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)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #165 – “Birds of Prey” (dir. Cathy Yan), “Same Boat” (dir. Chris Roberti), “The Way Back” (dir. Gavin O’Connor)

Poster for "Birds of Prey"

On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel venture back in time with director Chris Roberti to a time when we could all gather aboard a cruise ship and secretly shoot a romantic comedy about time-traveling assassins, with Same Boat, which hits VOD on Tuesday 4/7. We also catch up with Birds of Prey, an impressive return to the brightest and most colorful parts of the DCEU after a whole lot of grimdark, and actor Ben Affleck‘s spotty attempt to do the same, with The Way Back (01:06:21).

Still from "The Way Back"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Birds of Prey): 7/10 (Glenn), 5/10 (Daniel)
FilmWonk rating (Same Boat): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 7/10 (Daniel)
FilmWonk rating (The Way Back): 4 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [02:38] Review: Birds of Prey
  • [22:46] Review: Same Boat
  • [34:13] Spoilers: Same Boat
  • [47:04] Review: The Way Back
  • There is a super-quick spoiler section at the end of the episode for The Way Back. You’ll know it when it comes.
  • Music for this episode is a song that I’ve always maintained is about time-traveling assassins, plus a Barracuda.
  • We mentioned Mick LaSalle‘s scathing review of Birds of Prey from the San Francisco Chronicle – to varying degrees, we did not agree!
  • Stay tuned at the end for an audio artifact that occurred during a break in recording that sounded suspiciously like Daniel threatening to cut off Glenn’s face.

Listen above, or download: Birds of Prey, Same Boat, The Way Back (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #164 – "Blow the Man Down" (dir. Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy), "Lady Macbeth" (dir. William Oldroyd)

Poster for "Blow the Man Down"

On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel venture back in time to before The Incident when were all still able to go outside, to see Florence Pugh‘s starmaking debut in the uneven Lady Macbeth. Then they check out what will probably be the first of many streaming selections, a seaside crime caper new this weekend on Amazon Prime, Blow the Man Down (57:36).

Still from "Lady Macbeth" (2016 film)

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Blow the Man Down): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 5/10 (Daniel)
FilmWonk rating (Lady Macbeth): 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [02:46] Review: Lady Macbeth
  • [13:32] Spoilers: Lady Macbeth
  • [38:53] Review: Blow the Man Down
  • [53:28] Spoilers: Blow the Man Down
  • Music for this episode is a pair of shanties.

Listen above, or download: Blow the Man Down, Lady Macbeth (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

20YA: "Final Destination" (dir. James Wong) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Final Destination" (2000 film)

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 (or in this case, 20th) anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

Still from "Final Destination"

“I have thought a lot about that ‘somewhere,’ Alex. It exists, that place… where my dad is still safe. Where he had a full pack of cigarettes that night, and just kept driving. Where me and my mom and my dad are still together…and have no idea about this life here. Where our friends are still in the sky. Where everyone gets a second chance. Alex, we can’t give up.

Clear Rivers (Ali Larter)

Horror fandom might be a young man’s game. As a seasoned cinemagoer, you certainly get wise to the tricks of the trade – the jump scares, the cheap thrills, the bone-crunching, fingernail-splitting gore, the (now-standard) shots of someone backing into a crosswalk without looking, etc. – but that’s not what I’m talking about, as it’s hardly the sum of horror anyway. I’m not going to disparage my younger self by suggesting that I care more about the horror of my friends and loved ones dying than I did when I was younger, but the idea of that actually occurring feels less like a vague future abstraction than ever before, and that was true even before we entered a global virus pandemic. At its best, the horror genre inspires relatable fear of things that people are reliably afraid of, but it also inspires existential dread, which is easier to come by when you have a better-developed sense of the world and your place in it. Equipped with a slightly more potent feeling of one’s own mortality and hubris, as your frontal lobes and sense of danger have had a chance to develop, the world gets a bit stranger, and you start to realize that death really is a sad and terrible and verbally taboo part of life that steals away people and experiences and memories that have had far longer to ruminate and develop in value. The potency of real-world dread intensifies, and you either decide that indulging in fake dread is no longer acceptable sport, or your threshold for experiencing it just keeps ticking higher and higher.

Fun fact: Like Alex Browning (Devon Sawa), I took a two-week class trip to France (and Spain) during my senior year of high school. Our flight number? 180, just like the plane that explodes at the start of this film. And you better believe I took great pleasure in telling everyone in the group about that, since dropping movie references and scaring people for no reason is also a young man’s game. But after Alex has a premonition of the group’s imminent demise, he promptly pitches a fit and gets himself and several others thrown off the plane. The plane leaves, and explodes – leading to an awesome (if slightly preposterous) shot and edit in which it explodes, still in view of the airport, then shatters the terminal window a split second later right as a watching character finishes saying “Oh shit!”. This is the first of many Rube Goldberg-esque death mechanics that this film creates, and it’s fair to say that they’re a recipe for chuckles, not existential dread. And in Final Destination, even the most grisly tableaus managed to deliver, as George Carlin might say, a couple of fuckin’ laughs.

Still from "Final Destination"

Suffice to say, the railroad-induced decapitation of Billy Hitchcock (Seann William Scott) met these criteria, and the other characters – who genuinely do not seem to care that Billy has been horrifically killed before their eyes – are too busy figuring out the in-universe rules of Death’s sadistic design to deal with the human tragedy they’ve just witnessed. Should we care? Any residual annoyance at Steve Stifler notwithstanding, I suppose Billy has a few character traits – he likes Whoppers enough to nearly miss an international flight to go buy a carton. He’s weirdly cosplaying as future Kevin Smith with the hockey jersey and jorts, and half his dialogue consists of calling letterman jock Carter Horton (Kerr Smith) a dick after the latter physically assaults him in some way. But no, if I’m being honest, I didn’t care when he died. Nor did I particularly care when Terry Chaney (Amanda Detmer) – whose prior dialogue consisted solely of telling her boyfriend Carter to be less of a dick – backed into traffic and got pancaked by a speeding bus. That was slapstick. Splatterstick? The spatter stuck. This film’s clear objective – as spelled out by the inimitably vamping Tony Todd as the creepy mortician Bludworth – was to get me to laugh at Death, and since I first saw it in my mid-teens when my fear of death wasn’t offering any real competition, it largely succeeded.

Still from "Final Destination"

But the film dabbles in taking death seriously as well. Following his brother’s death on the plane, survivor Tod (Chad E. Donella), Alex’s best friend, appears at a group memorial. He stands before the assembled mourners and reads a passage from Marcel Proust: “We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast, but when we say this we imagine that hour as placed in an obscure and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any connection with the day already begun or that death could arrive this same afternoon, this afternoon which is so certain and which has every hour filled in advance.” Given that he dies in a preordained (and blue toilet-water-induced) freak accident that very same evening, the quote has additional resonance, but the film goes beyond just quoting notable prose, and actually takes the trouble to give goth outsider Clear Rivers (Ali Larter) a gritty backstory with mortality. She isn’t just one of Death’s would-be victims – she literally has a vendetta against the infernal entity for randomly killing her father, and – after explaining how this backstory fuels her determination, throws in a “Fuck Death!” for good measure. How silly and awesome is that? I could laugh at Clear. Hell, it’s been 20 years – perhaps I did laugh at her. But who among us hasn’t liked some social media post book-ended with “Fuck cancer”? As much as this film indulges in pathos as punctuation between all of the gory spectacle, it at least seems to care more about its characters’ inner lives than a charnel house like the Saw franchise, and the script and performances deserve some credit for that. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. That rage is ever-present, even if it’s of variable quality (Kerr Smith is the weakest link), but Larter and Sawa are uniformly solid, and Sawa even gets a gritty FBI interrogation monologue. Although, since he apparently makes it to and from his local FBI station within the length of a single John Denver song, it’s probably best not to think too hard about the geography, or what Agents Weine (Daniel Roebuck) and Schrek (Roger Guenveur Smith) have going on in their lives that they can appear at multiple death-houses with a few minutes’ notice several nights in a row. Logistics aside, this all mostly works. And it ably sets up the formula that the rest of the franchise would follow: tie a string of Death’s would-be victims together with an fx-fueled spectacle, then spare and ultimately pick them off one by one. While the franchise never quite reached the heights of the first film in terms of giving me characters whose unlikely survival I was rooting for, it at least built its series of escalating thrill rides on a solid foundation – and one that I’ve troubled to rewatch several more times over the last 20 years.

So is horror fandom a young man’s game? I can picture my co-host Daniel’s response. You’re 35, Glenn, shut up. And it’s true that since launching my website, I’ve picked my top film of the year from the horror genre more than once, but it was always something special within that genre. David Robert Mitchell‘s It Follows – in addition to being a delightfully weird ultra-widescreen retrofuturistic design experience – presented an intractable monster that you were utterly alone in facing, the product of your own regrettable choices, and one that for the rest of your life, you will never, ever truly know that you’re safe from. David Lowery‘s A Ghost Story pretends to be a rumination on death and grief, but reveals itself to be a work of existential horror that made me feel the fullness and passage of time so acutely that I experienced what I can only describe as a panic attack while I watched it. Final Destination does not rise to this level. But it is a better-than-average franchise horror starter with a clever concept-villain that can never be defeated or grow stale. It can receive a direct sequel with a new cast at literally any time. Hell, Sawa’s disinterest in returning for FD2 was settled with an off-screen brick. All it needs is someone like Bludworth to explain the rules – or rather, remind characters and viewers alike that they already know the rules – the rules that have dogged them since the day they were born. And until…well, you know the rest.

Stay safe out there.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10