James Cameron's "Avatar" (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Avatar"

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.

“They’re not gonna give up their home. They’re not gonna make a deal. For light beer? And blue jeans? There’s nothing that we have that they want. Everything they sent me out here to do is a waste of time. They’re never gonna leave Hometree.”

Still from James Cameron's "Avatar".

How far have we come since Avatar? In 2009 I marked it as one of my Top 10 of the year (in the coveted #11 spot), largely for its expansive and imaginative sci-fi world (and allegory bordering on contrivance of Native American conquest, betrayal, land usurpation, and violence), even as I wondered then whether the film deserved to rest in the “ineffectual self-hating bin of white guilt”. I find this framing a bit embarrassing in retrospect. I think at the time I sought to diminish white filmmakers for trying to tell these stories (an opinion I’ve occasionally persisted in, criticizing Baz Luhrmann’s take on Australia’s mistreatment and state-sponsored kidnapping of Aboriginal children), but my prescribed remedy at this point is generally, “Let those people tell their own stories.” In other words, white filmmakers don’t necessarily have to stay in their lane, but we should really try to expand the pool of voices, and let marginalized peoples speak for themselves. If I’m being honest about who I was in 2009, I wasn’t chiding James Cameron for telling this story instead of someone else. I was chiding him for telling this story – of injustices that I believed to be abstract relics of a distant frontier past – at all. I was wrong. I also falsely implied that I’d seen Fern Gully. I still haven’t. Sorry not sorry.

There has been a rather instructive event in the intervening years: The Dakota Access Pipeline protests. This oil pipeline was originally set to cross the Missouri River in a location near to the North Dakota capital city of Bismarck, a city that is 92.5% white. For a variety of reasons, including that it threatened the city’s water supply, the US Army Corps of Engineers decided that this location was not ideal. Imagine the surprise of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe when another river crossing was selected, at a location just outside their reservation, and potentially threatening their water supply, Lake Oahe, instead. Protestors moved in, and private security (working for the pipeline company and colluding with local authorities) used brutal and inhumane tactics to force them out of the way, including hosing them down with water amid freezing overnight temperatures (which is, just to be clear, attempted murder). There were 300+ injuries and nearly 500 arrests, and some of their cases (for peaceful protest that was met with a brutal response) have resulted in multiple state and federal prison sentences, some of which are still being served.

Were the protestors right to oppose this pipeline? I have a few political responses, none of them simple or easy, some relating to the tension between fighting climate change and the entirely fossil-fuel-infused status quo. But my most honest answer is that I don’t know. The Standing Rock Sioux were certainly correct to assert a moral and economic interest in protecting their land and water, and assert they did, with resistance ranging from planned arrests and civil disobedience to lawsuits in federal court. What’s more, being the economic and political underdogs in that fight does not make them wrong by default, even if that’s often how they were treated in the national press (when it deigned to cover these events at all). It is instructive to note that Lake Oahe itself was also the site of a forced relocation a half-century earlier, with 200,000 acres of two separate reservations – including most of the arable land that they used for agriculture – submerged under water. You can jump around to other parts of the United States and find similar examples, in which Indian rights are considered to be subordinate by default to those of the United States, and this is reflected at every level of the planning, permitting, and decision-making process. At worst, the poverty and related social problems that followed these acts of economic suppression were treated as a geographic or racial deficiency, which was then used as a post-hoc justification for continued mistreatment (see: “shithole countries”). Like Jim Crow before (and concurrent with) it, it’s a longstanding example of institutionalized white supremacy. So it’s fair to say that my attitude going into this film now is a baseline assumption that the rights and land use claims of Indigenous peoples have not been historically respected since the founding of this country, and for them to exercise their moral right to say, “This far, no farther,” is an act that inspires presumptive sympathy from me even before evaluating the individual merits of the case.

Still from "Avatar"

I didn’t know much of this in 2009, and Avatar deliberately presents a case with maximum moral simplicity, in which humans are alien invaders strip-mining a forest moon for Unobtanium, a floating mineral of high, unspecified economic value that feels like a stand-in term that Cameron never bothered to Find/Replace. The richest deposit of the mineral sits directly under Hometree, where the Omaticaya tribe of the Na’vi lives. Rather than pondering for 30 seconds that there might perhaps be a causal link between the mineral and the impossibly tall trees that might be worth exploring, Administrator Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) says with almost comical callousness that while killing the indigenous “looks bad”, what shareholders hate more than bad press is a bad quarterly statement, and notes, like anyone performing the banality of evil, that he doesn’t “make the rules”. By design, this film presents zero ambiguity about the merits of this case. We’re wrong, and the Na’vi are correct to oppose us, and they don’t even need a reason beyond, “Fuck you, it’s ours,” which is self-evidently the same justification we would use. This film is a reverse-Independence Day. And it’s tempting to evaluate it on this basis, because both films end with a big-ass battle that is an entertaining spectacle to behold, even if it extracts a heavy butcher’s bill.

By the film’s end, we hear former Marine grunt Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in his Na’vi avatar telling the planetary network/deity, Eywa, that the Sky People (humans) come from a planet that has no green left – that they “killed their mother”. Eywa is a conceptual stand-in for Gaia, creating both a deity and afterlife whose existence on Pandora is an unassailable fact, as well as a literal planetary organism, with everything from the plants to the Na’vi to their various land-based and flying mounts acting as a planetary immune system to purge the human infection that has moved in. I called this concept “a savage and gorgeous Eden” in my original review, and yet I still somewhat castigated Jake for choosing to betray humanity in the end, even if they’d done plenty to deserve it. I’d say I’m far less sentimental about my rapacious species now (even though I’ve had kids in the meantime – go figure). This version of humanity, a hundred years hence, has destroyed its lush home planet and is now fixing to do the same thing to Pandora? To hell with us. Jake – whose brother was murdered in a robbery of petty cash, and whose spine was ripped apart in a war with Venezuela by a government that had the technology but not the economic will to allow him to ever walk again – owes us nothing. Betrayal may be the correct word for it, but Jake is well rid of us and quite fortunate to be getting a pristine ten-foot-tall space cat body to galavant around in. This isn’t Eden for Jake. It’s Heaven: a new and better life than the one that he has known.

When Omaticaya crown priestess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Avatar-Jake blundering around the forest and killing animals to survive, she minces no words in calling him an ignorant baby who doesn’t know how to do anything. Much of his later proficiency in all things Na’vi is explained in a series of bog-standard (albeit gorgeous) training montages. But it’s fair to say this film rightfully attracts some criticism (both racialized and not) about its white everyman protagonist showing up on this planet and this tribe and immediately becoming their Chosen One who’s better at everything than they are. Toruk Makto – a mantle Jake assumes by sky-raping a Leonopteryx – might be the best flyer, but his most absurd acquired skill is performing oratory, a skill whose execution the film wisely presents in montage form, with Jake and Neytiri bounding around Pandora to recruit every tribe to the cause, with only the odd snippeted cliché (“AND YOUR CHILDREN’S CHILDREN”) making it onto the audio track. How silly is this? We’ve spent the entire film learning that the Na’vi generally and the Omaticaya specifically value different things than the Sky People. There is no carrot that would convince them to leave Hometree, which is why the humans decide to use the military stick. The idea that Jake could give an inspiring speech to the Na’vi on no greater basis than abandoning the human hand he was dealt is absurd on its face. As the axiom goes – if a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand it. The idea that Jake, even through a translator, could somehow appeal to the values of the Na’vi – wholly inhuman values that he barely understands himself – is the most condescending component of this character. It’s entirely possible that the tribes might band together to defend their planet. But I’d rather the convincing had been left to Neytiri herself, or perhaps the new Omaticaya chief Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso) could take a crack at it during his doomed tenure.

Avatar remains a visual feast, presenting a look, feel, and blockbuster spectacle that looks like it could easily have come out in 2019. If I imagine that it would have less of an impact today, that’s only because I recognize both the monopolistic consolidation of the cinema box office, as well as the influence that Avatar had on other blockbusters, including those of the new franchise owner, the Walt Disney Company. Even before they made the purchase, the lush jungle moon of Pandora became a land you can visit at the House of Mouse. And after a slow burn decade of production at 21st Century Fox (just like the first film), Disney immediately announced a 2021 release date for Avatar 2, and for the first time, I’m starting to think it may actually happen. Who knows, perhaps between the decade Cameron has had to advance his craft, and a new marketing juggernaut behind him, he can pull off a hat trick of multi-billion-dollar all-time box office winners. But it hardly matters to me whether the next film succeeds as long as I get to see it. If nothing else, watching this film again reminded me that James Cameron, a slightly problematic and old-school futurist – has yet to have a miss with me. And perhaps in a post-Cats world, all we need is a bit less fur, a bit more blue, and whatever else he comes up with.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” (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.

“Have you ever felt like you were a little bit different? Like you had something unique to offer the world…if you could just get people to see it? Then you know exactly how it felt…to be me.”
-“Go ahead, Flint.”
“What is the number one problem facing our community today? Untied shoelaces! Which is why I’ve invented a laceless alternative foot covering. Spray-On Shoes. Voila!”
-“How you gonna get them off, nerd?”
-“What a freak!”
-“He wants to be smart, but that’s lame!”
“I wanted to run away that day. But you can’t run away from your own feet.”

Still from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

The opening titles of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs – a film I reviewed and put in my top 10 a decade ago – begin magnanimously, calling it “A film by a lot of people”. This sentiment is as true here as anywhere else, but the two names that hang most heavily over this film are Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. I now know this pair as the creative geniuses behind Clone High, 21 Jump Street (and its misfire of a sequel), The Lego Movie, and (as producers) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. They also wasted a couple of years of their life developing Solo: A Star Wars Story, which was ultimately completed as a dull, workmanlike exercise in box-ticking by Ron Howard (exactly the guy you hire for such a task). Nonetheless, as Lord and Miller were fired by Disney and then re-hired by…another part of Disney, they firmly and justifiably earned their reputations as the go-to filmmakers to try and make great films out of dull, corporate premises that seem just a bit thin on paper.

I remember the trailer for this film. It featured voiceover giant Hal Douglas in one of his final trailer narrations, and it really didn’t try to sell the film’s story.  It was just kinda, “Yay, pretty food!” The rest of it, about one young hero who wants to save his dull, economic wasteland of a small town from the inexorable reality of its global obsolescence? Not even Pixar could make that cliché of a story work. But somehow, Lord and Miller pull it off here, playing a never-ending game of Calvinball and making their hero the wide-eyed, optimistic mad scientist Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), who wants to save the mid-Atlantic island of Swallow Falls – the site of a former sardine cannery and little else – by inventing a machine that can turn water…into food. This is not even the first abomination of nature that Lockwood has dabbled in, strapping a “Monkey Thought Translator” to his simian pal Steve (Neil Patrick Harris), fusing rats with what appear to be parrot wings (which “escaped and bred at an alarming rate”), as well as releasing artificially intelligent walking televisions. What’s amazing about this rapid-fire barrage of joke inventions is that they not only set the pace for one of the most joke-dense films I’ve ever watched, but nearly all of them become plot-critical by the end of the film. From the Flying Car to the Spray-On Shoes, young Lockwood was hilariously equipping himself with everything he would need to save the town, and it all paid off beautifully, for kid and adult viewers alike.

Still from "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs"

Yes, this film ends with a Death Star trench run on a giant meatball. But let’s talk economics.

Let me just raise a middle finger in advance to the entirely imaginary haters who might suggest that I switch my brain off for this film, because there are some fascinating economics at work here that I wish to discuss. I can take this premise on its own terms, in which the sardine plant went bust because the entire world realized in one voice that “sardines are super gross”, and that Flint is motivated to build the machine in order to keep it in the back of his father Tim’s (James Caan) tackle shop, in order to open a lunch counter with food that isn’t “gray and flavorless”. Overlooking for a moment that Flint has essentially invented alchemy, a discovery that would instantly end world hunger, up-end the world economy, likely lead to reforestation and a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (assuming the rotting food-pile doesn’t create a methane crisis of its own), as well as instantly make both lunar and Martian colonies possible, this plan doesn’t make a lot of sense even on its own minuscule terms. Flint wants to “save the town” by introducing a new, luxury good without any outside infusion of capital or resulting local increase in the labor market or wages. Sure, he might supplant whatever limited food industry that already exists in town, but with his water-powered magic box, he won’t actually contribute anything to the town’s economy besides a good that they’ll be unable to afford. He wants to eschew patent law, keep his world-changing invention under a cloth in a basement, and open up a Tiffany’s in Akron. It makes no sense at all. So when the town’s megalomaniac of a Mayor (Bruce Campbell) initially has a plan for sardine tourism, which quickly evolves into a debt-financed scheme to monetize the town as a must-see cruise-ship destination, supplied with an endless torrent of localized and highly perishable food-rain, the mayor is essentially on the right track! Flint is a crackerjack inventor, but he’s a lousy businessman. And like Tesla before him, he would’ve languished in obscurity without a loud-mouthed dickhead to ride his coattails in front of the rest of the world. Of course, all of that is how I would’ve felt before the device turned out to be a global doomsday machine, but that’s also about as far as my economic analysis goes, because all of the cottage industries that spring up in the wake of Flint’s invention are just visual gags, and most of them are solidly funny. The best by far is the chic and exclusive club, “Roofless”, which has a line around the block to serve…exactly the same food falling everywhere else. Amid a flood of storefronts including “Bibs”, “Spoons”, and “Your Name Carved Into a Banana”, the existence of such a club makes a sad sense. Just say it’s artisanal, sprinkle some truffles on it, and say no to 90% of the people who show up. You’ll make a mint, even if the adjoining alley is filled with them.

Still from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

What to make of weather-intern and eventual Senior Food-Weather Correspondent Sam Sparks (Anna Faris)? I daresay this is about 60% of a good character, and Faris’ comic vocal performance is solid. Her motivations are simple: she wants to seize her one shot at fame and glory by reporting on the unprecedented weather event taking place in Swallow Falls, and quickly moves on from being pissed at Flint for embarrassing her with his food-rocket to seize the opportunity in front of her. But she’s still a bit of a reactive romantic accessory, and her sole repeated beat is a bit facile and childish: she was made fun of for being smart as a child, so she vowed to feign stupidity (and shed the firmly 90s-cinema “ugly nerd girl” costume of a ponytail and glasses) in order to endear herself to others. This is definitely a character from a children’s film, who says things like, “I like you like you!”, and the film forces her to keep dabbling in schoolyard woes even as she’s clearly well-educated in meteorological science. To put it bluntly, she doesn’t really seem like a grown-ass adult. But in a world where science was enough of a boys’ club that it allowed predatory scum like Jeffrey Epstein to infiltrate its ranks as a proud source of funding as late as 2014, it’s hard not to see the continuing relevance of this depiction after a decade, even if it’s presented in such an easily digestible way for children. If nothing else, this feels like a transitional portrayal for such characters, ushering in an era of increasing portrayals of women scientists in children’s programming where their mere presence is neither an ordeal nor a romantic afterthought. In a recent episode of Ask the Storybots on Netflix – yep, I’m now the parent of a toddler – Zoe Saldana made an appearance flying through space in a Flint Lockwood-worthy flying car as an astronomy professor, and her primary concern wasn’t casually answering the Storybots’ question of how planets are formed, but her Mad Hatter-like tardiness for her morning lecture. In space. I expect (and often now see!) more scenes like this, both in fiction and real life, in which a broader representation of scientists do what their predominantly white and male counterparts have always been able to do: show up, drop some knowledge, then drop the mic and leave. That’s now. Looking back to this point a decade ago, it’s fair to say Sam and Flint have a passable romance, never conspiring to deny Sam agency, even as half the leans-in for a kiss are awkward or ill-timed, and the mutually successful ones are sight gags about how Flint’s giant nose prevents their lips from connecting unless he inflates his cheeks like a puffer fish. This isn’t great. But it’s a marked improvement on the cartoon romances of my childhood, if only because it doesn’t treat the pretty girl exclusively as a prize for the hero to win.

“…when it rains, you put on a coat.”

In any case, the romance takes a backseat to the film’s two primary relationships, between Flint and a pair of good and evil father figures. Tim Lockwood is a blue-collar shopkeeper, looking far more at home chumming sardines with a giant grinder than dragging a mouse across a computer screen in an attempt to email his son a file. He doesn’t understand his son’s technological pursuits. To make this personal, my own father was my technological guru growing up, living through a 40-year IT career that took him from room-sized computers to the very first smartphones (I still remember using his work Blackberry to perform a web search during a power outage in 2003, and the very concept blew my mind). A decade into my own IT career (film critic has been my side-hustle for the same duration), and with my dad now retired, I’ll chat with him about SaaS and cloud deployment and 3D-printing and Deepfakes and VR bomb defusal games and wandering through museum collections on Google Streetview, and while he can more or less follow the thread of what I’m saying, if I were to ask him to do any of it himself, he’d basically be starting from scratch. I also – at his request – helped him wire up an alkaline bath to a battery charger in order to electrochemically strip rust off a coal cart wheel that he found and dug up from a mining site that he personally located and blazed a trail to, because many of the old tricks are still the best, and my dad’s still pretty cool. But that was the pace of technological progress even in 2009, and it’s only gotten more rapid and bizarre in the meantime. Tim is emblematic of both a generational separation with his son, as well as a personal one. This is not a kid that an old salt like Tim could ever speak to using anything but fishing metaphors. The film takes this to hilarious excess when Sam wires him up with the Monkey Thought Translator so he can finally give a heartfelt speech to his son. Yet another cliché, amusingly subverted.

Can a metaphor be so transparent that it ceases to be a metaphor? We do have a machine that turns water into cheeseburgers at the expense of catastrophic climate change – it’s called a cow. And after all that I’ve seen in the past decade (in which we’ve done almost literally nothing to improve our response to climate change), it’s tempting to scream, THE MACHINE IS CAPITALISM AND IT WILL SWALLOW US ALL LIKE THE BLAND SARDINES WE ARE. But…there are rat-parrots. And a “dange-ometer”. This film is dire, yes, but it’s also unsubtle with its imagery, and relentlessly silly. In both of my 2009 write-ups of this film, I described its overconsumption allegory as a bit basic, although curiously, in less than three months, I went from “it may feel to some like a missed opportunity” to “it’s one of the many ways in which the film shows respect for its audience”. I also credited its running gags with lending the film extremely well to repeat viewings. This prophecy proved apt. Obvious metaphors stacked with smart running gags add up to small acts of faith on the part of a creator, and they tend to keep the viewer coming back for another helping. As for “basic”, I’ll repeat what I said in ’09, and still believe: Not every film needs to be WALL-E. And I’ll leave it to the reader to guess which of the two Blu-rays I’ve watched more.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Still from "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs"

“This was not well thought out.”

PS: Since I was way too proud of my “Tiffany’s in Akron” barb above, it seems only fair that should plug the real Tiffany’s in Akron, which looks legitimately scrumptious.

David Twohy’s “A Perfect Getaway” (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.

SPOILER WARNING. You’ll want to watch this one first.

“It’s only two more miles to the beach, right? I think we have to ride this thing out. Keep Nick talking. Keep him thinking he’s going to be the star of some Hollywood movie. Keep them both happy so that everybody gets to the beach alive. But we keep our game face on. Do not let them know that anything is wrong here.
…do you understand me? Hey, do you understand me?”

―”I just thought we were gonna have a real honeymoon.”

The twist got me, and that’s not nothing. Ever since M. Night Shyamalan made (and then destroyed) a career on the very concept of a third-act twist, other films have only occasionally popped in to remind us that “Everything you just saw was a lie” isn’t the only way to handle these things. A Perfect Getaway is clever – perhaps too clever for its own good at times, but the twist is only the beginning of its appeal. The film maintains a baseline simmer of tension, with the threat of a pair of brutal murders on Oahu (with the murderers rumored to have hopped over to Kauai, where the film takes place) hanging over it at all times, but it’s also eminently playful. Its joviality is embodied in couple #2, Nick (Timothy Olyphant) and Gina (Kiele Sanchez), who – apart from being over-the-top rednecks in love, seem basically harmless. Or are they? Nick seems purpose-built to prod the fourth wall, discussing screenwriting conventions openly with screenwriter Cliff (Steve Zahn), and coming very close to winking at the camera and calling himself a “red snapper“, a term he defines as “a character you bring in just to fuck with the audience”. And fuck he does. He drags Cliff out into the bush, ostensibly for an impromptu goat-hunt, but quickly reveals that they’re actually hunting people – a pair that he spotted following them, doubling back, and hiding. Then he confronts Cliff about his suspicions, casting them as entirely reasonable, since – if Nick were the killer, he wouldn’t stay on Oahu either. He’d come right here. As Cliff wanders off to hatch a plan involving their two camp followers, Nick shrugs offscreen and hunts a goat anyway, returning to camp covered in blood with a hilariously creepy look on his face. As Gina casually butchers it (citing, with an adorable Southern twang, her summer in the meat department at the Piggly Wiggly), we see Cliff and Cyd (Milla Jovovich) give each other a wary look, and the film all but encourages you to be suspicious of these new friends with alarmingly proficient knife skills. And are they murderers, or do they just possess a particular set of talents purpose-built to trigger the libs? It’s hard to say in Gina’s case, since she has just enough dialogue to convey that she has a clever head on her shoulders and doesn’t suffer friendly, disarming anecdotes, preferring to hear people tell the truth about themselves. She also repeatedly says that Nick is “really hard to kill,” which is a totally normal thing to say. Conversely, Nick spends most of the film spinning one yarn or another about his skills as a former Spec-Ops “American Jedi”, including storming Saddam’s palace and finding a secret trove of Silver Age Marvel Comics, before getting blown up with an antipersonnel mine and getting his skull rebuilt with titanium, which, if true, seems like it’ll be an asset later in the film. We all knew a Nick in high school, but regardless of this one’s true motivations, the film leaves little doubt as to whether he actually is such a thing, even if it keeps it nice and vague whether he’ll effortlessly kill for good or for evil.

The third couple, Cleo and Kale – played by Marley Shelton and some obscure Australian surfer bro – are a bit less subtle. For a start, they’re gross, angry hippies with scary tattoos, they make bombastic speeches about people dying for their sins, and at least one of them has apparently jumped parole from California. When they have an initial encounter with a reluctant Cliff and Cyd who pull over to pick up the hitchhikers, Kale lets his unmotivated rage become a nice distraction from the delicate tonal and verbal dance that the official couple starts exhibiting, as they will do many times throughout the film. Cliff and Cyd are, by all appearances, a newly minted husband and wife, and they’re being thoroughly gross and romantic about it, even when there’s no audience for it but each other. Cliff, whose real name is Rocky, encourages Cyd, whose real name is never revealed, to keep her game face on. This is a recurring line throughout the film even after their true nature is revealed, and each tense but extremely vague conversation that this pair engages in deliberately disguises murderous scheming as ordinary suspicion and reticence. And it works well. I haven’t seen a movie this enamored of its own cleverness since Lucky Number Slevin, but for whatever reason, this one delights me. I can just picture how giddy writer/director David Twohy must have been as he wrote Cyd holding up a photo of the two hippies, saying, “Hey baby, look, it’s Kale and Cleo getting married on Oahu.” Cliff sarcastically muses, “Suitable for framing.” BUT HE MEANS THE HUMANS, NOT THE PHOTO, AND HE MEANS “FRAMING” AS IN “FOR THE MURDERS THAT HE AND CYD COMMITTED”. I really wanted to scoff at this. I wanted to roll my eyes when it was explicitly called out in the (slightly overlong) black-and-white twist montage later in the film. But sometimes a clever thing really is a clever thing, and sometimes you just have to let this man kill you with his teacup. This also seemed to be Cyd’s intended meaning, disguising her targeting of another pair of freshly identified newlyweds as coming around on giving the slightly creepy pair a ride. This is an important detail, since Cyd’s later reticence would make it easy to assume that she’s not a fully culpable participant in the criminal conspiracy the pair is engaged in. But she clearly is. She’s not Patty Hearst. She’s Bonnie Parker. And in light of the film’s ending, the specter of Cyd getting away with being a full-on serial murderer is genuinely disturbing.

What’s particularly effective about the reveal is the false one that happens first. The morning after the Goat Incident, a Kauai County Police chopper buzzes overhead and orders everyone on the trail out of their tents so they can see each of their smiling faces. In a clearing up ahead, the chopper has landed, and we see Kale and Cleo getting thrown to the ground and arrested. They curse and are dragged away, and the film goes so far as to show us an Altoid-tin full of human teeth in one of their bags. The killers are caught! Roll credits. We’re an hour into this film, and all of a sudden the tension has been released, and all that’s left is for the four remaining characters to become fast friends and enjoy the rest of their couples vacation. This would obviously be an absurd ending to a thriller, and I really have to applaud the film for not overplaying its hand here, because only 5 minutes pass before the true reveal. And it’s not like I actually thought the movie was over at this point, but I certainly had an abiding feeling of, “Well…what now?”, and it’s nice when a film lets that off-kilter feeling simmer for a moment (Gone Baby Gone is the MVP in this arena), before revealing exactly why. The four arrive at Hanakāpīʻai Beach, and Cliff suddenly takes the thread of the plot for a change, demanding that Nick accompany him on an impromptu kayak trip to some nearby sea caves, having sublet a pair of boats from some tourists. Nick reluctantly agrees, and Gina, who has been briefly left alone with the group’s gear, picks up Cliff and Cyd’s camcorder. She switches from video to stills, and begins scanning through their wedding photos, and…sees something that scares her half to death. She runs to the beach and waves frantically for Nick to return, but he’s already out of earshot, and assures her he’ll be back for sunset. She tears off down the trail to try and intercept them, and Cyd picks up the camcorder. And we see…the real Cliff and Cyd, the couple that they murdered and replaced back on Oahu.

Cliff and Nick paddle into the cave. Cliff toys with his quarry a bit, feeding back some of the SpecOps lingo that he mentioned earlier, before snapping his glasses in half, and pulling a gun. He thanks Nick for his stories, assures him he intends to steal his identity, then…shoots him in the head. A flood of black-and-white Cliff’s Notes ensues. Since I watched the unrated director’s cut this time, I’m unsure how much of this was in the theatrical release, but in addition to a laboriously detailed confessional of how they killed the couple on Oahu and assumed their identities, appearance, and vocal mannerisms, we also see them have a chance encounter with Nick and Gina, who briefly take the narrative ball and show us their entire romantic backstory (including some brief engagement ring fuckery at a jewelry store). It’s very sweet, and is quite the acting showcase for Sanchez, but I really am conflicted on how appropriate this little short film and tonal diversion really is. Functionally, it raises the stakes for the pair, whom we’re now meant to see as the protagonists of the film, but we did ostensibly just watch one of them get murdered, and this feels a bit like twisting the knife. But we cut back to Cliff/Rocky lecturing Cyd about his rules, and it’s the closest we get to an explanation for what they truly are. This is a folie à deux – a tiny, narcissistic cult with Rocky as its leader, and with Cyd (or whatever her real name was) as the “privileged witness” who gets to help him lead a hundred different lives, and “keep this whole C-minus world always playing catch-up”. Cyd, meanwhile, is starting to like her current skin, and is starting to feel the pathetic inadequacy of her psychopathic boyfriend’s version of romance: “How many times do I need to tell you? If there’s anyone in this world that I could love, it’s you. Why is that never enough?” He finally settles on, “I love the idea of loving you,” before they light up a crystal meth pipe. Cliff raises a finger-gun, and we gunshot-smash-cut back to the present day.

As Nick tumbles, head-shot, into the water, Gina has arrived above, and screams (and narrowly dodges a few more shots from the cave below). Cyd arrives, and the two women have a brutal brawl up top. Gina cracks her head on a rock and takes a knife to the thigh for her trouble, but manages to hurtle Cyd bodily over the cliff. I won’t recap every moment of the twenty-minute cat-and-mouse struggle that ensues, but it’s some delightfully bonkers stuff that starts with a sales call from AT&T to Gina’s phone, continues with some creepy walkie-talkie dynamics as Cliff creeps up on her, and continues with Nick emerging from the water, thoroughly alive, tacking the flesh over his titanium skull back together with a hat-band, ready to hunt people for a second time as the film’s hero. This is when Twohy and cinematographer Mark Plummer go properly insane, adding in both slow-mo and split-screen to give the whole thing a real comic-book feel as we finally learn what movie we’re in. And this is when Steve Zahn has a chance to go full evil. You want to know what full evil looks like? Like this:

A Perfect Getaway stuck with me more than my original 6.5/10 review made me expect. It certainly held lingering appeal as a thing I show people so I could watch them experience the twist. I’ve done this enough times in the past decade to make me think that perhaps it’s time to sub this one in for The Usual Suspects, which has a bit too much overdue baggage, and whose spoiler is basically a punchline by now. I also love the tonal dance that it performs. For something that could be as ugly and dour as The Devil’s Rejects (which I appreciated on its own terms), this is a beautiful and aggressively chipper film. While the film occasionally subbed in Puerto Rico and Jamaica as filming locations, Kauai does appear as itself in the film, and it definitely nudged me and my wife in the direction of Hawaii (albeit a different island) for our honeymoon. It also assured that we were thoroughly vulnerable to an upsale rental of a Jeep Wrangler, even though we had zero intention of off-roading or hiking. This is exactly the sort of escapist adventure that I expected from Rogue Pictures, a constantly moribund production label that has bounced around under varied ownership since it first released Orgazmo in 1998, and has been responsible for some of the most original, bizarre, and talked-about films since, including Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Catfish…as well as Season of the Witch, My Soul to Take and Movie 43. Can’t win em all. But it survived the 2015 bankruptcy of its then-parent Relativity Media, released one sequel last year, and seems determined to carry its sometimes-admirable legacy of schlock into the future. And bless them for it.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen A Perfect Getaway, I hope you didn’t just read this. But if you need your Twohy fix, I guess you’ve got another Riddick to look forward to, before I perhaps try my hand at a 20YA retrospective on Waterworld next year.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Photo of my cracked-DVD of "In the Loop", reflecting back a portion of the DVD cover.

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.

“So, you add these together. So this is the number of combat troops
available for an invasion, according to these figures.

―12! Thousand?

“No, 12. 12 troops.”

―”Oh, come on, you’re shitting me?”

“I am shitting you. Twelve thousand troops. But that’s not enough…
that’s the amount that are going to die. And at the end of a war
you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you’ve lost.”

Is war unforeseeable? If you spend 20 hours listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast series, which referred to the tangle of overlapping alliances that led to World War I as a “Blueprint for Armageddon“, it’s easy to say no. If we’re talking about the 2003 US invasion of Iraq – which, despite the unnamed Middle Eastern country featured in this film, we are – then the answer is certainly yes. That war was the definition of a non sequitur, presented as a response to the September 11th attacks, perpetrated by Osama bin Laden and members of al-Qaeda, which was based at the time in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but had previously conducted attacks in the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia, based on a pretext of undeclared weapons of mass destruction. The answer to this question is, I suppose, whichever is more popular or linguistically sound at the time – but war can certainly seem inevitable when the march towards it features every estate, from the government to the political parties to the media, cheerleading it onward.

In Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop, a razor-sharp, documentary-style lampoon of the lead-up to the War in Iraq, General George Miller (James Gandolfini) grouses privately to US Assistant SecState Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy), with whom he shares the vibe of a friend, confidant, and ex-lover, that “The case against war is far stronger than the case for war, and the case for war is caveated all to hell.” He reads this from a paper called PWP-PIP (Post-War Planning: Parameters, Implications, and Possibilities), written by Clark’s analyst Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky), which makes the career-slaughtering mistake of providing too many pesky facts and caveats, and failing to provide an appropriately rosy view of the war to come. The war is being pushed in the US State Department by the psychopathic war hawk Linton Barwick (David Rasche), who might as well be wearing a John Bolton mask. Did you notice I haven’t mentioned a single British person yet? For a film whose principal cast is British, the Brits seem curiously like they’re climbing the mountain of conflict passively, even if they swear profusely (and hilariously) at each other and treat their actions as high-stakes rather than secondary. The highest-ranking cabinet official in the film is Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, who spars constantly with PM’s Director of Communications, and biggest dick in the room, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi). Malcolm is ready to walk the political line of Downing Street – whatever it happens to be at this particular moment – and then jam it up the shitter with a lubricated horse cock. And if you’ve got a problem with that, I’d suggest you not make waves, because this film’s profanity is some of the most hilarious and creative I’ve ever seen, and taking a specific position on any of this is antithetical to political survival in this world. And thus, the most difficult thread to follow in this film is not how and why the war will happen, as that’s clearly within the purview of each country’s chief executive, but rather what all of the individuals whom we watch make it happen actually [fucking] want.

I could make a trite little joke here about how this film represents Aaron Sorkin on crack, but I actually did watch that movie last week, and it was a good deal cheerier about the state of politics, presenting a president interested in climate change and gun violence who might actually be able to do something about either one if he just makes the right inspiring, romantic speech. Was this the difference between the 90s and the 2000s? Did George W. Bush, in his rush to judgment (or the mere appearance of one), accidentally teach us how to be cynical as a country again? Or was that Bin Laden, whose life’s work knocked down a few buildings, a few thousand American lives, and whatever mental conviction assured us in both life and popular culture that only the bad guys engage in torture? And that the screaming lies of someone desperate to save face and avoid pain are not to be treated as reliable facts?

Still from "In the Loop"

I love this movie. But that love began in 2009 from a place of profound, personal regret for my then-old support for the Iraq War, from an earlier time when I was working on a poli-sci degree and dabbling in conservative and eventually libertarian politics. God I was an idiot. I cheerleaded a backward notion of patriotism that had everything to do with waving flags and nothing to do with helping the actual people who actually live in our country, while clutching my abject, white, middle-class certainty that people left to their own devices would do just fine even if 90% of the nation’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of like 30 families. This is an easy thing to do when you’re young and healthy and have few responsibilities, but I can only imagine how I’ll feel in another decade. My love for this film culminated in me cracking the DVD as I pulled it out to watch for the nth time this week (see above), and like Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22, I get something a little different from this brilliant piece of satire every time I consume it. The most consistent message that I read from this film is that no one is really steering the ship. It lumbers around, occasionally knocked in one direction or the other by the rich and powerful, and the people on the upper deck all play their various individual games of Jenga, each convinced that someone else is secretly in charge. And that’s how sixteen words ended up in the 2003 State of the Union, claiming that Saddam Hussein had violated UN sanctions by trying to procure yellow cake uranium from Niger in the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Falsely, as if it matters. There were fake documents, fake conclusions, and the eventual punitive outing of an American spy, and a war that killed thousands of US soldiers and a half-million Iraqis.

Just as the war in this film will take place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, the real-life document forgery is paralleled by Malcolm Tucker’s third-act vandalism of Liza Weld’s PWP-PIP paper, and it stood out to me how many times the document is A) photocopied and passed around to various government stakeholders (Zach Woods, playing a delightfully awkward douchebag wonk, possibly for the first time, says at one point that he’s made “another ten copies”), and B) referred to explicitly in this manner: Liza Weld’s PWP-PIP paper. As several of these people are stomping around and conspiring to leak the paper to the press to publicly undermine the case for the war, it occurs to me that they all have the information they need right in their hands, if they would just…read it. And what’s more, when the paper inevitably gets leaked, Malcolm knows just who to blame, but the information is everywhere. And while it’s easy to see Liza ending up as the fall guy, explaining the contents of a paper she only half-wrote to a Senate subcommittee before doing a bid in a minimum-security federal penitentiary, every single one of these people has an opportunity to stop the war in its tracks, and each of them decides individually that it’s best to not make waves and just kinda go with the flow.

Still from "In the Loop"


This week, as I watched a few minutes of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller being asked by Democrats to read snippets of a damning-but-not-indicting 448-page report aloud, and by Republicans to explain why he didn’t spend taxpayer money to investigate whatever conspiratorial fevered dream they’re on about this week (being “a little meat puppet”, as General Miller would put it), it’s easy to see why political satire in the age of Trump has become so difficult. Iannucci even had to end his HBO series Veep, which starred many alumni of this film. There’s just nothing serious left to lampoon. No stands taken, no principles defended, and no ideology to speak of (apart from tax cuts for rich people). And without any subtlety needed or exaggeration required, it’s hard to resist the temptation to just lie down and accept whatever comes. This is the point of authoritarianism, I suppose. The George W. Bush administration forged documents and fabricated a pretext for war because it felt it needed to. And it worked! They even got bipartisan support for deposing the Iraqi government in response to a terrorist attack that it had nothing to do with. But it’s hard to imagine any of that being necessary today. If the current administration wants to go to war in the Middle East, they won’t bother forging documents in front of the UN, or offering a pretext to rip up a painstakingly negotiated nuclear deal. They’ll just do it, like they do everything else. And let’s be honest, the drone strikes continued unabated during the 8 years of the Obama Administration – I just had marginally more passive confidence that they were being done in service of some kind of strategy and without abject contempt for the lives of non-combatants. Perhaps I’ll feel the same way about that passivity in a decade as I feel about cheerleading the Iraq War now. Or perhaps we’ll have moved on to some other national embarrassment by then.

There’s a rather telling exchange halfway through the film when Simon, who is also a Member of Parliament, glumly returns to his hometown to meet with his constituents. At the front of the line is Paul Michaelson, played as a gruff everyman by Steve Coogan of all people.

Paul: “I’ll keep it brief, I know you’re a busy man. There’s a fellow there who wants to stop people talking in foreign languages in shops.”

Simon: “Yeah. Well, this sometimes can be a magnet for people who are slightly mentally dispossessed.”

“This”, in this instance, refers to representative democracy – and Paul, who is present to make an entirely reasonable complaint about a government-owned concrete wall crumbling and falling into his mother’s back garden, rightly detects a note of condescension in Simon’s response. And before Simon can do anything about the wall, he fobs Paul off to an aide to take a call from Karen Clark and return to the highly important work of floating lazily toward a war he has no interest in, not realizing that his failure to address the wall issue will ultimately be his downfall. In the end, it is used by Malcolm, initially as a media smokescreen, and then as an excuse to fire Simon from his cabinet position. To this day, I’m still not sure how cynically to read this ending. Malcolm obviously doesn’t care in the least about a constituency sidewall, but he pretends to, as politicians often do, because feigned concern for the issues of common people can be an effective political weapon. And Simon is neglecting the people he was elected to represent, and in a world of responsive government, that should be enough to get him removed and replaced. In the real world, it generally isn’t, but the movie seems to be taking the line that every once in a while, government is accidentally responsive and competent – right for the wrong reason? Paul Michaelson probably sees the story of this film very differently than we do, and fancies himself a successful crusader for the rights of the downtrodden. Perhaps he’ll even be inspired to run for Parliament himself, even if he’d probably find that process a bit convoluted.

Still from "In the Loop"

The Iraq War started 13 years ago (and hasn’t really ended), and I’ve gone through a ballet of feelings on the subject over the years. It may be difficult to believe reading this review, but I actually remain optimistic about the future of (small-d) democratic politics, whether American or British. Not even our most pacifist political candidates (looking at you, Rep. Gabbard) are willing to be precisely pinned down on what constitutes an appropriate use of military force, but it’s still difficult for me to imagine another full-scale, American-led invasion occurring on a fraudulent pretext. Post-9/11 was a unique historical moment (can you even imagine a US president having a 90% approval rating today?), and made us uniquely vulnerable to being fooled – but then, so was 2016, which brought us Trump and Brexit respectively. History, as they say, doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. And I suspect that even as the details change, watching a confabulated procedural on how the latest political grift was assembled by a swarm of bureaucrats who barely understood what they were doing at the time will never cease to be a source of entertainment for me. But it’s also fair to say that the cat is out of the bag, if nothing else, because the grifters can’t help but tweet about their grifts in real-time now. And now we know too much. We know other countries have cheaper and better healthcare. We know that climate change is real. We know real wages haven’t risen for most people in 40 years. We may be in the midst of interesting times right now, but I’m able to laugh at films like In the Loop because they’re firmly punching up at deserving targets, under the assumption that its audience knows that things don’t have to be this way. And eventually, I do believe our politics will follow suit, once all of the rapacious, reactionary relics currently in charge of our political system have the natural [fucking] courtesy to drop dead so the world can move on.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

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

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.

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for

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.

But that’s not, strictly speaking, true. My first written opinion about this film appeared as my 2008 Best Picture of the Year – the inaugural winner of my self-styled awards ceremony, The Glennies. #2 and #3 were Slumdog Millionaire and The Dark Knight, and as if to emphasize the youthful indolence of these picks, I couldn’t be bothered to actually write anything about TDK. This was when my film-blogging days were just getting started – I think this one might’ve actually been a Facebook note. But now that I’ve caught up to my younger self in the decade-on retrospectives, I suppose I’ll have to start being a bit more selective about my 10YA selections, lest I have to rip my younger self a new one for having bad opinions. But my glowing review of Darren Aronofsky‘s The Wrestler is largely one I can still stand behind. As it happens, my future podcast co-host (and then housemate) Daniel and I walked to downtown Seattle to see this film, and he spent the entire walk back educating me on all the real-world wrestling parallels to the events in the film – most of which I’ve since forgotten. But I’ve certainly immersed myself in the medium since, thanks in large part to his continued interest in WWE and invitations to one Pay-Per-View event or another. I’ve also developed a casual fandom for mixed martial arts, and Daniel and I have reviewed such films as Foxcatcher (a dour crime drama about an Olympic wrestling team) and Concussion (about the NFL’s abysmal treatment of CTE – which has also purportedly been an issue in pro wrestling). And on a real-world note, I’ve since learned that the highest bar for tragedy among brain-damaged pro wrestlers was far more violent and disturbing than the sad spectacle of an over-the-hill stuntman whose life and fandom are slowly petering out.

I mention my fandom for MMA because…steroid scandals notwithstanding…the action is real, and it’s a bloodsport. It’s gladiatorial combat, and my personal ethics on watching such things are an ongoing personal project. Every time a fresh spurt of blood hits the Octagon, after I’m done gasping and cheering, I think – Should I really be watching this? And then, I keep watching, because it’s awesome. And because they’re voluntary participants underpaid in a flawed and top-heavy economic system who are fighting by choice and for the twisted amusement of a decadent society that will thoroughly bill them for the healthcare they require afterward and…then I keep watching, because it’s awesome. But there is one type of semi-authentic, semi-scripted prize-fighting that has never made sense to me – a “hardcore match“, in which the wrestlers attack each other (and themselves) with dangerous-looking weapons, inflicting real (minor) injuries.

But why.

Midway through the first act, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) participates in such a match with real-life hardcore wrestler Necro Butcher (Dylan Summers), and for the life of me, I still can’t explain the entertainment value of such a spectacle. I’ll watch a pair of UFC fighters pummel each other until the Octagon looks like a crime scene, but when I see Mickey Rourke and Dylan Summers – two human beings whose character names hardly matter – covered in [possibly real] blood and nicks and scratches and fucking staples, one of which Summers uses to attach a $5 bill to his forehead – I can’t help but wonder what the point of this self-flagellation is. Am I watching a bloodsport right now, or am I watching Jackass? The film seems to share a desire for distance from this spectacle – we first see Randy and his opponent returning to the locker room being attended by EMTs who are stitching up their wounds, removing intramuscular barbed wire chunks, and so forth – and the film cuts back and forth between the injuries and how each of them occurred a few minutes earlier. Aronofsky is an old hand at depicting people debasing themselves, but I must admit, this shtick managed to remain charming to me all the way up until 2017’s mother!, wherein he creates and eviscerates a character played by his then-girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence, for thematic purposes that I found increasingly dubious as the film went on. But I suppose this match serves a purpose, insofar as it presents a representative moment for how the Ram got the way he is. This may be a disturbing event, but it’s not an unusual one for him.

In my 2008 review, I repeated an apocryphal story about Aronofsky telling Rourke that he could resurrect his career, but only if Rourke does exactly as the director says. Then I suggested that The Wrestler – Aronofsky’s most accessible film so far – might be the one to finally launch the director out of film-nerd semi-obscurity. That wasn’t exactly true either (that would be his next film, Black Swan), but it’s fair to say that Rourke, whose comeback was already underway following an outstanding pulp supporting turn in Sin City, got a lot more attention after his Oscar-nominated performance in this film. His Oscar moment is obvious – it’s a failed, two-part rapprochement with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Part 1 is on a pier. In the words of Megan Ganz, “Redemption follows allocution,” and Randy fully confesses the extent to which he’s failed and abandoned her as a father.

“I just want to tell you. I’m the one…who was supposed to take care of everything. I’m the one who was supposed to make everything okay for everybody. But it just didn’t work out like that. And I left. I left you. You never did anything wrong. You know? I used to try to- Huh! Forget about you. I used to try to pretend that…you didn’t exist. But I can’t. You’re my girl. You’re my little- You’re my little girl. And now- I’m an old, broken-down piece of meat. And I’m alone. And I deserve to be all alone. I just don’t want you to hate me. Okay?”

If I’ve picked up on anything about this scene in the past decade (besides lessons in what not to do as a father), it’s that it only works so well because it’s sincere in the moment, but turns out to be a lie. The film’s most heartbreaking and redemptive moment is just another Randy “The Ram” Robinson hype speech, trying to be the Face for an abandoned adult child for whom he’s only ever been the Heel. And he’s lying as much to himself as he is to her. In a later scene, after biffing the simple task of “meeting his daughter for dinner at a predetermined time and place” (in favor of doing lines of coke and an eager fan-girl in a bar bathroom, which cannot be a good idea for a man who’s just had a heart attack), he desperately strokes Stephanie’s hair and face as she initially screams that she hates him, and then finally, coldly tells him the truth.

“You know what? I don’t care. I don’t hate you. I don’t love you. I don’t even like you. And I was stupid to think that you could change…There is no more fixing this. It’s broke. Permanently. And I’m okay with that. It’s better. I don’t ever want to see you again. Look at me- I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to hear you. I am done. Do you understand? Done. Get out.”

There’s an old screenwriting tip that you should always begin your stories on the most interesting day of the characters’ life. But I think there’s something equally appealing about picking a truthfully representative day of the character’s life. What works so well about Wood and Rourke’s performances here is that while it’s unclear if this is the first time that father and daughter have tried to repair their relationship, it feels like it probably is not. With each biting word and emotional beat splayed across their faces, we see the complete history of this family, and we know the extent to which they’re following a script that they’ve played out already (see also: Wood’s various performances in Westworld). This isn’t just what Robin did today. This is what Randy does. It’s who he is. A fuck-up.

I haven’t mentioned Pam (stage name: Cassidy) (Marisa Tomei) yet, because I don’t think her storyline has changed for me much in the past decade. The Ram is performing violence, Cassidy – a stripper – is performing sexuality, each of them – however unfairly – is nearing the end of their ability to do so. And the pair of them are performing friendship and perhaps romance with each other, never quite sure whether they’re crossing any arbitrary personal or professional boundaries. This still works just fine (and Tomei’s performance is still marvelous), but what you see is what you get. Same goes for all of the stuff at the grocery store. It’s bleak, even funny at times, but straight-forward. The Ram is broke and working a normal job, and his boss is a bit of a dick, and that’s about it.

My main takeaway from this film is that Robin Ramzinski needs to stop. After a ridiculously thorough drug transaction from actor and real-life convicted drug-dealer Scott Siegel, he suffers a myocardial infarction and bypass surgery, and is warned by his doctor that he needs to eliminate all of his vices – drugs, wrestling, anything that’ll be a strain on his heart. In the very next scene, we see him collapse while going for an easy jog in the woods. He’s an old broken-down piece of meat. And in his final speech, the Ram declares, “The only ones who are gonna tell me when I’m through doing my thing, is you people right here.” And then he slams and leaps for our amusement, from the top of the ring into oblivion as the credits roll. And if the film leaves you with anything, it’s a fading, cacophonous scream from the audience. The Ram is through. His weakness, and his tragedy, is that he couldn’t accept it 30 seconds earlier.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10