FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #150 – SIFF Roundup: “Alice”, “Pigeon Kings”, “Fight Fam”, “As the Earth Turns”

Poster for "Alice" (2019 film)

***CW: This episode contains discussion of sexual violence.***

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel head to the 45th Seattle International Film Festival to check out a documentary about pigeon rolling, a family biopic of MMA fighters, a sci-fi drama that was literally 80 years in the making, yet still felt ahead of its time, and a smart and insightful Franco-Australian drama about Alice, a woman who decides to become a sex worker after her husband squanders all of their money…on sex workers (01:17:17)

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Pigeon Kings"

FilmWonk rating (Pigeon Kings): 7 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Fight Fam): 3 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (As the Earth Turns): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 5/10 (Daniel)
FilmWonk rating (Alice): 8.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • As of this writing, every screening of every one of these films is still to come at the 45th Seattle International Film Festival. For tickets, showtimes, and locations, click the title of each film below.
  • [00:01:30] Review: Pigeon Kings (dir. Milena Pastreich)
  • [00:18:36] Review: Fight Fam (dir. Ruben Rodriguez Perez)
  • [00:29:35] Review: As the Earth Turns (dir. Richard Lyford)
  • [00:45:30] Review: Alice (dir. Josephine Mackerras)
  • [01:08:07] Spoilers: Alice
  • CORRECTION: We were correct that being a sex worker is not a criminal offense in France, but it is subject to multiple restrictions.

Listen above, or download: Pigeon Kings, Fight Fam, As the Earth Turns, Alice (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

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Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "The Brothers Bloom"

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.

“As far as con man stories go, I think I’ve heard them all.
Of grifters, ropers, faro fixers, tales drawn long and tall.
But if one bears a bookmark in the confidence man’s tome,
twould be that of Penelope, and of the Brothers Bloom.”

-Narrator (Ricky Jay)

I won’t call Rian Johnson too clever (apparently he hated it in ’09), but writing the first six minutes of your film as a Little Rascals confidence game as rendered by Wes Anderson, in rhyming iambic heptameter, is definitely a conscious choice to show off your sense of style. But I expected nothing less from the director of Brick, which takes place at a modern American high school, but is a hard-boiled film noir detective story, complete with all the 1940s period dialogue, see? I don’t mind saying, Johnson is clever – and I’ve been rather pleased to see him try his hand at another genre in the intervening years – but his first two films certainly forced the audience to make an early choice about their willingness to suspend disbelief with respect to his out-of-this-world characters, who tell as much as they show, using words that nobody on this planet still uses, plucked from multiple decades of 20th-century fiction and slotted into the present day.

And the Brothers Bloom – Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrian Brody) – are confidence men posing as antique dealers who travel by fucking steamship to The Continent (even after the movie amusingly reveals that airplanes exist in this world). The two are definitely from a bygone era, and they wear a multitude of hats – and I mean that in every sense of the phrase. We see Stephen craft his first con when the pair are orphan brothers of 10 and 13, flitting from one foster family to another before inexorably getting kicked out for bad behavior. This is a pattern that would repeat for the rest of their lives, including with their criminal mentor, the villainous Russian mobster known only as Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell, in his final role), sporting an eyepatch from their last violent farewell. But – back to that first con. Even as a newly minted teenager, young Stephen (Max Records) is a firm believer that all the world’s a stage, and his brother Bloom (Zachary Gordon) is his star. He storyboards his first con – an elaborate scheme to get all of the town’s middle-class kids to muddy up their Sunday-best in order to collect kickbacks from the town dry cleaner – as cover to allow Bloom to talk to a girl he likes. Really, that’s it. He presents the con as an act of kindness, and would go on to say repeatedly that the perfect con is where, “each one involved gets just the thing they wanted”. This even includes the mark, who gets a thrill or an adventure or a whirlwind romance (or the chance to think they’ve murdered someone in a rage, then flee?) in exchange for a sum of stolen cash that, frankly, they can usually afford to lose.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

Stephen is the closest thing to a Mary Sue that I’ve ever seen in fiction. This is not a term I use lightly in 2019, and it has a fairly muddled meaning (my only prior use of it fell somewhere between tokenism and stunt-casting). The term has deservedly fallen out of favor in the past decade, mostly used in bad faith by misogynists who can’t fathom the likes of Rey or Arya Stark kicking well-earned ass with skills that whose provenance was thoroughly demonstrated on-screen. As I retire my use of the term here, let me be clear what I mean by it: Stephen is an authorial, self-insert, wish-fulfillment character. The idea that Stephen’s authorship of Bloom’s existence is so thorough as to prevent his brother from experiencing an authentic moment in his life is not only a diabolical fiction; it beggars belief. And it works, because these actors fully commit to this reality with a heaping spoonful of self-awareness. What Ruffalo is delivering…is Rian Johnson with godlike powers. This is not even the only self-insert screenwriter character I’ve seen (Charlie Kaufman and Martin McDonagh are both prior culprits), but at a certain point, you’ve just gotta call Dante what he is as he winks at the reader and descends into the Inferno.

Stephen is the in-universe author of this film, deciding on the fly how best to serve his characters, which include family like Bloom, marks, like the rich, quirky, shut-in, dilettante, epileptic photographer Penelope (Rachel Weisz), and friends like the mute explosives expert Bang-Bang (Rinko Kikuchi). These are caper characters. Bang-Bang, who is literally mute and appeared out of nowhere, is essentially a plot device, even if Kikuchi delivers yet another amusing (silent) performance. But these caperists know exactly what they are, even if Bloom is suddenly the only one bothered by it. Because Stephen writes Bloom’s life, his brother plays the role of the shill, or the honeypot, in the structure of a confidence game. He ropes in the marks, which almost invariably include a beautiful woman – and we have to accept Brody’s well-acted assurance that today, he’s 35 years old, he’s been living a false life for twenty-plus years, and he’s decided he can’t wake up next to another stranger that thinks they know him. So he’s out. Both a decade ago and now, I was on board for this. It’s exciting, isn’t it? Because it’s supposed to be. Johnson-as-Stephen wrote Bloom as the vulnerable antihero so that we’d internalize his laudable reluctance to perform one last job (which Stephen waits three whole months before inviting him back for), and while I’m not totally convinced that it was necessary to have a character explicitly point this out on-screen, it does require Brody to be the acting MVP of this film. Even if he has ample competition.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

Weisz had to sell Penelope’s bored, rich hobbyist ways by learning a multitude of skills, including playing a bunch of musical instruments, karate-chopping, backflipping, DJing, ping-ponging, juggling (I think the chainsaws were CGI), and riding a giraffe unicycle. But while that’s impressive, it’s not exactly acting. It’s an exhibition of parlor tricks, however impressive they may be after only a few weeks for the actor to train. But acting, Weisz’s primary hustle, is what happens on a train to Prague. Penelope has joined the brothers for a con to smuggle a stolen 8th century prayer book allegedly worth millions. As with all of her hobbies, Penelope is excited to try this one, and she’s leaning hard into the sleeper-car fantasy of it all. That’s to say, she schmoozes with Bloom, nurses her 9th mini-bottle of an unspecified liquor, before drunkenly (and graphically) describing him as “constipated…in [his] fucking soul”. She also admits that she knows she’s only pretending to be a smuggler. Then she ruminates on acting a bit and climbs to the end of the bed, telling Bloom that his problem is that he’s got to stop thinking so much and live his truth. Then a thunderstorm erupts outside, and she proceeds to fuck the train, after a fashion, before announcing (completely unnecessarily) that she’s horny. This really must be seen to be believed, because in a movie full of deliberately overwritten scenes, this is a movie character getting shitfaced and telling her castmate that she knows all of this may be fiction, but they’re on a train for a leisurely crime, and the best thing he can do is enjoy the ride. And then she writhes orgasmically to cement the point. For a moment, she’s a creature of pure id who’s shamelessly breaking the fourth wall, and rather than feeling manic or pixie or like any sort of a dream girl about it, the moment feels completely genuine. Ugly and sloppy and ridiculous, but real. And it scares the shit out of Bloom, who immediately bids her goodnight and flees the car. Penelope was right about him. Soul full of grumpy poop, that one.

I suppose this is where I’m meant to ruminate on how The Brothers Bloom has changed for me over the past decade, but if I’m being honest, despite paying thirty bucks for a Canadian import Blu-ray so I could see the film a bit earlier (since it never came to Seattle for a theatrical release), this is only the second time I can recall watching it. But it delighted me today, as it did a decade ago. Its production design is stellar, with both costuming and locales (for which the movie really flitted around Eastern Europe) giving the movie a real jet-setting (train-setting?) international flair without looking like it cost all that much to make. Nathan Johnson‘s score, with his group The Cinematic Underground, is a sheer delight – at times sweet and sentimental, at times an epic, jazzy romp on an outdoor bar stage, and features creativity and breadth of style and instruments that are rarely seen. This was only Johnson’s second film score (his first being Brick), and I’m pleased to see he’s continued making music in the intervening years, even if that includes only a handful of film scores.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

But as I sat on my couch sipping merlot and playing out the part of the film wonk revisiting a movie for the hell of it, I know in my heart this movie is as much of a narrative mess as lesser fare that I’ve dismissed over the years, like Matchstick Men or Bandits or…yes, I’ll admit it, The Sting. It’s perhaps a lesser grift than the 2003 James Foley film, Confidence, the best of the genre that I can recall, but that film seemed far more concerned with its grifting technique than in crafting characters I should care too much about. It also featured Weisz in a dubious and lightly misogynistic role that was frankly beneath her, so it’s hard not to see Bloom as an improvement for her participation in the genre. As a 30-something revisiting the film now, I find I can relate much more to Bloom’s struggle to find his identity and be comfortable in his own skin. By this point in life, you’re meant be able to live with who you are and your place in the world – and if you can’t, that’s a serious problem for both your life and mental health. Seeing this a decade ago, I just kinda rolled with the film’s premise. Seeing it now, I empathized a great deal with Bloom’s struggle, even if I was making an even more conscious choice than before to suspend my disbelief about his lifestyle. Penelope presents another lens through which to view this struggle, because she’s a creature of privilege who can afford to flit from one identity to another at will, never feeling a sunk cost of money or time (the latter being the most precious and limited resource). The film seems content to mock her a bit for this, twice featuring a spiral notebook in which she’s scribbling “Penelope the Smuggler” and “Penelope the Con Artist” like a 12-year-old. But is Penelope really the immature one? What this character says over and over again is that she writes her own story – that she tells it to herself over and over again until it becomes true. But she prefaces this by saying that the trick to not feeling cheated is to learn how to cheat. I found this provocative because I now believe it’s easy to feel cheated as you learn more and more how the world works, even as there’s almost certainly someone else would look at your life and wonder what you have to complain about. And perhaps that’s why we root for con artists and antiheroes. Anyone who breaks the rules to peel off a fragment of wealth from the handful of robber barons who hoard most of it…is worth rooting for. Even if they tend to end up dead or in prison in real life. But I knew all of this already – or at least “knew it” in the sense of banal cynicism. The emotional core of this film is still fundamentally about becoming comfortable with your identity and your place in the world, and however my worldview may have changed in the intervening years, there’s a lot I can connect with here.

I also recognize that it’s difficult to get the tone just right in the con game. The saving grace of The Brothers Bloom is its commitment to maintaining about a 3:1 ratio of romantic whimsy to self-seriousness at all times – even to the point of letting Penelope walk out of a Czech police station with the stolen prayer book in hand, with the script literally scoffing on-screen at the idea of ever explaining how she did it. My guess is that a substantial bribe was involved. The film’s caprice runs a very real risk of making me dismiss it as a silly trifle, but that’s not how I felt while watching it, and more or less how I feel watching James Bond, so really, who cares? I’m happy to let the movie be what it is, which is a flight of fancy from a bygone era, filled with fourth-wall breaking characters who literally know better than to be doing all of this. And capers do happen in real life. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and a billionaire Coke heir were just busted with a plane full of Business Weed in St. Kitts this past week! Capers are just…marginally more likely if you don’t have work in the morning. Or if you can commit to your new life of crime by blowing up your existing one.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #149 – “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu” (dir. Rob Letterman)

On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel catch them all (29:12).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks, “Carry On” by Kygo and Rita Ora and “Happy Together” by The Turtles, from the film’s soundtrack and teaser trailer respectively.
  • Stay tuned afterward.

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

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #148 – “Avengers: Endgame” (dir. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel face the epic conclusion of the current run of Avengers – and finally agree on a Marvel film (01:14:07).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [00:32] Review: Avengers: Endgame
  • [13:52] Spoilers: Avengers: Endgame
  • Music for this episode is…about heroes.
  • CORRECTION: We incorrectly identified Thor’s mother (Rene Russo)’s character name as Freyja – this is incorrect. She is actually Frigga (originally Frigg). Although Wikipedia tells us there is some scholarly debate about whether they stem from the same Germanic goddess, there’s really no excuse for us getting this wrong, since Glenn has seen every episode of The Almighty Johnsons more than once.

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

Anthony Maras’ “Hotel Mumbai” – Too much, too soon

I’ve already seen Hotel Mumbai. It was the first 45 minutes of a Paul Greengrass film from last year, called 22 July, about the eponymous attacks that killed 77 people, most of them children. The similarities between the films are legion. The first act is a dutiful recreation of events, distilling a complex series of attacks in multiple locations into a violent thriller narrative that is simplistic, but more or less true to life. First-time feature director Anthony Maras is capable at constructing these scenes, even if the script suffers from a few dubious choices of which characters to focus on. And while I praised 22 July effusively for its deft depiction of horrific real-world events, it was precisely that deftness – which, unlike 22 July, never shifts its focus from the killers’ exploits for long enough to justify itself – that disturbed me this time around. Instead, by the time the film moves on to a more tight-knit group survival story within a hotel under a multi-day terrorist siege and slaughter, I was already quite sure I’d seen the totality of what Hotel Mumbai had to offer. And then it just kept going.

About 30 minutes into this film, in a luxury suite at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), a nanny, paces with a mildly feverish baby, waiting for a house call from a local doctor. The baby’s parents, Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), a Persian celebrity of some renown, and her husband David (Armie Hammer), an American architect, are downstairs in the hotel restaurant, huddled under their table in the dark, with their server Arjun (Dev Patel) having thought quickly and darkened the room as a pair of terrorist gunman, members of the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, arrived and began slaughtering guests in the lobby outside. The two parents, who have no other defining characteristics, have just frantically called Sally and begged her not to open the hotel room door for anyone, but someone is already knocking, the connection is too faint, and she opens it. In screams an elderly woman, covered in blood, having narrowly escaped a systematic, room-by-room slaughter down the hall. She runs into the bathroom and sits on the closed toilet. Sally takes the baby and hides in the linen closet. Two of the terrorists walk into the room, taking an uncanny interest in this particular victim, following the doomed woman into the bathroom and shooting her dead off-screen. Sally, meanwhile, clamps her hand over the baby’s face to physically restrain him from making noise. An attacker flushes the toilet, and marvels aloud to his comrade that “they have a machine to flush their shit”. The baby gurgles as the men’s radio crackles with a faceless voice of their master, The Bull (voice of Pawan Singh), who acts as the devil on their shoulder throughout the film, giving them helpful tips about how to kill more people, avoid crossfire, effectively use grenades, etc. As they clear off to go find more life to exterminate, Sally is finally free to let the baby cry. And oh, it does.

At this point, I’ll be honest, I very nearly stopped watching the film. I’m just sick of it all. A few of the characters in this film, Head Chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), are based on real people or composites of multiple real people (such as Patel’s waiter character, Arjun), and are included largely so that their feats of courage and peril can be dutifully told. Which is fair, and perhaps even laudable. But without exception, the attackers also use their real names, which I won’t repeat here. Neither will I speak the name of the man who opened fire in a Christchurch mosque two weeks ago, livestreaming his horrific crime for the entire world to see on Facebook. Or the infamous child-slaughterer of Norway, whom I referenced above. They did their deeds, and left behind long, wretched, internally inconsistent diatribes about why they did what they did, which aren’t worth reading, dissecting, or glorifying. And now, in 2019, eleven years after the events depicted in Hotel Mumbai, Lashkar-e-Taiba (and the Pakistani government by extension) has been blamed for an attack on Indian troops in the disputed region of Kashmir, an event that occurred after this film was produced, but which nonetheless makes it feel rather timely as a piece of bellicose propaganda, as military tension is escalating once again between a pair of nuclear powers that collectively hold a billion and a half human souls.

And as I watched bullets rip through bodies, fired by dehumanized, backwater monsters whose motivations are neither explored nor remarked upon, I knew I would finish the film for professional reasons, but I also knew that I’ve seen enough of this – or at least enough to recognize it for the demagoguery that it is. And I get the appeal, I really do. I watched every season of 24, even the pointless Legacy. I even watched Uwe Boll‘s Rampage. There’s a certain visceral appeal to getting whipped into a frenzy about the hateful monsters in the world, the better to respond (or vote for responding) with just as much brutality to people who kinda sorta look like them. On our recent podcast review of Triple Frontier, I found myself relieved to be watching a military action film that was largely apolitical. But in praising this characteristic, I was implicitly acknowledging that perhaps I’ve lost the appetite I had as a younger man for wholesale depictions of violence that seem to have no point and purpose but to whip me into a frenzy. Because if there’s one thing that has been true for the whole of the twenty-first century whether I’ve been mature enough to acknowledge it or not, it’s that violence is always political.

As a thriller, I found myself more engaged by the second half, but I still got the feeling that the scenes were just ticking boxes. This may or may not be a fair assessment, as the film is apparently based on a documentary and reportedly stays true to real events, but it’s no less true that in an attack like this, there will be dozens of true stories available for focus, and these are artistic choices worthy of judgment even if they’re based on the real fates of real people. Hammer and Boniadi’s characters (based on multiple people staying at the hotel) are a baffling choice of focus, acting as useless ciphers for the audience, perhaps to remind them that even if you’ve got the chiseled good looks of a Hollywood leading man, you’ll be just as outgunned and terrified as anyone else when an ad hoc militia shows up. The most baffling inclusion had to be Jason Isaacs as an eccentric Russian businessman who spends a significant portion of his first scene loudly discussing which women from a literal menu of prostitutes he’d like delivered to his room that night, and then acting as a confidante and drinking buddy for Zahra. If nothing else, this trio serves as a reminder that the staff of the Taj put themselves in harm’s way to protect their guests, sequestering them in an exclusive, windowless club in the hotel’s interior. And yet these cooks and waiters largely remain nameless and faceless even as many of them are killed in action (with some surviving staff referred as “veterans” on-screen before the film’s credits). The same goes for a squad of the Mumbai PD, who are utterly outgunned by the terrorists as they wait for their government’s special forces to arrive from hours away in Dehli, and decide to courageously enter the building to try to find the security room, so that they can provide information to their comrades outside about the number and strength of the terrorists. Again: reportedly based on true events, if barely dwelled upon or consequential to the story.

While I found myself emotionally invested in the perfunctory heroics and perilous group dynamics in the last half, the film still seemed happy to sprinkle in more anonymized, procedural horror. The terrorists force an unnamed desk clerk to call rooms on the fourth floor one by one, so that the guests will step out into the hallway and be killed. She cooperates once, then refuses, and is killed. Another clerk also refuses, and is promptly killed. I can only give the film a modicum of credit for visual restraint here – by this point, it seemed to have lost its appetite for showing bullets ripping through bodies, and largely confined the victims to an offscreen fall. By the time this scene unfolds, we’ve already seen myriad acts of equal brutality, and it’s hard for it not to feel sadistic to dwell on it. What am I meant to take away from this? That the terrorists are clever in enlisting these poor women as forced accomplices? As if the terrorists’ actions aren’t disturbing enough, we constantly hear the voice of The Bull in their earpieces, reminding them that their victims are like cattle, and they shouldn’t think of them as real people. Which is ironic, because they never quite feel like real people in the film either.

Director Anthony Maras is quoted in TIME regarding his motivation to make this film:

“I simply couldn’t believe that you would have not one or two, but the entire staff of the Taj Hotel spontaneously, pretty much en masse, remain to protect their guests,” says Maras. “It was something I couldn’t get my head around. Who were these people and what drove them to do this?” Those acts of extreme bravery, he says, were a major part of his inspiration to make the film.

I can see some of this intent in the film’s text. But ultimately, the film’s balance of anonymous heroes and fictionalized victims feels off-kilter. Compared to Hammer’s formulaic thriller moments and Boniadi and Isaacs’ patter in the trenches, I found myself far more invested in Arjun’s fleeting moments of humanity, including offering to remove his Sikh head-covering because it makes an especially sloppy Islamophobic guest uncomfortable. Or in Oberoi’s clear protectiveness of his staff and his guests, and desire, reminiscent of the captain of the Titanic, to see them through a fundamentally doomed situation. There’s a nugget of a well-made thriller here, but it never quite succeeds in justifying its brutality and excess, a choice that seems intended to glorify the victims, but feels, in the end, more like it glorifies their killers.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #147 – “The Hummingbird Project” (dir. Kim Nguyen), “Triple Frontier” (dir. J.C. Chandor)

On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return from a familial hiatus to check out The Hummingbird Project, a film about laying a more reliable fiber optic line for faster data transmission to game the stock market, so the irony wasn’t lost on us when Daniel had connectivity issues and was only able to watch the first 20 minutes. But you know Jesse Eisenberg will be involved, even if you’re a bit more prepared in advance for his tragic, greedy, tech-infused salesman to also be a diabolical dick. And then we check out an ensemble military heist film from the team behind The Hurt Locker along with director J.C. Chandor, Triple Frontier, an action film with some surprising moral and character depth that feels a bit too big for Netflix (01:00:50).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (The Hummingbird Project): 7 out of 10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Triple Frontier): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 6/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • [00:34] Review: The Hummingbird Project
  • [06:26] Spoilers: The Hummingbird Project
  • [28:38] Review: Triple Frontier
  • [41:46] Spoilers: Triple Frontier
  • Music for this episode is the tracks “Masters of War” by Bob Dylan, from the soundtrack for Bumblebee, and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica, from the soundtrack to Triple Frontier.
  • To see the location of the Tres Fronteras on a map, check out this pinpoint of Isla Chineria, just on the Peruvian side of the border.
  • The scene we remembered from The Hurt Locker actually featured Jeremy Renner wandering all over the grocery store, first on the frozen aisle, and ending on the cereal aisle, which seems to be the source of the callback in Triple Frontier.

Listen above, or download: The Hummingbird Project, Triple Frontier (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Alex Proyas’ “Knowing” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

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.

“Now, I want you to think about the perfect set of circumstances that put this celestial ball of fire at just the correct distance from our little blue planet for life to evolve, making it possible for you to be sitting here in this riveting lecture. But that’s a nice thought, right? Everything has a purpose, an order to it, is determined. But then there’s the other side of the argument, the theory of randomness, which says it’s all simply coincidence. The very fact we exist is nothing but the result of a complex yet inevitable string of chemical accidents and biological mutations. There is no grand meaning. There’s no purpose.”

―”What about you, Professor Koestler? What do you believe?”

“I think shit just happens.”

This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but a bang. For that cute little inversion, all credit goes to Richard Kelly, director of The Southland Tales and Donnie Darko. Alex ProyasKnowing has more in common with the latter, because of its tone, period aesthetic, generally comprehensible story, and earnest desire to taunt the protagonist with the unfeeling inevitability of his doom. By the time this review posts, I’ll have a new baby to take care of, and I promise, that’ll be the end of comparisons of that happy event to the end of the world. She’ll be our second, and while I find that I’m daunted in different ways this time, my excitement generally dwarfs my fears this time around. But it is fair to say that I’ll be a bit busy at that time, which is why I’m trying something new with this 10YA selection. First, I’m writing the first draft of this review a month early, as opposed to mostly the night before it’s due. Second, I’m writing it before I actually rewatch the film. Kinda violates the spirit of the thing, doesn’t it? I’m meant to write on the subject of how my thoughts on this film have evolved over the years. But if I’m being honest, they really haven’t. I rewatch this one at least every year or two, and on top of being a slick sci-fi fantasy that does a better job than a lot of harder sci-fi at making me ponder humanity’s minuscule place in the universe, the message of this film has remained more or less unchanged for me: Some things are bigger than you, and disasters – especially global-scale ones – are terrifying in a distinctly impersonal sort of way. Roland Emmerich, while a master of disaster in his own right, pointedly omits this feeling from his disasters. As I said in my review of 2012 (a film nearly as old as this one),

“The film could easily have focused on one of the many barely seen individuals whose unceremonious slaughter makes up the beautifully rendered CG backdrop through which our heroes must cavort, or one of the additional billions who die off-screen, not fortunate enough to meet their end in front of a famous landmark or city skyline… But let’s be honest, who really wants to see that movie?”

To be fair, this film does contain a bit of that carnival-ride stuff. There’s no good reason why Professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) should happen to be present for a plane crash that happens on the highway right in front of him, and as he runs through an unbroken shot dodging explosions and debris and generally just trying to participate, there’s very little feeling that he’s in any real danger. The airplane scene is going for something Final Destination-like, but it’s also patently ridiculous. There just wouldn’t be this many people alive after the crash we saw, which ended with an explosion on the ground. John encounters another person on fire and puts them out with a blanket, then performs about 7 seconds of CPR on someone else before the emergency responders send him off. The TV news blames the plane crash on solar activity messing with the plane’s navigation, which ties it in causally with the rest of the film, but still makes it a complete coincidence that Cage was there.

OKAY, FINE. John discusses “synchronicity” with his friend Phil (Ben Mendelsohn), who is a professor of whatever the screenwriters of this film think cosmology is.

In any case, John has now resolved to seek out the two remaining disasters, so the next ones won’t be coincidence. These roller-coaster scenes are fleeting (and don’t make up the entire film, as they do in 2012). Knowing is unique among disaster films in that it lingers far more on the victims than usual. The most frightening scene is not the worldwide destruction of the film’s ending, but rather a second-act scene in a subway station, in which a train crashes and derails, rolling and sliding and grinding over dozens and hundreds of people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can practically feel the severed limbs – people contorted sickeningly into impossible positions. It all happens very quickly, but most importantly, it all happens in a way that is completely unavoidable. Pure, dumb luck dictates who survives that scene. And John is Cassandra, doomed to see each disaster coming, but be powerless to warn anyone or stop it.

The warnings, it must be said, are fairly hokey. A time capsule opens up, a stack of retrofuturistic children’s drawings are handed out, and John’s son Caleb receives a vast, unbroken page of handwritten numbers. “What’d you get?” asks a lad of 11, “Bo-ring! Everyone else got a picture!“. Like I said. Hokey. Preteen children do not get this stoked for old crayon scrawls of rocketships, but John’s kid, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) – who does that same eerily calm thing that every horror kid did for about a decade after The Sixth Sense – seems to have the same sort of shining as Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson), the girl from 1959 who drew his page’o’numbers. For reasons that are unclear and unimportant as the film goes on, Caleb gets a vision of the woods on fire, talks to weird tall people who hand him polished black rocks, and he has what sounds like a diagnosed auditory processing disorder, but is wearing a hearing aid for some reason? This allows the aliens (also called “Whisper People”) to talk to him through the static. Truth be told, it really doesn’t matter – they talk to the other child character without any technical assistance, and this all feels like a bit of Proyas rehashing the Strangers from Dark City, who serve a much more specific purpose in that film. John may not be able to stop the end of the world, but when it comes to predicting it, he’s the star of this show. John is living his best life, and amid a torrent of scotch – to round out his evening of barbecued hot dogs, wine, astronomy, and dour irreligious discussion with Caleb about his dead mother – he quickly deduces that the mysterious numbers on the 50-year-old drawing spell out dates and casualty figures (and eventually, he deduces, map coordinates). They are, in short, a prediction of every major disaster since the time capsule was buried, 9/11 included. This sort of hokey prediction scheme has been done before, of course – the film has a great deal in common structurally with a Richard Gere vehicle from 2002, The Mothman Prophecies (which ends with a much more modest bridge collapse), but the particular handling of this film’s doomsaying marks it as less of a spooky and paranormal thing, and more of a frighteningly plausible post-9/11 thing. The terror forecast is high, the clock is ticking, Jack Bauer is running, and we just have to get to one more doomed place just in time to watch a cool piece of destruction unfold without getting caught in it ourselves. Until we do.

Caleb sees an apocalyptic vision outside his bedroom window. I’ve omitted the burning moose and the burning bear and the burning bunnies, all of which individually appear a few seconds later.

The only unforgivable disaster in this film is its wasting of Rose Byrne. She is…present, and plays two different parts, both the grownup version of Lucinda in photos (who spent most of her life institutionalized, and is now dead), as well as her adult daughter Diana. Lara Robinson, who played young Lucinda, also plays Diana’s daughter Abby, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Byrne both as a child in 2009 and as an adult now. Still with me? Double-casting, and a whole ‘nother single parent/kid situation, but there’s really not much else to note here. Diana makes two contributions to the plot – the first is to help find the meaning of the last two numbers on the page – it’s not “33”, but rather the letters “EE”. Second, she panics and kidnaps Caleb at the end, for reasons that make little sense even in the moment. But it hardly matters. She dies, John finds the kids, and he’s about to die along with EE: Everyone Else.

Like Moses, Diana doesn’t survive long enough to enter the promised land, but in this case, the promised land is an apocalyptic firestorm. The sun will experience a “super-flare” – a coronal mass ejection (CME), which will scour the surface of the Earth, burning away its atmosphere, boiling away its oceans, and obliterating all life. Marco Beltrami‘s score is screaming when this reveal occurs, and I must say, despite it literally being revealed on the film’s poster, this moment was pretty mindblowing for me when it occurred. How do you top all previous disaster films, including 2012? End the world. The protagonists’ actions were meaningless. After verifying the doomsday prediction at an MIT observatory, John literally questions this anti-climax aloud.

“I thought there was some purpose to all of this. Why did I get this prediction if there’s nothing I can do about it? How am I supposed to stop the end of the world?”

2012‘s answer to this question was for Chiwetel Ejiofor to insistently save a small group of people to prove to no one in particular that humanity is worthy of some level of survival. Knowing makes no bones about the idea that humanity’s worth is any factor whatsoever when it comes to survival of the species. For a film that’s ostensibly about numerology – a meaningless pseudoscience – Knowing takes great pleasure in pulling the rug out from under both the characters and the audience with the greatest numbers game of all: the Fermi paradox. Despite any probabilistic arguments about the likely and commonplace existence of intelligent life in our vast universe (Caleb and John literally discuss the Drake Equation at one point), the silence and lack of observable evidence for extraterrestrials is an open question: If intelligent life is so common, where is everyone? One proposed explanation, strongly implied in this film, is global catastrophe, or existential risk. The idea is that even if intelligent life is commonplace throughout the universe, global natural disasters occur on a frequent enough timescale to tend to destroy every intelligent civilization before it has a chance to make an escape beyond the stars. And there will be no survivors, except those plucked away at the last second by aliens. Or angels. Or whatever else flies a ridiculously cool shape-shifting spaceship. What you see is what you get here, and they’re mysterious celestial beings who’ve come down to rescue a chosen few to begin again on another world. Or be sequestered in a zoo with a compatible atmosphere to draw out humanity’s extinction for a bit. Whatever works. John is the perfect protagonist in the face of this, because even as Cage is making his usual bizarre coterie of over-the-top acting choices, John is going on a mundane journey of his own of discovery, acceptance, and finally rapprochement with his estranged (and extremely religious) family. A simple tale of a man finding – or feigning – peace at the end of all things. Because what else can he do? Give everyone he loves one last squeeze, and that’s the ballgame.

After the kids depart, John drives his truck slowly through the apocalyptic horde (which screams, but also parts in an orderly fashion him to pass) as the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 plays. He arrives at the fanciest Brooklyn townhouse a clergyman ever lived in, and his sister greets him with a hug at the door.

“Where’s Caleb?” asks Grace.
“Caleb’s safe,” says John, sounding 1000% like he murdered his child.
“This isn’t the end, son,” says Reverend Koestler.
“I know,” says John.

And then…

several…

more…

things…

happen.

I remember Knowing fondly, but truth be told, I may finally be ready to let it go for a while. I’ve voraciously consumed sci-fi books over the past decade, and my mind is currently enraptured by Cixin Liu‘s Remembrance of Earth’s Past book trilogy, which starts with humanity grappling with its own impending destruction that will likely occur in a few hundred years, then becomes something much grander, more profound, and – it must be said – grounded in science, than this film. But for a film about big ideas (which the late, great Roger Ebert explored in far more detail in his spoiler-filled blogpost here), this one is largely still relevant to me, even if I have a harder time explaining the exact purpose of the aliens, who seemingly just show up on the occasion of our annihilation to make sure that we’re not alone. My best narrative explanation for them is that they feel less like a religious metaphor and more like an avatar for our expectations of the universe. Perhaps that’s our true fascination with alien life. Carl Sagan once referred to humanity as a means for the Cosmos to know itself, but perhaps we like to imagine the Cosmos can know us as well, to relieve our loneliness, or perhaps just to take some of the pressure off as a species. Even if natural law is a cold, unfeeling thing that is quite capable of erasing all life from our planet at any time, we like to think that our existence is noticed by someone, even if that someone will stand idly by and watch us vanish from our fleeting lease of spacetime.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

I don’t have much use for this, but it’s a very pretty picture.