recognition compliments onto Scottish, 1982-born music video director Ninian Doff‘s debut feature, which is at times reminiscent of both Edgar Wright and more obscure hip-hop insanity like Bodied or Patti Cake$, its tone, which manages to maintain remarkable consistency even as the film leapfrogs from horror to comedy to self-serious classist satire, feels most profanely and offensively reminiscent of the boys from Colorado. Just…a bit more fresh, because its satire seems to stem from a sincere belief that everything might not just keep bumbling along in the same way no matter how much you get worked up about it.
The story begins with a trio of troublemakers, Dean (Rian Gordon), Duncan MacDonald (Lewis Gribben), and DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja), whose chosen moniker might just be a shit DJ name (they all are, William, don’t you worry), but whose posh surname and ivy-laden high street address is a consistent source of mockery by his best mates. Joining them for the first time is Ian (Samuel Bottomley), a basically ordinary and well-meaning kid who wants to do well on the outdoor adventure program in the Scottish Highlands that they’ve all been signed up for – for the three delinquents, as a last chance at respectability and accomplishment by their headmaster, and for hapless Ian, by his mother, who is concerned by his lack of activities and social connections. That program is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, an outdoor-oriented youth program (reminiscent of the Scout movement, also founded by landed British gentry). To earn the award, the boys are left in the Scottish Highlands by their teacher, Mr. Carlyle (Jonathan Aris), and immediately hunted for sport by The Duke (Eddie Izzard) and his wife The Duchess (Georgie Glen). So immediately, in fact, that I’m not going to trouble to hide that plot detail, since the movie spends much of its first 15 minutes plastered with sight gags announcing its intentions toward the horror genre so explicitly that I was half-expecting a Cabin in the Woods-style genre deconstruction. But the basic idea (as laid out in the first of many visually stunning animated sequences seamlessly intercut into the film) is that the boys must navigate their way through several valleys and fields and craggy hills down to the coast, where they will collect the award, but only if they manage a collective achievement in Teamwork, Orienteering, Foraging, and…a few other soft skills.
The best thing I can say about these four boys is that my favorite of them fluctuated over the course of the film, which is usually a sign of a well-balanced cast. They each have their moments of depth, apart from Duncan, the goofball, tank, and arsonist of the group, who is a pure comic foil and does not contain multitudes. The most interesting character may be Dean, son of a fish cannery worker, who gradually lets slip that he expects to amount to nothing more than a lifelong stint in the same blue-collar trade as his father, and he sure would love it if society would get all the way off his back about chasing achievements that he doesn’t believe he ever had a chance at in the first place. When Ian, and even Willi- *sigh* DJ Beatroot talk about their home life, it’s clear that they have some sort of ambition beyond the circumstances of their upbringing, even if in Beatroot’s case it seems borderline delusional. But Dean thinks he fully understands himself already, and is basically okay with who he is. Until the moment that he isn’t. And for however profanely these boys talk to each other, or whatever anger or jealousy might be stewing within the group dynamics over the course of the film, all three of these little hellions are basically trying to be decent to each other. They’re not even that mean to the new kid, and even offer to share their dubious drugs with him. There are a lot of drugs in this film, none of them in familiar forms, and all a bit explosive and/or hallucinogenic, which leads to further wonky visuals as characters’ bodies are deconstructed to the raucous beats of one of Beatroot’s…annoyingly good hip-hop jams, most of which are on the subject of his dick.
Eddie Izzard‘s Duke is a walking, shooting, slow-motion exposition-bot, who is happy to explain his simplistic and paternalistic ideology of culling the weakest (and poorest) members of the herd at length before wildly firing his rifle near the boys. And while Izzard fully justifies his presence (and executive producer credit) by the film’s end, he starts on that path at the halfway point when he and the Duchess join a psychedelic musical round with barely comprehensible choral chanting about maintaining the respectable trappings of empire as they prepare an attempted ritualistic murder of one of the boys. Then the Scottish cavalry arrives, and the curtain falls on their little caper. I won’t reveal what exactly I mean by that (James Cosmo is involved), but I’ll tell you what I did not need, and what the film itself has very little use or patience for, is the police. It would be easy to look at bumbling Scottish police Sergeant Morag (Kate Dickie) and PC Hamish (Kevin Guthrie) as pure buffoons, as they attempt to make sense of each rumor and whisper of the film’s plot by sliding another extravagant charge onto the big chore board at the police bureau (“PAEDOPHILE”, “TERRORIST”, and “ZOMBIE” each make an appearance). But this entire grating subplot is finally justified by the glorious appearance of the unnamed police superintendent (Alice Lowe), who gives a rousing battle speech on the need of these bumbling hillbillies to stop chasing a wholly confabulated urban gang (which Hamish identifies, on the radio, without a shred of evidence apart from his own racism, as 15-20 black males wearing hooded tops), down from London just to fuck with their unenviable backwater…and get back to solving the important crimes, like the fugitive bread thief, which was their #1 unsolved case before the film began. The film’s point that these cops would do nothing to help the situation was made after about 30 seconds of watching them, and during each of the other cop scenes, I was mostly just waiting to get back to the A-plot. But this is a minor complaint. I must emphasize, I am not being sarcastic here – the superintendent’s speech is a stellar comic moment, and it very nearly justifies the rest.
I can’t say much more here without giving the game away, and what a great game it is. While you may feel as if you’ve been served a pile of hallucinogenic rabbit fodder by the film’s end, you won’t come away wondering for a moment what it was all for.
FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10
Get Duked! is available starting today, 8/28, on Prime Video.
In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel grapple with a horrific natural disaster that has been exacerbated by inept individual and governmental decisions whose ongoing toll of human tragedy is difficult to fathom. And they also watch a documentary about the 2018 Camp Fire(29:30).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10
Tune in next week for our Tenth Anniversary episode!
We mentioned California SB50, which represented multiple failed attempts at increasing housing density in California during 2018. Several more attempts were made to pass the bill in 2019 into early 2020 without any more success.
We speculated that the town of Paradise must have experienced some permanent population loss as a result of this disaster (which is only mentioned in passing in the film). According to US Census Bureau estimates, the population went from 26,711 in 2018 to 4,476 in 2019, an estimated population loss of 83%.
Listen above, or download: Rebuilding Paradise(right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)
On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel debate the raison d’être of both an all-Wolverine superhero team, as well as romance and human existence itself, with a pair of blockbuster streaming selections, Palm Springs, an outstanding debut from first-time feature director Max Barbakow, and The Old Guard, a graphic novel adaptation which divided us, from Gina Prince-Bythewood(01:08:42).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Palm Springs): 9 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (The Old Guard): 4/10 (Daniel), 6/10 (Glenn)
[02:18] Review: Palm Springs
[15:27] Spoilers: Palm Springs
[32:26] Review: The Old Guard
[48:49] Spoilers: The Old Guard
CORRECTION: Glenn mispronounced director Max Barbakow’s surname (which we have since learned ends with a ‘v’ sound) when introducing him – we regret the error.
CORRECTION: Glenn also mispronounced actor Matthias Schoenaerts‘ name (not for the first time!). Here he is in 2012 with Marion Cotillard, taking us to school. We regret the error and are amused!
We slightly overstated Netflix’s original content budget – according to Variety, Netflix will spend $17 billion on original content in 2020.
We gave a shout-out to former Amazon Studios Head of Strategy Matthew Ball, who maintains a very interesting (and well-argued) blog on the state of the streaming wars.
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.
Inception is 10 years old. I’ve seen innumerable sci-fi films since, but it’s hard to think of an original sci-fi property in the past decade that has so thoroughly remained in the popular consciousness. Even Christopher Nolan‘s 2013 big-budget space adventure Interstellar, which I found to be the more narratively ambitious of the two films, has largely faded from memory apart from people cruelly scoffing at Matthew McConaughey‘s well-earned and well-acted tears. As this is a 10YA review, I will be grappling with how well the film’s big ideas have aged, but it seems worth acknowledging that it never really left the building, and is perhaps the most influential and oft-referenced original sci-fi property since The Matrix. There are broadly two concepts at work here. I’ll spend most of my time on the first, “Extraction,” in which thieves hook themselves up to a subject’s brain using wired briefcase devices that look like a quiz-bowl scoring rig by way of The Fifth Element, in order to enter their dreams and steal their secrets. As cool as the dreamcases look, they might as well be laptop computers for all of their sterility. The Matrix or even eXistenZ make jacking into the brain feel a bit more…personal, invasive, and organic. But let’s step outside the method for a moment, because while brain-machine interfaces have made small, incremental advances in the past decade, entering another person’s dreams remains the stuff of spy-fi (Season 4 of Alias once did two episodes in a row with this trope). While discussing the rules of a multi-layered dream world, team leader Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes very close to giving a shout-out to the 10% brain myth, which struck me as the film giving me permission to handwave plausibility and accept that the only reason we’re talking about “exponentially accelerated brain function” at all is so that Nolan’s sandbox can include time and gravity manipulation. Which is fine! That stuff is awesome! I wasn’t a curmudgeon on this point in 2010, and I haven’t become one in the intervening years. And Nolan’s ambition when it came to making conceptual use of this sandbox was completely matched by his execution. Whether the visual spectacle of Ariadne (Ellen Page) relishing her first experience as a dream-god and folding a computer-generated Paris cityscape up and over itself, or constructing a massive gimbled set so that Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can have a gravity-shifting hallway fight – these brilliantly conceived and executed scenes remain as iconic as Hans Zimmer’s trailer *BRMMMMMMMMP* (as well as myriad other tracks).
So I’m on board with the what. Now let’s talk about the how and why. In true Inception fashion, there are several different layers, some of which have become pretty dated in the ensuing decade. While dream heists are still the stuff of fantasy, the real world has come up with plenty of equally ridiculous methods of stealing information. Websites that track your every move, click, search, and shopping choice. There’s single sign-on, tracking cookies, zombie cookies, third-party domains, adware, transparent pixels, hardware benchmarking, canvas fingerprinting, facial recognition, eye tracking, voiceprint recognition, and probably some other stuff I don’t know about yet. Smartphone apps hoovering up every piece of information you’re willing to give them, including Bluetooth and WiFi connection information which it can use to pinpoint your location and identity, often with greater accuracy and speed than simply handing them GPS data, which many of them either ask for unnecessarily or harvest in the background or sneakily steal anyway. And that’s just the mostly legal stuff. There’s also plenty of non-trivial opt-in surveillance from children’s toys to baby monitors to doorbell cams that invite people to share their data with the cloud, often insecurely. There are man-in-the-middle attacks, phishing, header-spoofing, and SQL injecting. There’s Spectre, Meltdown, Foreshadow, and MouseJack, and other, less cool-sounding hardware vulnerabilities. But there’s also plenty of other cool sci-fi sounding shit here today, including reconstructing LCD monitor emissions from acoustic leakage (essentially a new technique for Van Eck Phreaking), reconstructing keystrokes from an audio recording, and my new favorite, Lamphone, wherein an attacker eavesdrops on a conversation using a laptop, an electro-optical sensor, and a telescope trained on a hanging lightbulb, whose emission variance can be used to reconstruct any audio that exists in its vicinity, including music with enough fidelity to be recognized by Shazam. Many of these are proofs of concept presented by security researchers, but their very nature as covert methods of data theft makes their usage difficult to detect. And while I think Nolan made a wise choice by making the secret-stealing tech in Inception seem so very fantastical, my career in information technology has left me asking an unexpected question about dream-stealing this time around: why would anyone bother? Kidnapping and dreamjacking a billionaire may well yield valuable secrets, but they’re not the sort that would be irretrievable through easier means.
The other thing that has happened in the past decade is that secrets have become less valuable and protected than ever before. We live in a world in which entire media ecosystems exist to provide incontrovertible proof of the wrongdoing of the people in charge, and also to ensure that they never face any consequences for it. Remember the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers? The revelation of secret offshore tax havens used by rich people around the world to evade taxes and responsibility for the systems they’ve helped to create and exploit, which journalists from around the world worked tirelessly for over a year to extract and reveal every last scandal from? Has anything really changed as a result of this? Okay, sure, they brought down the Prime Minister of Iceland. But nearly all of the business practices revealed in this “damning” trove are still legal and broadly used. Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns even released a (not very good) movie to try to explain this to us (in the same year that Burns adapted another several thousand pages of dry text to try to explain that the US tortured people for most of the 2000s), and still: nothing. Millennials have managed to maintain a baseline level of simmering rage (and unapologetic profanity) as we remember that we only hold 3% of the household wealth in the United States. But that’s no secret. And the specific malfeasance of the specific set of jamokes in charge is no secret either. Meanwhile, our leaders openly flaunt their dogshit-terrible InfoSec, and all of our secrets are stolen semi-annually from public and private entities alike.
This led to my most surprising reaction to Inception, a film that I still had an absolute hoot while watching. And that reaction was…taken on its own terms, why should this plot, whether about stealing secrets or manipulating billionaires into doing a slightly different arbitrary thing while maintaining all of their outsized and unaccountable political and economic power, really matter to me? If this were taking place in the real world, would it affect my life in any measurable way, or would one company’s “total energy dominance” just be one more tacitly government-sanctioned monopoly, slowly picking my pockets along with the rest of them? The film attempts to add personal stakes by furnishing Dom with an elaborate and tragic backstory with his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who – despite being a capable femme fatale, comes pre-fridged before the film even begins, and only appears as projection of her widower’s subconscious who torments him as he feebly tries to return to their never-aging kids, who may or may not still exist. How much more literally can you render Nolan’s persistent screenwriting problems with female characters than that? On the side of the angels is dream-architect Ariadne, a solid character made doubly so by Page’s would-be naïve, but ultimately commanding performance. She functions not just as an audience surrogate that the team can explain things to, but as someone who immediately sees the appeal of this life, and starts jonesing for a fix of being a lucid dream god the minute she first (initially) walks away from it. And even as a newcomer, she’s clearly a more capable architect than either Dom or Mal ever were, from the look of their “world”, which has a real copypasta look to it, with the same three or four identical buildings repeated ad infinitum. When Ariadne returns, she immediately starts ignoring Dom’s rules, bearing into his mind and using his own techniques against him, justifying herself to him in the voice of a jilted lover. This has everything to do with me. You’ve asked me to share dreams with you. She has just met Dom, but she knows his subconscious inside and out, and recognizes the threat that dwells within it. Unfortunately, Ariadne’s story basically concludes before they enter the dream. While she tosses out a few wild new dream rules after the two-hour mark, it’s basically Dom and the Dream Team’s story at that point, with Projection Mal occasionally throwing a monkey wrench (or a train) into the works. But apart from some brief strong character work from Ariadne, and Dom’s personal stakes, the rest of the team are simply guns for hire, as well as a writers’ room for the film to make it absolutely clear that all of this was essentially a metaphor for filmmaking and storytelling. And honestly, all of that is fine, and I’m certain that if you’re reading a retrospective on Inception, you’ve probably read plenty on that subject already. An anti-monopolistic plot fueled by a billionaire with daddy issues is as fine a MacGuffin as any. Even Saito (Ken Watanabe) was acting selfishly and never pretended otherwise, and that he and Dom ended up being failed dream-gods, trapped in limbo for decades before then relinquishing their power for equally arbitrary and personal reasons never inspired much sympathy in me then or now. As an elaborate blockbuster spectacle, Inception fires on all cylinders, showcasing some of the most compelling and original filmmaking ever put to the big screen. But for all of the detail, there was never very much substance here. It was all just…a very good dream.
Astute readers may notice I’ve wandered afield from the plot of this film, and barely touched upon the titular concept of “Inception”, a violation that amounts to brainwashing bordering on replacement of an unknowing individual. Planting inspiration into someone’s mind in order to change every aspect of who they are and what they’ll do is an act that the film’s dialogue casually treats like murder, or at the very least involuntary manslaughter. But Inception doesn’t dwell long on the morality of this procedure, and I don’t see any reason why I should do so either. I suppose I could add a sentence on the twenty boring and inconsequential minutes of Tom Hardy (or perhaps his stunt double) reenacting Die Hard 2 with some anonymous goons on snowmobiles, or spend a paragraph quibbling over totem mechanics. But we’re in the middle of a pandemic and a long overdue reckoning on unaccountable police brutality and systemic racism in America, and I can write whatever I want. Even more astute readers may have noticed…that the dream is collapsing. Whether it’s the release date of the next Nolan film, the always-preposterous notion that anyone was sincere when they said “all lives matter”, or the idea that America is exceptional in any measurable way besides military spending and political and economic dysfunction bordering on cultish mass suicide, it’s hard to engage in this sort of diversion…okay so the totems they really do make no sense at all as a means of discerning reality from dreams because they rely on surety about the totem’s inimitable physical characteristics that would vanish the first time the user goes to sleep in a room with someone else for the second time, with the unavoidable knowledge that they might’ve rifled through your pockets while you were asleep the first time, except for Dom’s spinning top, which is completely different from all the other totems and relies on its ability to exhibit behavior that is physically impossible, which, ya know, good totem if you can get it…without keeping some of my mind occupied on the depravities of the real world. Revisiting a blockbuster from the past is a fine diversion. I wouldn’t do it unless I still enjoyed it. But it also reminds me of what we’re in the process of losing, which may include the very idea of a blockbuster. And I’m definitely starting to wonder how we’ll distract ourselves after the theaters are gone, and the only bold new worlds remaining are made for half-watching.
FilmWonk rating: Feels a bit of an afterthought at this point, but 7.5/10.
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.
“Each of my moms had a kid, you know, with your sperm…” -“No, I didn’t know.” “Oh.” -“Both of them?” “Yeah.” -“Like in two?” “Uh huh. Like in gay.” -“Oh. Right on. Right on! Yeah! Cool! I love lesbians!”
“Listen, when you’ve been a parent for 18 years, come talk to me.” -“I was just making an observation.” “Yeah? And I need your observations like I need a dick in my ass!”
If I were to include a third quote above, it would be “I’m not looking for a pat on the head”, which is something I said in 2012 by way of endorsing Referendum 74, a ballot initiative which had the effect of legalizing same-sex marriage in my home state of Washington – three years before the Supreme Court would rule in Obergefell v. Hodges that marriage is a right guaranteed to all Americans (including LGBTQ Americans) under the Constitution, and must therefore become legal for same-sex couples throughout the United States. And I’m really not. Looking for a pat on the head. Washington only narrowly approved the measure, with 46.3% of the state, 1.4 million voters, voting against it. My fellow citizens cast their gaze upon marriages such as the one in this film, between Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules Allgood (Julianne Moore) and said, “No, I won’t call that marriage, and I won’t call that family.” I’m relieved in retrospect that I never got a chance to vote on other people’s marriages before I was quite ready to treat them as deserving of the same rights as me. 2012 was the year I got married, and it was my own impending walk down the aisle that finally kicked me across the lazy libertarian line to say that if civil marriage is to be something that the government is involved in, then it needs to be available for everyone. A few years later, over a celebratory backyard scotch, a friend – himself in a long-term relationship – asked me why I’d gotten married, as opposed to just continuing with a long-term relationship. He and his girlfriend were willing to make such a commitment, but neither of them felt as if the designation would change anything. The punchline of this is that the two of them would end up marrying in secret and not telling the rest of us for months. To this day, he insists that I never sold him on it. But I sure did try. I yammered on for 20 minutes or so, offering variations on the same answer: “It’s institutional shorthand!” I could offer my insights on what I think marriage should be – a situation of confidence and trust, partnership, with mutual respect and support. As a practical matter, something that you’ll both have to work at with varying degrees of success for the rest of your life. A safe place.
But I was talking about what it is, to the rest of society, even if they know nothing about either of us. Shorthand. This. Is. My. Wife. She is the family I’ve chosen, and I am hers. Now give me her fucking prescriptions. Quote me for our next year of health insurance, oh wait, she has her own now, let me know how much I’ll save on health insurance. Let us file our taxes and manage our accounts. Call her if you can’t reach me and vice versa. Lemme change our broadband. Lemme consolidate our phone plans. Or let her. Depending which of us lost the coin flip. Let me know she’s okay. Tell me which room she’s in. Tell me what meds you’ve given her. Ship her my records. Ship her my effects. Tell her if I’m dying. Let her make choices for me, if I can’t make them for myself. Respect our personal, legal, and moral decision to belong to each other for the rest of our natural lives. And if it comes to it, let her claim and then decide where to scatter my ashes, or tell me where to do the same. I can’t tell anyone what marriage should be for themselves. Except, at minimum, a safe place. But marriage is a civil right guaranteed to all Americans precisely because we – the straight, white majority – afford it such power in our society. It makes everything smoother. Simpler. A common external rule set for all, even if the internal one may vary.
The only feedback I can find from my first viewing of The Kids Are All Right was from early 2011, where I said the film “didn’t quite do it for me” by way of backhandedly praising Bening’s performance as Nic, and I felt like I enjoyed it more this time around, even if my reservations have only increased. At the very least, I’ve aged and married into a slightly richer appreciation of it, even if I’m not quite old enough to have much to say about parenting teenagers. What began at least in part as an instructional tool to coach the hetero crowd about how ordinary and non-threatening same-sex marriage between a pair of upper-middle-class white people can be (which is itself conceding a great deal of power to define “ordinary” as “what most closely resembles the majority”), in truth, the film always contained a measure of substance and insight about marriage in general, while also positing concerns that are unique to a family with two mothers and two biological children who are technically half-siblings with the same sperm-donor, with one carried by each mother. When Nic criticizes the flightiness of their 15-year-old boy Laser (Josh Hutcherson), Jules (who carried Laser in her womb) regards it as criticism of her personally. Both of these women are clearly loving parents to both children (at least until the events of this film), but it definitely comes through in both performances that these women can’t simply turn off their feelings, and there are clearly moments in which they each feel more protective of the child they personally carried. Which is…kinda fucked up! But the film seems aware of that, and Cholodenko’s willingness to engage with these sorts of feelings is a mark in favor of the film’s emotional honesty.
Enter bio-dad Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who indirectly furnished sperm to this family for sixty bucks a pop when he was 19, and had no idea these children existed until they reached out to him. Joni (Mia Wasikowska), who has just turned 18, only reaches out to the sperm bank because her brother (who is too young to legally make this request) begs her to do it. She doesn’t have any particular interest in meeting Paul, and is far more concerned about hurting their mothers’ feelings. Once the pair of them meet Paul, they basically flip positions. Joni finds herself charmed by Paul in spite of herself, and Laser thinks he’s a bit of a loser. Wasikowska and Hutcherson give fine performances here, but there’s not a lot of detail to these teenagers beyond the arc of their feelings for Paul, and I really don’t have much else to say about them. As for Paul, I think we’re initially just meant to find him a bit dopey (that is very much the vibe with his “I love lesbians!” quoted above). He is presented as a layabout who is somehow also running a successful organic foods restaurant and sportfucking with one of his employees. Tanya (Yaya DaCosta) isn’t an elaborate character, starting off as a comic foil to make sperm jokes with Paul between rounds of casual sex and even more casual restaurant bookkeeping, but she is 15 years younger, and also transparent about her desire to have a more serious relationship with him. I remain mixed on this subplot. The completely unexamined power dynamics of this boss-employee relationship notwithstanding, I think this character pretty much only exists to help Paul seem like a dope who was already kinda dopey prior to the events of the film. While he more or less confirms that judgment by turning down a woman willingly offering to make a family with him – the very thing he claims to want by the end of the film – it really does feel like putting a hat on a hat at that point.
So Paul and Jules have a fling. And if I might share another area of personal growth in the past decade, my mind is substantially less blown by the idea of lesbian women recreationally watching gay male pornography, or a lesbian woman having sex with a man and continuing to speak and think of herself as Kinsey-6 gay. People are what they are, and they do what they do, and the extent to which their behavior informs what labels they apply to themselves is both a product of their own decision-making and self-awareness, as well as a huge, heaping spoonful of societal pressure. In this film, real-life lesbian Lisa Cholodenko posits that, eh, this particular fictitious lesbian might decide to have sex with a man, but that’s less a byproduct of any identity-shattering change to her sexuality than of the dysfunction within her marriage and her simple desire to feel something outside of her wife’s web of control. That’s to say, the film posits that people in same-sex marriages cheat for the same reasons as people in heterosexual marriages, and the specific other [person] is less important, and by the way, human sexuality is fluid. I’ll admit, I think I’m reaching a bit in giving this film credit for self-awareness on the fluidity of human sexuality. I tend to give films credit for perceived good intentions – I even have fond memories of Chasing Amy, no matter how poorly that film and director Kevin Smith‘s contemporaneous explanations of it have aged. And yet, such stories exist in a world in which gay conversion therapy is a very real (pseudo-scientific) thing that has resulted in very real harm to thousands of children, which makes the legacy of films that suggest, but do not say anything terribly specific or insightful about, the fluidity of sexuality (which tends to most frequently come in the form of men “curing” women of their silly lack of attraction to men) rather tricky to evaluate.
This is what makes representation such a double-edged sword. I do believe that a film featuring a same-sex couple raising two happy and healthy and relatively well-adjusted children – even amid their own mistakes – will gradually help society acclimate to the existence of such families, and gradually expand their mental picture of what a family can look like. And yet, it is also true that any attempt to over-universalize depictions of a minority group will run the risk of stereotyping and maintaining a limited understanding of them, and reinforcing blind spots that the film either lacks the time or inclination to address. Which leaves the poor hapless critic, seeing yet another underrepresented group finally represented in film, shooting their privileged mouth off with the memory and context of a goldfish when it comes to evaluating the authenticity of such depictions, and forgetting their prior praise just as quickly whenever the next one comes out, whether it really manages to push some new boundary or not.
Professor Suzanna Danuta Walters discusses this film at some length in her 2014 book, The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality. After appropriately excoriating mainstream critics for their tendency to universalize the film’s characters, she offers this withering feedback:
“No, my problem is much more with the reliance on universality, which entails—almost always—a de-gaying of gayness, which gets to the heart of the tolerance trap. This tolerant de-gaying relies on stereotyped gender paradigms so that the women are depicted as—really—just like our neighbors down the street, where daddy goes out to work and mommy stays at home. Lesbian culture and lesbian friends are invisible, and the film erases the extended queer kinship networks that most of us do construct out of both need and desire. This last issue remains—for me at least—the most persistently troubling. If invisibility and sad stereotypes were the problems of the past, then a new glib tokenism and erasure of community seem to be the signs of the difficult present. Gayness is the motivation for these plots, but is emptied of any specific (gay) meaning. Instead, these stories offer up a liberal universalism that acts as a cultural pat on the back for tolerant heterosexuals and an accepting hug for assimilated gays.”
I don’t have a good answer for this, except that Walters isn’t wrong. As someone who has built a family over the last decade, I can speak to how I identify with Nic when she calls Paul a “fucking interloper”, and tells him to go out and make his own family. But I can’t speak to whether that desire to assert control and possession over one’s family, a societally coded trait of traditional masculinity, is A) something that the film regards as essential even in a household run by lesbian women, and B) is a position that the film is advocating for as a positive good, or is simply presenting as the capstone of Nic’s most persistent character flaws throughout the film: her desire to control every situation even when her family is warily eyeing each other like, “Mom, you’re doing it again.” To attempt to answer this question makes me feel, frankly, like a fucking interloper. But one thing I have learned in the past decade is that as film critics, we need to do better than just, “This story made me feel feelings, and also made me realize that people who lead different lives from me also feel feelings.” I can express at some length what marriage and family mean to me, and attempted to do so above. I can try to both reinforce and challenge those beliefs in the culture that I consume, and I did find some of that to latch onto while watching The Kids Are All Right. But if I really, truly want to know how a community feels about the quality of their limited representation in media, that’s not a question I should need to open my mouth too wide or too frequently to answer.
On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel debate the merits of Jon Stewart‘s election-year political satire Irresistible, which joins a micro-genre that comes as regularly and tediously as the elections themselves, and which provoked far more knowing nods than belly laughs. Then we spend substantially longer discussing Spike Lee‘s outstanding modern Vietnam War drama (featuring a career-best performance from Delroy Lindo), Da Five Bloods(01:40:29).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Irresistible): 6.5 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (Da Five Bloods): 8.5 out of 10
[02:10] Review: Irresistible
[18:17] Spoilers: Irresistible
[33:10] Review: Da Five Bloods
[01:01:07] Spoilers: Da Five Bloods
Music for this episode is what’s going on.
CORRECTION: We referred to the Viet Cong/”VC” and the North Vietnamese Army somewhat interchangeably in our review of Da Five Bloods – while there was a bit of overlap between the two, they were not the same group.
CORRECTION: In discussing the history lessons in the dialogue of Da Five Bloods, Glenn mistakenly referred to Milton L. Olive III, an 18-year-old soldier who died heroically in Vietnam (and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor) as “Melvin Olive”. We regret the error.
CLARIFICATION: During an aside about current events, we referred to a few recent acts of apparent voter suppression, both the long lines in Atlanta, and the polling place closures that were reported in Kentucky for their primary election this past week. While Atlanta is still being investigated, we would editorialize and say that “Governor” Brian Kemp, who “won” his seat by a narrow margin after purging hundreds of thousands of eligible voters from the rolls, is not entitled to a presumption of innocence here. However, as of this writing, it appears Kentucky is headed for a record high turnout for an election-year primary, and the early reports on the poll closures lacked additional context on all of the efforts that were made to expand early voting and vote-by-mail in its place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. PolitiFact has a good roundup on the issue, and local newsradio station WFPL has a more detailed explanation on what we know as of this writing about actual turnout and voter experiences on the day, which did include some lines as long as two hours. Bottom line, in our opinion, please feel free to assume that in a post-Shelby world, if it looks like voter suppression, it probably is, and you’ll be correct more often than not. Until federal law reasserts itself to protect our sacrosanct right to vote, the burden of proving good faith is now on our elected officials.