FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #101 – “Supergirl” (dir. Jessie Auritt), “Harmonia” (dir. Ori Sivan) (#SJFF2017)

Poster for "Harmonia"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel preview a pair of selections from the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, which runs from March 25 – April 2. The first is a documentary about a strong girl that held much more of our interest than expected, and the second is an Israeli film which subtly, then aggressively, borrows from Darren Aronofsky and the Book of Genesis in equal measure (52:20).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Supergirl" documentary

Harmonia is playing as the Opening Night Film on Saturday, 3/25 @ 8:30PM at AMC Pacific Place 11. Actor Alon Aboutboul (Abraham) will be in attendance.

Supergirl is playing in the Teen Screen segment on Tuesday, 3/28 @ 6:30PM at the SIFF Cinema Uptown. Director Jessie Auritt and editor Erik Dugger will be attendance.

Tickets and passes are available at SeattleJewishFilmFestival.org.

FilmWonk rating (Supergirl): 7 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Harmonia): 6 out of 10

Show notes:

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

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #100 – “Moonlight” (dir. Barry Jenkins), “La La Land” (dir. Damien Chazelle)

Poster for "Moonlight"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel ruminate on 100 episodes, and check out the Academy Award Winner(s?) for Best Picture. There can be only one, and don’t worry – we review the correct one first (01:26:11).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "La La Land"

FilmWonk rating (Moonlight): 7/10 (Daniel), 8/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (La La Land): 7/10 (Daniel), 5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [05:33] Review: Moonlight
  • [23:34] Spoilers: Moonlight
  • [42:43] Review: La La Land
  • [01:16:35] Spoilers: La La Land
  • Music for this episode is the track “The Middle of the World“, from Nicholas Britell‘s marvelous original score for Moonlight, and “City of Stars” from the La La Land soundtrack, and… I think maybe something we liked a lot more? You’re welcome 🙂
  • If you were confused like Glenn was, read all about the Montreal Screwjob.
  • Minor correction: The neighborhood in Miami was Liberty City, not Liberty Square.
  • As we mentioned, Miami did indeed come close to dissolving as a city in 1997, but the resolution to do so did not pass a popular vote. If it had passed, the city government would have ceased to exist, and the city would’ve become an unincorporated part of Dade County (which changed its name to Miami-Dade County by popular vote in the same year).
  • If you’re feeling the urge to look back at Whiplash, be sure to give this Slate article a read afterward, as it does a pretty solid job of breaking down some the film’s twisted ideas about creative genius.
  • Check out the behind-the-scenes videos of La La Land‘s camerawork on David Chen‘s blog here. They’re videos (and some stills), not GIFs – I may have been thinking of this instead.
  • Поэтому, я иду в ГУЛАГа. That’ll teach Glenn to speak off-the-cuff Russian on the podcast. That was totally dative instead of accusative case. Простите, мои профессори.
  • For the record, Glenn does not own a poster for The Artist. He did rave about it when it came out, however, and it did win the Academy Award for Best Picture that year.

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

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

Poster for "Get Out"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel check out comedian Jordan Peele‘s horror and directorial debut, and then gush (39:31).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Redbone” by Childish Gambino (né Donald Glover), from the film’s soundtrack.
  • The “Stop and identify” statute that we cited for New York state was N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law, §140.50. In practice, the application of this statute is highly variable, including in New York City, where it was implemented for several years as the program known as “stop and frisk,” which tended to disproportionately target African-American or Latino residents of the city.

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

Zhang Yimou’s “The Great Wall” – A grand effort

Still from "The Great Wall"

There’s something to be said for effort. It’s usually an attribute for which one gives a semi-sarcastic “A”, meaning that they liked the subject’s work ethic or moxie despite whatever objectively crappy result they managed to churn out. That’s not what I mean here. But when I hear that Zhang Yimou, the director of Hero, is about to make an American-Chinese co-production in which Matt Damon fights monsters on top of the Great Wall of China (from a concept by the writer of World War Z and the head of Legendary Pictures), my expectations plummet to roughly Dracula Untold levels. I expected a perfunctory genre exercise in which a bankable action star was handed a simplistic studio premise that appeals to both East and West in an effort to return a strong box office both globally and in a burgeoning marketplace. What I was not expecting was to be wearing a big, stupid grin for quite so much of it, and to experience a persistent sense that everyone in the film was really trying their darnedest to create something worth watching. I don’t exaggerate when I say that this film delivers a battle sequence in the first twenty minutes that is easily as well-made as the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers‘ Battle of Helm’s Deep, and after watching a trio of sub-par Hobbit films, I’m comfortable saying that that doesn’t occur by accident.

The film starts its focus on William (Damon) and his buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal), on the run from some bandits in Mongolia, on a mercenary Marco Polo effort to reach China and steal some black powder. They’re in rags, have long scraggly beards, and are immediately baffled when their chase leads them to the base of an architectural marvel staffed by a professional army in incredibly elaborate costumes/armor and corresponding castes. There is infantry, with armor styled like black bears, archers, like red birds, and “Crane Corps”, a blue-uniformed, all-female, close-quarter combat troop that is even cooler than it sounds (pikemen on pulleys!). This is the Nameless Order, under the leadership of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), and strategist Wang (Andy Lau), sworn to defend China from the hell-mouth just north of the Wall, which spews forth monstrous creatures every 60 years to attack the wall and devour the north of China.

“Have you ever seen an army like this?” William sycophantically remarks to Tovar as they sit with their hands tied while the Chinese deftly fend off the several thousand monstrous creatures that choose that exact moment to attack. This critic’s answer is…not since Lord of the Rings, and it wasn’t nearly this colorful.

Jing Tian in "The Great Wall"

The inclusion of Andy Lau brought another film to mind as I was evaluating this setup: Iron Man 3. Lau – a major Hong Kong action star with a career spanning decades – was originally offered the part of a heart surgeon (eventually played by veteran Chinese actor Wang Xueqi) who has a minuscule bit part that solves a huge problem for the title superhero. That subplot was some trite nonsense, and essentially contributed nothing except for a brief Mary Sue persona whose sole purpose is to provide a sounding board for the American actors to talk about how cool China is for a couple of minutes, in an effort to bypass China’s foreign film importation restrictions through sheer toadying. This is a phenomenon I’ve remarked upon before – and while I’m not concerned in the least by China’s rise as a film market (the more the merrier), I’ve almost invariably found these “China cameos” to be a bit superfluous and condescending – and by some reports, critics in China felt the same way. Damon’s inclusion in this film almost feels like an inverse of Iron Man 3‘s debacle – the inclusion of a popular American actor playing a skilled mercenary who is present throughout the film, but largely along for the ride as the Chinese characters (and organization, and technology) actually drive the plot. But overall, the balance feels much cleaner here. Yes, having a European trader randomly show up on the occasion of China’s once-every-sixty-years monster invasion is a bit convenient, and his motivation for being there is quite flattering to China itself. But it helps that both Damon and Jing’s characters (who essentially become the co-leads of the film) are every bit a combat and charisma match for each other, even if their accents are both a bit odd and inconsistent. The end-result feels like a true international film – a bit like Pacific Rim, with the slight improvement of having the confidence to showcase its CGI monstrosities during daylight hours.

Still from "The Great Wall"

The plotline of this film, even for its simplicity, doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the film does make some visual and practical effort to suggest that the monsters are evolving greater intelligence, with the army and monsters alike forced to adjust their tactics as the film goes on. It’s a great deal of fun to watch, although why all of this escalation would occur along the most fortified and well-manned hundred-yard section of the 5,500-mile Wall is a mystery best left unpondered, as there’s no good answer for it, and it didn’t particularly bother me during the film. What did bug me were the film’s tepid ambitions beyond the Wall. The stakes of the film are world-ending – if the monsters are allowed to reach the Chinese capital (which has a population of two million, but looked virtually empty whenever we saw it), they will consume the entire population and reproduce in sufficient numbers to destroy the world. Did I buy these stakes? Largely yes, even if the final battle relies on the same “Take out the [central thing] and you’ll vanquish the entire army” nonsense as every sci-fi exhibition film from to Star Trek Beyond to The Avengers. At a certain point, I’ll probably have to stop regarding swarms of CGI whatevers as a credible threat if they’re as easy to destroy en masse as the Death Star, but it appears that I haven’t reached that point yet. The final action setpiece is outstanding, featuring Jing and Damon performing exhilarating fantasy acrobatics worthy of Cruise and Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, always feeling like they’re mere seconds from being devoured alive. Ramin Djawadi‘s score (which includes diegetic taiko drums used to direct the army’s tactics) is marvelous – and as a point of comparison, I just watched a Marvel Studios film yesterday, and was (once again) underwhelmed by its fade-into-the-background generic score. Marvel is good at many things, but scoring superhero antics with memorable themes is not one of them. Djawadi has done some truly breathtaking work on Game of Thrones and Westworld last year, and I’m quite pleased to see him pushing back against the tide of bland superhero music on the silver screen.

Astute readers may note that I haven’t remarked much on Matt Damon playing the white hero of a Chinese film from a standpoint of “whitewashing” or a lack of minority representation in film. That’s mainly because after seeing the film, I neither agree with that characterization, nor particularly have much to say on the subject. To me, The Great Wall only superficially resembles white savior films like The Last Samurai, and I honestly haven’t read many actual complaints on this subject outside of members of the American left who made up their minds about the film months before it came out. I don’t wish to be dismissive of an important and persistent issue, but politics is a target-rich environment at the moment, the US has just put a Captain Planet villain in charge of environmental protection, and for the moment, I’d rather focus my attention on issues where I can meaningfully contribute to the discourse. Including, for instance, goofy monster battles.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #98 – “Fifty Shades Darker” (dir. James Foley)

Poster for "Fifty Shades Darker"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel make what we’re pretty confident will be our last visit to the Twilight fanfic world of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, despite being clearly out of the critical mainstream in finding this to be a vast improvement on the first film (40:00).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” by the late, great Jeff Buckley, which appears in the film, but is oddly missing from the film’s soundtrack.
  • CORRECTION: In the intro to this podcast, we referred to E.L. James as a “great American novelist”. We regret the error.
  • CORRECTION: Daniel did not do the math. If Christian makes $24k every 15 minutes, he makes $840 million per year. Making roughly $1.1 million/year puts you in the top 0.1% income percentile in the United States. Christian is cartoonishly rich.
  • CORRECTION: Okay, Portland has a couple of 40+ story buildings. That was still totally Vancouver, B.C. though.

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

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #97 – “Split” (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

Poster for "Split"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel (plus special out-of-town guest Tex) see if M. Night Shyamalan still has the ability to twist a film into something likable. The answer – especially after we disliked The Visit so much – may surprise you (39:24)!

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Frogbass” by Snails, from the film’s soundtrack. Incidentally, this appears during a scene where we were promised that McAvoy would dance to Kanye, but I’m betting he was too expensive for a Blumhouse picture.
  • Speaking of, this film’s budget was $10 million, which is on the high end for Blumhouse Productions, matching the likes of Insidious: Chapter 3, Sinister 2, and The Purge: Election Year.
  • Michael Gioulakis was also responsible for the outstanding widescreen cinematography on Glenn’s #1 film of 2015, It Follows.
  • Check out the great work done by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and if you’re able, think about donating!

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

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #96 – “Silence” (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Poster for "Silence"

In this week’s podcast, two old friends make their second appearance ever on the podcast. A shout-out to 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, and our resident Japan expert (and Glenn‘s former fiancée and now-wife), Megan! And don’t worry, Daniel‘s here too, being quite unkind to Adam Driver. Take a stroll through Tokugawa-era Japan as we discuss cultural clash and religious persecution in director Martin Scorsese‘s most Catholic film ever (58:17).

Despite delving into some serious religious themes, this episode actually contains even more NSFW language than usual.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [17:58] Spoilers: Silence
  • Music for this episode is the track “Supply Chain” by ConfidentialMX, as isolated by Trailer Music Life on YouTube (as there doesn’t seem to be an official track available).
  • Bill Wurtz‘ “History of Japan” is one of the most entertaining and educational history lessons on the internet. Silence takes place at roughly the 4-minute mark of the video, but you should really just watch the whole thing. Seriously, go watch it right now. I might watch it again myself after typing this. It’s that good.
  • Correction: This isn’t super-germane to the film (as it’s over 100 years earlier on the other end of Eurasia), but Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses were published in 1517, not 1597.
  • Note: We briefly discuss the story of Cassie Bernall, one of the victims of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, as an oft-cited example of a modern-day Christian martyr. Reading further, I was reminded of something I first learned when reading Dave Cullen‘s exhaustive book on the shooting, which is that this story is – to put it mildly – most likely just a story, even if it has still served the religious and rhetorical purpose that we have put it to today. On a related note, the film that Daniel mentions at the end of the episode is actually a loose Christian dramatization of another Columbine victim, Rachel Joy Scott, and it looks more than a little bit fictionalized and exploitative.

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