FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #129 – “The Death of Stalin” (dir. Armando Iannucci), “Maktub”, “Keep the Change” (#SJFF2018)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel are back for two outstanding selections from the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, and take a foray into In the Loop director Armando Iannucci‘s uniquely foul-mouthed and hilarious rendition of the demise of Stalin’s Russia. We are joined once again by special guest Erika Spoden (01:13:18).

May contain NSFW language.

The first round of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival closes today, but they will be back for one more weekend next month, April 14-15. For the complete schedule and tickets, head over to SJFF.

FilmWonk rating (Keep the Change): 8/10 (Glenn, Erika), 9/10 (Daniel)
FilmWonk rating (Maktub): 8 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (The Death of Stalin): 8/10 (Glenn), 9/10 (Daniel, Erika)

Show notes:

  • [01:45] Review: Keep the Change
  • [16:16] Spoilers: Keep the Change
  • [27:26] Review: Maktub
  • [42:37] Spoilers: Maktub
  • [51:53] Review: The Death of Stalin
  • These films didn’t have a lot to choose from, so music for this episode is the traditional Russian folk song, “Korobeiniki” and the Soviet National anthem.
  • It does appear that the earliest version of the “whoever saves a life saves the world” verse – which does indeed appear in the Quran (Surah 5:32) – comes from one of the early texts of Judaism (and apparently is a retelling of the Cain and Abel story in-context). Given that Judaism predated both Christianity and Islam, this makes chronological sense, but the origin and evolution of this phrase is expectedly complicated. Check out this article in Mosaic for more details.
  • We spoke vaguely of persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church under the USSR – none of us are particularly familiar with this period, but apparently
    Khrushchev (Stalin’s successor) stepped up this persecution as soon as he took office.

Listen above, or download: The Death of Stalin, Maktub, Keep the Change (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

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

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

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

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

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

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

Poster for "Phantom Thread"

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

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Show notes:

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

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