FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #172 – “Rebuilding Paradise” (dir. Ron Howard)

Poster for "Rebuilding Paradise"

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

Show notes:

  • 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)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #171 – “Palm Springs” (dir. Max Barbakow), “The Old Guard” (dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood)

Poster for "Palm Springs"

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).

Still from "The Old Guard"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Palm Springs): 9 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (The Old Guard): 4/10 (Daniel), 6/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [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.

Listen above, or download: Palm Springs, The Old Guard (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Banner poster for "Inception"

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.

Still from "Inception"

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.

Still from "Inception"

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.

Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "The Kids Are All Right"

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.

Still from "The Kids Are All Right"

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.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #170 – “Irresistible” (dir. Jon Stewart), “Da Five Bloods” (dir. Spike Lee)

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

Show notes:

  • [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.
  • Since we recorded, we did read a very interesting essay from Hoai-Tran Bui at /Film, which approaches the film from a Vietnamese perspective: how the Vietnamese are depicted, how it compares and contrasts with previous cinematic depictions, and where it could be improved in her estimation.
    Definitely worth a read:
    ‘Da 5 Bloods’ and the Strange Ghosts of Imperialism, the Vietnam War, and ‘Apocalypse Now’

Listen above, or download: Irresistible, Da Five Bloods (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #169 – “The Vast of Night” (dir. Andrew Patterson), “Holy Motors” (dir. Leos Carax)

Poster for "The Vast of Night"

On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel head back in time to the age of radio to check out the outstanding small-town sci-fi drama debut from director Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night (which premieres on Amazon Prime today), and then come almost all the way back to the present day with Leos Carax‘s delightfully wacky 2012 film Holy Motors (54:03).

Still from "Holy Motors"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (The Vast of Night): 8/10 (Daniel), 9/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Holy Motors): 6/10 (Daniel), 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [02:14] Review: The Vast of Night
  • [17:19] Spoilers: The Vast of Night
  • [33:42] Review: Holy Motors
  • Music for this episode can be heard on the AM radio.
  • We mentioned a pair of audio drama podcasts as points of tonal comparison for The Vast of Night:
    • The Message by Mac Rogers (made for the former GE Podcast Theater; shares a feed with another excellent audio drama, LifeAfter)
    • Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
  • Daniel chose Holy Motors from an excellent list from David Sims at The Atlantic, which we may be revisiting again.

Listen above, or download: The Vast of Night, Holy Motors (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #168 – “The Lovebirds” (dir. Michael Showalter), “The Platform” (dir. Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia)

Poster for "The Lovebirds"

[CW: This episode contains discussion of disturbing violent and sexual content.]

On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel see a parade of talents converge in the delightful new romantic action comedy The Lovebirds, and then descend into the depths of allegorical hell with The Platform. And like Orpheus and Eurydice, we kinda like each other after the experience, but only one of us will make it out again (01:00:51).

Still from "The Platform"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (The Lovebirds): 7.5 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (The Platform): 5/10 (Daniel), 8.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [02:01] Review: The Lovebirds
  • [11:53] Spoilers: The Lovebirds
  • [21:17] Review: The Platform
  • [37:04] Spoilers: The Platform
  • Music for this episode is a bit peckish.

Listen above, or download: The Lovebirds, The Platform (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #167 – “Bad Education” (dir. Cory Finley), “Gunpowder Heart” (dir. Camila Urrutia), “NT Live: Frankenstein” (dir. Danny Boyle)

Poster for "Bad Education"

[CW: This episode contains discussion of sexual violence.]

On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel (with special guest Erika Spoden) are a bit more playful than usual. That’s to say, we’re reviewing a play – specifically, the National Theatre of Great Britain’s 2011 performance of Frankenstein, adapted for the stage by Nick Dear, and directed by Danny Boyle, as recently made available on YouTube for free (you can donate to NT here!), and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature (as there were two cast versions available!). Then we venture down to Guatemala for a revenge thriller from the SXSW collection on Amazon Prime, Gunpowder Heart from director Camila Urrutia. And finally, we check out a new tale of small-town corruption from HBO Films, Bad Education (01:33:30).

Poster for "National Theatre At Home: Frankenstein"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (NT: Frankenstein): 8/10 (Glenn, Daniel), 9/10 (Erika)
FilmWonk rating (Gunpowder Heart): 6.5/10 (Daniel), 7/10 (Glenn, Erika)
FilmWonk rating (Bad Education): 8.5/10 (Glenn, Erika), 8/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • [00:00:30] Review: National Theatre Live presents: Frankenstein
  • [00:24:06] Review: Gunpowder Heart
  • [00:37:44] Spoilers: Gunpowder Heart
  • [00:54:19] Review: Bad Education
  • [01:11:58] Spoilers: Bad Education
  • Music for this episode was working in the lab, late one night.
  • Check out Lisa Liebman‘s article in Vulture about the real people behind then story of Bad Education.

Listen above, or download: NT Live: Frankenstein, Gunpowder Heart, Bad Education (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

2020 SXSW Film Festival – Short Film Collection

SIFF Film Center projection room

In 2020, SXSW was sadly and expectedly canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to a partnership with Amazon, much of the festival’s collection is available for a limited time on Prime Video, giving me a chance to indulge my longtime love of short film for the first time since 2016.

There are 29 in total, and I’ve included links and runtimes with each review. As with many of you, my life is currently chaos, but I do plan to review as many of these as possible (Update: As it turned out, this was all I had time for!), but I’ll offer my apologies in advance to those at the end of the alphabet.


Affurmative Action

Still from "Affurmative Action"

Directed by Travis Wood
Runtime: 4 min

This documentary makes two succinct points: The first is that Wood is a black director that you should definitely hire, because quickly achieving a tone that is equal parts comedic and dystopian is no small feat (and owes as much to both Wood’s slick editing as to Brendan Moriak‘s topsy-turvy score). The second is that digital creative companies in NYC and Los Angeles never run out of ways to describe the various dogs they have on their “Meet the Team” pages to sit between all of the mostly white people they hire. It’s bittersweet to watch this film during a pandemic-induced depression in which I can only assume Wood’s employment situation has gotten worse along with the rest of Hollywood, but his point about racial inequities in hiring is well-made nonetheless.

Watch it here.


A Period Piece

Still from "A Period Piece"

Written and directed by Shuchi Talati
Runtime: 12 min

It’s always good to see awkward first-time sex used for storytelling. I’m not talking loss of virginity here (that’s a whole separate genre that’s rife with both quality storytelling and heightened nonsense), but to see a couple have sex for the first time with each other, but not for their own first time. It’s been said that stories should begin on an interesting day in the life of your characters, and first-time sex is, if nothing else, reliably interesting. To see such an act in cinema is not only to peer as an interloper into an intensely private moment, but to see two people indulging in an act that is ostensibly universal, but with which they might have very different experiences and expectations.

In her pre-roll intro, director Shuchi Talati spoke of a desire for inclusivity and universality in her storytelling – to showcase a pair of South Asian characters in a story about love and sex where, as she put it, “there isn’t an arranged marriage subplot lurking in the background”. As an editorial aside, while I’m not too annoyed that Amazon and SXSW chose to include these director intros before each short, I think I’ll be skipping the rest of them, as I’ve never had a film experience where it improved my enjoyment, and I’ve had at least a few where it had the opposite effect. And in this case, I think it’s fair to say that the work speaks for itself when it comes to a desire to showcase a mix of Indian and American sexual mores. These are clearly Indians, and also clearly Americans, and also clearly having sex that would be frowned upon by the more conservative parts of both societies. Fair enough.

Here we see a pair of Indian-American twentysomethings having an illicit afternoon rendezvous while dealing with the minor complication that Geetha (Sonal Aggarwal) is on her period, and Vehd (Nardeep Khurmi) accidentally gets some period blood on her couch while pulling out. Whoopsie! He’s also married to someone else, which adds a layer of subtext to their condom negotiation. Whoopsie! Unless I missed it, there’s not really any metaphor to speak of here. The blood is just a practical matter to deal with, and gives us a chance to learn a bit more about these characters both through how they navigate an intensely intimate moment, and how – as a practical matter – they deal with both the impediment and potential mood-killer at the heart of their sexual encounter. The mood-killer being – not the period blood as a rule, but the chance for either of them to ruin the mood by not quickly getting on the same page about it.

Watch it here.


Basic

Still from "Basic" (SXSW short)

Written and directed by Chelsea Devantez
Runtime: 3 min

This short is simple, twisted, and speaks to a place of profound insecurity and rage. So naturally, most of it is spent lying in bed in the dark scrolling through happier times on Instagram. I wouldn’t have thought a line like “I’m a pool THOT” could crack me up so much, but Devantez, who also stars in the film, pulls it off. Tara Trudel‘s score, the final track of which includes a lot of 90s grunge-metal screaming, makes a lot of this work as well.

Watch it here.


Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business

Still from "Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business"

Written and directed by Christine Turner
Runtime: 9 min

Betye Saar says early in the film that she prefers to create art that doesn’t include a specific story, so that the viewer can invent their own. Then she proceeds to tell her own story, about how the art she produced, as well as the art produced by people who looked like her (both African-American and ancestral African art) was not regarded as art at all when she started her career. At Chicago’s Field Museum, it was kept in the basement, and as she put it, “It was weird down there.” On the surface, Saar’s own work is all over the place. It encompasses everything from collages of found objects to paintings and sculptures. Some of it is, as she puts it, just “stuff put together”. And there’s also an entire series that explores mysticism and the occult. She’s 93 years old – she’s had a bit of time to explore. And she speaks with a voice of experience that retains the vibrancy of a much younger woman. Not only is her work widely varied, but it still pops. An entire segment of the film is devoted to her series in the 1960s and 70s lampooning and remixing derogatory images of black people, which includes a vintage image of Aunt Jemima, taken directly from the older “mammy”-stereotype (often with exaggerated lips and features taken from minstrel shows with white performers in blackface), but…turned into a figure of battle with rifles and grenades, who is “taking care of business” (roll credits!). In an accompanying magazine caption from the 1970s, Saar even discusses turning an Aunt Jemima syrup bottle into a Molotov cocktail. Yikes.

“It’s been forever. Racism hasn’t gone away. Has sexism gone away? No. So you still have to keep repeating things,” Saar puts it simply. Compressing so many decades of artistic creation into a 9-minute short is no small feat, and Turner and editor Mengfan Yu do an admirable job of pulling it all into a coherent narrative of both the random craftiness of a figure who struggled to even view herself as anything but a junk collector until she received an NEA grant, and an experienced and admired artist whose voice and themes retain their relevance in a world that is often frustratingly static. Saar is a figure I’d simply love a chance to sit down and have a chat with, but I suspect she’d be too busy making stuff to bother with me.

Watch it here.


Blocks

Still from "Blocks" (SXSW)

Written and directed by Bridget Moloney
Runtime: 12 min

I love my kids. They provide me with daily joy. They are also a laborious plague, and as I write this, my wife and I are home with them 100% of the time, just like you, perhaps! If A Period Piece strove for universality, this one took an accidental shortcut, because there’s nothing more universal than the struggle of raising small children during a pandemic, even if that wasn’t our reality when the film was made. As such, there was a ceiling to my enjoyment of this well-made film, which features a busy mother of two (Claire Coffee) vomiting up blocks. This metaphor gets literally strained as she rinses them and puts them back in the Various Bins, and her daughter dutifully informs her that the new blocks smell funny.

There’s a good lesson for me here about how to be a supportive husband and father and divide up the household labor and mental load and be on the same team amid a patriarchal economic system that makes it far more likely that women will bear the brunt of all of the above (a lesson that is literally read aloud to a child in the opening lines of the film, which is as pedantic as the film ever gets). I really do try to think about and practice this stuff as a parent, because I have a wonderful wife and co-parent who would accept nothing less, and it’s still a constant struggle. And honestly, at this moment, Blocks is a bitter and familiar fucking pill to swallow. And that is not the movie’s fault, but my recommendation is that you should feel free to watch if and only if you’re kid-free and on reliable birth control.

Watch it here.


Broken Birds

Still from "Broken Bird" (SXSW)

Written and directed by Rachel Harrison Gordon
Runtime: 10 min

This short is not only a triumph of storytelling through production design (there are three credited set dressers, but no production designer, so I have to assume Gordon took the lead on that) – but it manages to convey a great deal of emotional subtext in a short space of time, and owes a lot of that to the fine details of its central trio of performances, particularly father and daughter. Birdie (Indigo Hubbard-Salk) is the black (mix-raced) daughter of an estranged or divorced couple – she lives with her mother Eileen (Mel House), who is white and Jewish, and has her studying the Torah as she approaches her bat mitzvah. We also see Birdie getting her full and naturally curly hair chemically relaxed and straightened, and it is left unspoken whether this was her idea or her mother’s – and honestly, watching the film, I could go either way on it. Then she goes to visit her father Andre (Chad L. Coleman). She wears a Star of David around her neck, and the way she handles it, it clearly means something special to her. Her dad is supportive, but clearly not religious himself. Then she tells him that she hates the Torah portion that her rabbi has picked for her to read, and doesn’t really want to go through with it. Then she invites him to attend anyway, and he agrees without hesitating. Then they go pick out a bootleg purse from a car trunk. These habits feel familiar and comfortable to both of them, just as Birdie looks comfortable in her room at home, listening to her dad’s old records and studying scripture.

This soon-to-be-teenager’s life and identity are messy, and questions of who she is and where she belongs are certain to be an ongoing project in her life. Every moment of this film is a simultaneous process of acceptance and dissection, with the fine details of one identity bleeding into another, and forging something new. It’s hard not to feel excited by it, because as painful as this process clearly is for Birdie, she has two parents who each love and support her in their own way, and she is clearly asserting herself as thoroughly as they are each shaping her identity. This film left me wanting more, and also feeling as if it has more to tell, and that’s all I ever want from a short film.

Nina Simone‘s live performance of an Israeli folk standard, “Eretz Zavat Chalav“, appears at the start of this film. I mention that in the hopes you’ll go check it out – it really is an outstanding performance, and it fits beautifully in this film.

Watch it here.


Broken Orchestra

Still from "Broken Orchestra"

Directed by Charlie Tyrell
Runtime: 12 min

A caption at the start informs us that over the course of a decade from 2007, the Philadelphia School District’s arts funding dropped from $1.3 million per year to $50,000 per year. As has been the case with many state and local budgets, arts funding was a budget line item that was deemed inessential and cut, never to be restored even as the economy recovered. I’m playing a broken record here by saying this, but I shudder to think of what the next ten years will look like for arts programs if we fail to learn the lessons of the last recession and our current quarantine, which is that the arts are absolutely critical to our continued existence.

But…you knew all of that, and that’s not really what this film is about. This film isn’t about what’s broken, but is rather a clever rendition of how it can be fixed. As a single camera wanders the hallways of a disused high school, the story of how Philly SD’s music program was resurrected, via a concert of broken instruments, is laid out by talking heads on a series of CRT television sets on AV carts appearing seemingly by magic, with some stop-motion floating instruments ticking into the center of the frame and vanishing in-between. The one-shot storytelling really is quite engaging, and while a couple of hidden cuts are evident, my overriding feeling watching this is that this film was as clever a logistical feat as the project that it showcases. We learn how 1,500 broken instruments were found in various storage locations, an entire orchestra of volunteer adult performers was brought in, and they put on a concert making whatever sounds they could manage. And it was a rip-roaring success, raising enough money in donations to get all of the instruments fixed and back in the hands of the young learners who needed them. It was an act of true grassroots community philanthropy, and the filmmaking that was used to tell this story is quite as admirable as the act itself.

We’ll need a lot more of this.

Watch it here.


Call Center Blues

Still from "Call Center Blues"

Directed by Geeta Gandbhir
Runtime: 25 min

A young man is interviewed in the middle of this film who says of Donald Trump, “All I can say is, may God bless him. And maybe someday he’ll regret what he has done.” This provoked a swell of deep pity from me.

This documentary is a real bummer, as it fucking should be. It focuses on a group of deportees in Tijuana, many of whom live in a squalid tent city, waiting to be scooped up for employment by either the cartels or the call centers who each only prize them for their English skills and economic desperation. One man, Roberto, was born in TJ and brought to the United States at age 6. He went to school, went to college, went to work for an airline, and eventually worked his way up to be an airport manager at LAX. One dalliance with recreational drugs later, he was deported. Later in the same year, his wife back in the United States left him. Another man with a similar story, who was only ever in Mexico as an infant, said it took him fully a decade to stop being depressed about losing his American life. He’s now been in TJ for 20 years. It’s home, but not really. And what’s unspoken among these veteran deportees is that not everyone makes it past that depression. Mauricio, a priest, addresses a congregation of deportees in his native language, English, as an interpreter echoes him in Spanish in real time. He cautions his flock against despair, against losing hope, against suicide. Even as he knows they’ve all been ripped away from their lives already. Because outside of material support (which the church also offers), what else can he provide besides a loving community and faith that he believes has the power to transcend borders, even if its recipients cannot?

Call Center Blues is a showcase of a group of people doing their best to survive a bad situation, and that bad situation is a result of being economically scapegoated and deported from the United States so that rich people can convince poor people that the real reason why they’re getting economically fucked is because of other poor people who were brought here against their will as children. Because the price of a minor run-in with the law is a life sentence of exile because of the accidental circumstances of their birth. These people are the abused detritus of a lie – a lie so powerful that it sweeps aside every other lie that has been told to them. The lie that if you work hard in school in the only country you’ve ever known, you’ll have a chance to succeed. The lie that if you serve your country in the military as it blunders across the world on another ill-advised resource conquest, you’ll be protected against deportation and have a path to American citizenship. And the most powerful lie of all: that deporting you will do anything whatsoever to help the people who voted for it to happen.

Because that’s the lie of Donald Trump and ICE. They were never protecting jobs and never preventing crime. And they were never going after the “Bad Hombres” – at least, no more than local law enforcement was turning over to them on a silver platter. Because it turns out deporting violent felons is pretty uncontroversial even among liberals, and also requires very little effort by the feds. And now, with the gloves off, they’re relentlessly and lazily deporting…the lowest hanging fruit. The one-time DUIs. The people in family court. The parents showing up to pick up their kids from school. The patients showing up at the hospital for an injury or illness. The workers reported by their employers after making a fuss about abuses in the workplace, whose ultimate fallback is to simply make the troublemaker disappear with a phone call, invoking the awesome and corrupt power of the state, and knowing they will face no penalty whatsoever for the legal violation of hiring that “troublemaker” in the first place.

That young man turning the other cheek at the start of the film is a wishful dreamer. And he’s also better than me. Because I know Donald Trump doesn’t do empathy or regret, and sleeps like a tiny-handed baby every night. And he’s already been blessed quite enough. Damn Donald Trump. Damn his enablers. And damn every other cynical plutocrat who thought that amplifying that inept, gilded shitcan was a useful path to lower corporate taxes and higher rent from the serfs. They all made this happen. Their propagandists and supporters made this happen. America’s raging decline and ouroboros of racist lies made this happen. And we dare not look away from its victims.

Watch it here.


Daddio

Still from "Daddio"

Directed by Casey Wilson
Written by Wilson and Laura Kindred
Runtime: 18 min

What a weird, honest, funny, and touching portrait of grief this is. One year on from the unexpected loss of their beloved wife and mother, Abby (Wilson) and her father Paul (Michael McKean) are…not doing well. Abby is in a deep depression and sleeping in the closet, and Paul seems to be an exceptionally manic version of himself. Chipper, upbeat, and getting a perm so he can look like President Andrew Jackson to commemorate (and spend) the $20 bill he found on the ground, he comes to Los Angeles to visit Abby, and a significant faux pas finally gives them the chance to have an honest conversation. This story is based on the loss of Wilson’s real mother Kathy, who died of a heart attack on vacation at 54, and the details of what ensues with her father…are apparently also based on true events. And what can I say about it? It just makes you want to give them both a great big hug. McKean is pitch-perfect in his role, and the personal and confessional nature of this tale is spelled out by Wilson’s own performance and soft directorial touch.

Watch it here.

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #166 – “Tigertail” (dir. Alan Yang), “Red Rover” (dir. Shane Belcourt)

Poster for "Tigertail"

On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel head north of the border and into the quixotic dream of a crowdfunded mission to Mars with Shane Belcourt‘s Red Rover (which is available for streaming Tuesday, May 12), and then check out Master of None co-creator Alan Yang‘s fictionalized take on his parents’ immigrant story from Taiwan, with Tigertail, newly available on Netflix (49:30).

Still from "Red Rover" (2018 film)

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Tigertail): 6/10 (Glenn), 4/10 (Daniel)
FilmWonk rating (Red Rover): 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:17] Review: Tigertail
  • [26:08] Review: Red Rover
  • [41:48] Spoilers: Red Rover
  • The language that is referred to in the Tigertail subtitles as Taiwanese [and it appears in brackets, while Mandarin Chinese appears without them] is also known as Taiwanese Hokkien, and while we picked up on a bit of the linguistic and political subtext in the film, the reality was obviously a bit more complex than could be conveyed in a film in which it was a minor detail.
  • Check out the article from Matter that we excerpted in brief:
    All Dressed Up For Mars and Nowhere to Go” by Elmo Keep

Listen above, or download: Tigertail, Red Rover (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)