FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #183 – “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” (dir. Darren Lynn Bousman), “The Go-Between” (1971) (dir. Joseph Losey)

Poster for "Spiral: From the Book of Saw"

This week, Glenn and Daniel see Chris Rock‘s latest standup-routine-in-dialogue, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, as the comedian attempts to reinvigorate the Saw franchise as a ripped-from-the-headlines issue drama from returning series director Darren Lynn Bousman. With dubious results. Then they cleanse their palate at Daniel’s request with the Palme d’Or winner from the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, a Victorian costume drama and coming-of-age tale, The Go-Between (01:07:39).

Still from "The Go Between" (1971)

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Spiral: From the Book of Saw): 2 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (The Go-Between): 8.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:53] Review: Spiral: From the Book of Saw
  • [21:25] Spoilers: Spiral: From the Book of Saw
  • [34:22] Review: The Go-Between
  • [46:51] Spoilers: The Go-Between
  • We mentioned the Saw franchise was created by James Wan and one other horror director of note whose name escaped us at the time – that would be Leigh Whannell, the director of last year’s outstanding version of The Invisible Man.
  • We mistakenly referred back to Saw V as the film in which Jigsaw tortures health insurance executives for their policy on pre-existing conditions (which already makes this franchise legally dated) – this was in fact Saw VI.
  • We jokingly compared the Jigsaw Killer’s grisly tableaus to the elaborate music videos of OK Go (a comparison in which the project management victory goes thoroughly to the latter!) – while several of them have gone viral over the last decade, there’s a good chance there’s one or two you haven’t seen – you can check out the complete playlist on their YouTube channel.
  • We misstated the age of former actor Dominic Guard who is now a child psychotherapist and author of children’s lit – he is 64 years old as of this writing.

Listen above, or download: Spiral: From the Book of Saw, The Go-Between (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #182 – “Voyagers” (dir. Neil Burger), “Short Term 12” (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton)

Poster for "Voyagers" (2021 film)

CW: This episode contains discussions of sexual assault, physical and sexual abuse, self-harm, and suicide.

This week, Glenn and Daniel see how the young people are doing, starting with Neil Burger‘s half-baked Lord of the Flies non-adaptation, Voyagers, whose cast is let down by material that seems unwilling to commit to its most interesting ideas. And then we check out director Destin Daniel Cretton‘s film Short Term 12, whose cast – including Brie Larson, Lakeith Stanfield and Rami Malek, could fill an entire shelf with all the awards they’ve earned in the 8 years since this film was released. It is also a film whose dark and harrowing subject matter doesn’t preclude a persistent feeling of sweetness and warmth that says to its audience: Look how well we can take care of each other when we try (01:22:22).

Still from "Short Term 12"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Voyagers): 4.5 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Short Term 12): 8/10 (Daniel), 9/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [02:28] Review: Voyagers
  • [18:26] Spoilers: Voyagers
  • [38:05] Review: Short Term 12
  • [01:03:20] Spoilers: Short Term 12
  • See Glenn’s review of Passengers, which we referenced during our discussion of Voyagers.

Listen above, or download: Voyagers, Short Term 12 (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

Duncan Jones’ “Source Code” (2011) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Source Code"

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.

“The oracle isn’t where the power is, anyway. The power’s always been with the priests, even if they had to invent the oracle.”
-“You guys are nodding like you actually know what the hell he’s talking about.”
Well, come on, Chief. The way we work, changing destiny and all – I mean, we’re more like clergy than cops.”

-Dialogue from Minority Report (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2002)

Rick: “What — What’s this supposed to accomplish? We have infinite grandkids. You’re trying to use Disney bucks at a Caesar’s Palace here.”
Summer: “That’s a bluff. He’s bluffing, sir. He loves me.”
Riq IV: “You’re a rogue Rick — irrational, passionate. You love your grandkids. You came to rescue them.”
Rick: “I came to kill you, bro. That’s not even my original Summer.”
Summer: “Oh, my God. He’s not bluffing. He’s not bluffing!”

-Dialogue from Rick and Morty, S03E01, “The Rickshank Rickdemption”

Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Captain Colter Stevens, a soldier and helicopter pilot sent back in time (or into a simulation, or into a parallel universe), riding inside the mind of a hapless dead man named Sean Fentress (played in reflections by Frédérick De Grandpré) who was killed in a terrorist bombing of a Chicago-bound train this morning, reliving his last 8 minutes over and over again, in order to solve the crime and find the bomber before he strikes again. I recall some muttering when the film came out that it was a bit too conceptually similar to the 2006 Tony Scott film Déja Vu, which featured Denzel Washington as an ATF agent traveling back in time to try to prevent a terrorist bombing in New Orleans, but this is a comparison I quickly dismissed after seeing the film. Both films feature a sci-fi technology that is presented as a one-way conduit for information (from the past to the present), and feature a protagonist who quickly discovers that they’ve actually invented something much more powerful and dangerous. But Source Code is the one that makes by far the more interesting use of it. Because while both films treat the invention of travel between realities as a poorly understood accident, Source Code is the one that implicitly concedes that time travel remains impossible and that events in this version of reality cannot ever be undone. Which means that actions still have consequences, even if we may never see them here. This leaves the viewer to ponder the unfathomable question of what someone can and should do to save lives in another version of reality. Does the knowledge of other worlds make individual lives matter more, or less? Do we have any ethical obligations whatsoever to events and people that, for all intents and purposes, do not exist for us? The film also shares a bit of DNA with the likes of Palm Springs and Groundhog Day (it even includes a Morning Zoo-style radio shout-out at the end), with an aloof time-lord protagonist grappling with how much he should value any individual version of people and events that he encounters, when he knows what they cannot: That they’re all going to die. Or rather, this version of them will die for him when his day resets.

When Stevens first enters the Source Code, he thinks he’s in a simulation. A video game, essentially. He thinks he’s the only real person there, and neither his tone nor his actions matter, apart from achieving the objective of the game. Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright, doing a prototype of his Westworld mad scientist) encourages this view of his experience, telling him that he can literally shoot every single passenger until he finds the bomber – who cares, after all? They’re all going to die in 8 minutes, and he’s not really the one who killed them. I typically include a quote from the film itself at the start of these 10YA reviews, but this time I included a couple of related quotes on parallel worlds and time travel, because it’s fair to say that there’s a bit of a spectrum in which to consider the ethics, whether through the self-important PreCrime police state of Minority Report, in which people are imprisoned for murders that literally didn’t happen in this version of reality, or the sociopathic nihilism of Rick and Morty, in which Rick Sanchez represents the lonely, wandering, dickish deity who only occasionally lets a human feeling puncture his sheen of dispassionate disregard for the lives of even his own family members. Stevens initially decides that he can do whatever he wants, because as a malfunctioning brain inside a dead shell of his former self, he is not only untouchable, but he sincerely believes he has already given his life for his country, and has no duty to anything or anyone he doesn’t choose personally. That means that if he deems the people on the train to be humans worthy of saving…he’ll try and save them. And it means that all he wants for himself is a chance to say goodbye to his estranged father (played appropriately in a voice cameo by Scott Bakula).

Still from "Source Code"

That Stevens died in service to the American military in the tenth year of a war in Afghanistan that is still going on today adds a layer of irony to the events of the film, because it firmly strips away any pretense that the war in Afghanistan – or the suite of constitutionally dubious domestic experiments in surveillance and security theatre – have much to do with preventing acts of terrorism on the homefront. That this particular bomber turns out to be a bland white dude doesn’t change that – this film (like much early 00s pop culture) seems aware that our Middle East focus in the War on Terror was ignoring the mote in our own eye, but after a decade, it’s pretty clear that even this film underestimated the futility of that war. When Rutledge describes Source Code as a “potent new weapon in the War on Terror”, I didn’t find that phrase nearly as jarring, nor was the war such an aloof and disinterested aspect of American culture. Maybe because there are babies born after 9/11 who are now adult soldiers deployed in Afghanistan for reasons they must barely understand at this point. Maybe because we now know that the #1 terrorist threat in the United States since 9/11 is right-wing extremism, and the idea of applying a Magic Eraser to individual acts of terrorism doesn’t feel nearly as satisfying when the terrorists are spawned by the society and political culture that we’re steeped in every day, rather than as a historical consequence of the distant actions of a military-industrial complex that we may cheerlead or ignore in fits and spurts, but which is essentially under the control of the rich and powerful. What’s more, America already has a vast intelligence and special forces apparatus that attempts to do exactly what Source Code is doing: Stop bad things before they happen, usually by killing or arresting the people who we think might do them. It probably serves that purpose some of the time (we don’t really get to know this except when their target is someone famous) – and certainly kills innocent people as well. As Rutledge gets on the phone to rally for more funding for the Source Code project, he could just as easily be discussing drone strikes or targeted close assassinations, and I daresay this connection was probably not lost on the filmmakers, even if they couldn’t know how it would look a decade later, as we’re still conducting wars in exactly the same way.

But enough about the metaphor. Let’s talk about the circumstances. Because it’s an entertaining enough trolley problem on its own. Stevens has been granted the godlike power to save an entire trainload of people, and the burden of being the only person who knows – or at least thinks he knows – that he has this power. Stevens initially believes what his handlers seem to truly believe: that he is experiencing nothing more than a glimpse into the past of a parallel reality. But he quickly figures out that he has entered a fully explorable world, evident the moment that he steps off the train at a stop where Sean, whose body he is possessing, did not. He wanders into the station. He has conversations (and engages in fistfights) that never occurred for Sean. He also kisses Sean’s best friend and potential love interest, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), a couple of times under false pretenses. I will say, two circumstantial factors initially exonerate Stevens here. The first is his initial belief that this is nothing more than a video game. His planting a kiss on an NPC whose dialogue tree indicates that she may respond narratively to a flirting gesture is a purely strategic move, or perhaps just a whimsical one – seeing what’s possible within the game. But as he swiftly concludes that Christina must be a real person (a conclusion he reaches literally on his second runthrough), their final frozen, haunting kiss feels more akin to Brendan Frasier and Rachel Weisz‘s in The Mummy: “I dunno; I thought I was gonna die – it seemed like a good idea at the time.” I’m being glib here not because men suddenly kissing strangers has gotten any less creepy IRL in the intervening years, but because I reached a similar conclusion here that I did watching Palm Springs: I’m not going to pretend like I have a definitive moral framework through which to judge someone engaging in romance while trapped in a time loop, particularly in this case, when Stevens’ brain is barely under his own control. Narratively, however, I’m happy to judge it, because I’ve now seen Michelle Monaghan ably play a second-fiddle detective’s assistant/lover on at least four occasions, and it’s well-past time that she gets her own mystery to solve and moral ambiguity to throw herself into. She’s earned it! A Knife Out for Michelle, please.

Still from "Source Code"

Vera Farmiga is in a more interesting place here, because the vibe I got at the start of the film was that Captain Colleen Goodwin feels dubious about what she’s doing and saying to Captain Stevens, who she knows is just a jacked-up brain in a jar with a bit of his old body still attached. Her resulting manner feels like something akin to a hospice or memory care worker – caring, but clinical, serving objectives that she knows can never be fully understood by her patient. But by the film’s end, we are forced to consider the possibility that this version of Colleen Goodwin might have known all along – or at least had received a mysterious email purporting – that Source Code has the potential to travel to parallel worlds. And her every action, including telling Stevens that trying to save people on the train would be “counterproductive” – must now be viewed through that lens. This is only one possible interpretation of the ending (which also introduces the possibility that they may have wiped Stevens’ memory on one or more prior occasions), but it’s the one I prefer, because it’s the one that makes Goodwin the most interesting as a character. It forces the viewer to imagine what they would do if told that their day job has multiverse-altering implications, but in a way that can never be proven, because it relates to events that were foiled in this universe. What percentage of the time might you think that it’s a hoax? Might the potency of this belief fade over time? Might you find yourself returning to the day-to-day drudgery of dissecting successful terrorist attacks, which – from your perspective – never actually end up getting foiled? Goodwin’s career-ending sacrifice at the end of the film feels even more powerful when considered through a lens of sudden, powerful existential regret.

Which leaves us with Sean. Poor, poor Sean, merged with Stevens, a Tuvix-caliber cosmic joke, staring into the Bean at his own reflection, which will never again match his internal concept of himself, on a date with a woman he never met before today. It is the reflection of a man killed in a terrorist bombing, only to be erased 8 minutes early a thousand times more, because he happened to most closely resemble a soldier who died in another reality. When I think of how Stevens must regard himself, I’d put him between a rock and a hard place. The most decent thing he could do once he no longer has the imminent fear of death as an excuse, is to let Christina go and make some new friends – but he has little incentive to do so, other than how he’ll personally feel about it. And facing a lonely new universe, it’s easy to imagine him taking the default, monstrous choice of continuing a romance he hasn’t earned, even if I doubt I’d much enjoy seeing that movie (which was called Passengers). Sean may also have family that Stevens will have to go through the motions with – it’s the minimally decent thing to do at this point. But he may find it quite as difficult as Jean-Claude Van Damme at the end of Time Cop – it’s hard to act normal with a family you only just met in this reality. You don’t have any context for normal. On the flip side, when I think of this from Sean’s now-absent perspective, and consider what he might want for himself out of this horrific situation, I’m surprised that I don’t have a ready, simple answer like, “I’d rather just die.” Other than the visceral creepiness of my body playing out several more decades of Weekend at Bernie’s after my death, I suppose all I can do with such an ending is hope that the guardian angel who couldn’t save me, but did save a bunch of people around me, uses my body and my name in ways I would approve of for the rest of his version of my life? This would absolutely bother me if my consciousness still existed to be aware of it (as is perhaps the case in a more recent example), but if I had to choose, for my loved ones, the experience of me being horribly killed in a terrorist bombing vs. unknowingly replaced with a guy who seems basically decent and well-meaning (and who was horribly killed in his own reality), but isn’t me… I’d scream, I’d cry, I’d lament the abject horror and unfairness of such a choice, but in the end I’d have to pick one or the other, and in my heart of hearts, I can’t say for sure which one it would be. Which makes this is the second of two entries in Duncan Jones‘ filmography that ended with an effective and enduring existential mindfuck, and that definitely counts for something.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Brad Furman’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” (2011) (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.

I hadn’t seen The Lincoln Lawyer before this week, but I did read the book by Michael Connelly. And many, many others. I had started watching the Prime Video original series Bosch a few years ago because I heard it was a “pretty good cop show” – and once I got used to the frequency and sincerity of the cop shop clichés and began to enjoy it, that opened the floodgates. When I ran out of TV episodes, I hit up the audiobooks via my local library, which felt like extra seasons of the show. And so on. Defense attorney Mickey Haller (played in this film by Matthew McConaughey), reporter Jack McEvoy, night shift Detective/Surfer Renee Ballard, and even a few oddball one-offs like master thief Cassie Black and tech entrepreneur Henry Pierce: They all traversed the real streets of real Los Angeles (and occasionally Las Vegas), referenced real-world events, ate at real restaurants, drank real booze, and – with alarming frequency for a textual medium – listened to real jazz music. Connelly came off as someone who very much wanted the fabric of Los Angeles to be woven throughout his writing, as well as his own experiences and politics (he had worked as a writer on the police beat at the LA Times himself before quitting to become a full-time novelist). My parents entered this phase early in my childhood with the likes of Robert B. Parker, Dick Francis, J.A. Jance, Sue Grafton, James Patterson, etc., and never really exited it. It may just be what happens to some people in their 30s. It’s not as if pulp lit and copaganda have wholly or even mostly consumed my literary life (I’m currently reading an epic of Afro-Caribbean high fantasy by Marlon James), but it has surely become my comfort food in a way that seems worth interrogating, because as entertaining as I find Connelly’s hero cops, I’ll be the first to admit that they bear little resemblance to reality. Because all of these protagonists are essentially superheroes, and this is just as true for the other side of the courtroom. Mickey Haller – the “Lincoln Lawyer”, so named because he doesn’t keep an office, prefers to spend his days being chauffeured between LA courtrooms and lockups in a Lincoln Town Car, wheeling and dealing and manipulating cops, judges, opposing counsel, and media alike to help his clients win against a justice system that will grab hold of them and not release until it has eaten its fill. Connelly turns the same cynically aloof eye onto the court system as he does for the police in the Bosch books. Because for either hero, every other person they meet who shares the same profession is either competent and honorable and completely irrelevant to the story, or incompetent, corrupt, and a direct impediment: a nemesis to be defeated so that the hero can get his man. Bosch and Haller – literally half-brothers in the books – are each fundamentally framed as one of the good ones. Mere mechanics who keep the jury-rigged mechanical flywheel of the justice system puttering down the tracks, without much thought or worry to what’s ahead.

In Haller’s case, he will defend guilty low-lives and innocent frame-jobs alike – and it’s worth noting that however Connelly’s perspective has visibly evolved over the course of his career, the books still very much look at the justice system in these terms, never pausing for more than a moment to question whether laws and law enforcement should be the way they are. What’s more, Haller may be the only criminal defense attorney in the world who routinely solves crimes by finding the real killer himself. If I’m being honest, the allure of this genre hasn’t really faded for me even as the unaccountable brutality, systemic racism, and spotty track record of real-world policing has been brought into stark relief over the last decade, because these characters in particular are always right – at least in the end. This is not to say they never make mistakes – I like Connelly’s writing because his heroes are capable and well-drawn, not because they’re infallible. But even as they may recklessly wield their power around town while stumbling toward the eventual solution, that solution is never in doubt. These are the heroes, working in their own small corner of a justice system, and as long as you happen to be the lucky person who draws their beneficent gaze this week, you will find that system to be competent, hyper-vigilant, and the first to call itself out for the systemic problems that surely exist but not from this character in this moment. And this needle definitely shifts over the course of the series – Connelly’s own blind spots will become evident to me in one book, then be addressed in a later one. I hardly would’ve guessed that I would hear his 60-something LAPD detective acknowledge through his inner narration that hey, perhaps the people undertaking a dangerous trek across the southern border of the United States without authorization (whom he definitely would’ve called “illegals” and reported to immigration in a previous book) might have understandable and sympathetic reasons for doing so, and should thus be treated with humanity and dignity. I was equally floored when his sixth Mickey Haller book (whose story unfolds amid the COVID pandemic) featured his hero lawyer rejecting a juror during voir dire because the “Trump 2020” bumper sticker on her car indicated that she possessed neither a logical mind nor any interest in the truth. This is another reason why I like Connelly’s writing – not because I find his politics to be a perfect match for my own (far from it, in fact), but because they amount to a credible and specific authorial voice which has shifted in reasonable ways in response to real-world events. As a result, his books take place in what is recognizably our world, even if they must obey the genre convention that we must have absolute and permanent closure by the last page, which often takes the form of the bad guy dead on the ground, the victim of a righteous kill that we know was the product of perfect intentions. And so, as with the Marvel superheroes that I love to see dick-punch the sky-laser and save the world, I cheerily consume an unrealistic solution to a problem that wouldn’t be nearly this well-defined or solvable in real life.

Still from "The Lincoln Lawyer"

As for the film, The Lincoln Lawyer is a slick, contemporary Los Angeles legal thriller (whose title did it no favors in being regarded as such), featuring luxury real estate baron Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) accused of assault with a deadly weapon, attempted sexual assault, and attempted murder, hiring Haller (Matthew McConaughey) – whom he requested specifically for reasons he doesn’t trouble to explain – to clear his name. The victim in this case is Reggie Campo (Margarita Levieva), a woman whom Louis claims he visited for (paid) consensual sex that they never actually had, because someone clubbed him on the head as he walked through the door. He then woke up in a living nightmare, covered in blood, with a neighbor couple (whom he casually identifies with a homophobic slur) holding him down on the ground as Campo calls the police, claiming that Roulet had attacked her. Roulet sees this as a setup, which Campo designed to make him up to take the fall for a non-existent crime, as a roundabout extortion scheme to get access to his sizeable fortune. Obviously, no one is going to believe this preposterous story, but Phillippe does an excellent job of bringing sociopathic indignation to bear on the situation. Because while I’m several twists away from presenting a complete picture of the ending, it should come as no great surprise that very little of this version of events is true, and I’ll save the rest of the surprises for anyone inclined to watch. The film is a more-or-less perfectly faithful adaptation of the book, and features a dynamite cast, including Marisa Tomei as Haller’s prosecutor ex-wife, with whom he has an unreasonably cordial relationship and implausibly frequent shared drinking schedule for the latter’s single parenthood of their young daughter Hayley. The two do fine work here, but there’s not a lot of depth to their disagreement. She believes he’s defending scumbags, and is correct, and that is the reason why their marriage fell apart. But they still like each other and occasionally sleep together. The cast of this film is fully loaded, featuring brief, but solid work from Shea Whigwam, Katherine Moennig, Michael Paré, and Frances Fisher (each of whom is crucial to the plot in their own way, despite having barely 5 minutes of screen time each), as well as some meatier backstory for Michael Peña and William H. Macy. This doesn’t leave much at all for John Leguizamo, Bryan Cranston, or Bob Gunton to do. Did I mention this film is based on a book? Because it is absolutely stuffed with characters, and I daresay a little overstuffed with acting talent.

McConaughey himself is peak protagonist. His take on Haller is slick, commanding, and I daresay a bit more subdued than the script would otherwise allow him to be – in a detail straight from the novel, he’s drinking bourbon on a near-constant basis as the legal plot gradually encircles him. And honestly, he’s fine. If I had seen it in theaters, I probably would’ve considered it a lesser entry in the McConnaissance – this was around the same time as Killer Joe, Mud, and even Bernie, after all, and this performance feels minimalistic by comparison. But as I reflect on the film, and in how Connelly has grown as an author in the now 16 years since the book came out, I’m forced to conclude that any shortcomings of the Haller character in this film are rooted in blindspots that were shared by both character and author at this point. This is apparent in a crucial flashback scene in which Haller is trying to persuade his old client Jesus Martinez (Peña) to take a plea agreement which will put him in prison for 15 years to life – for a crime we would later find out that he definitely did not commit. Even knowing where it was leading, this scene nearly made me physically ill to watch. Haller gets right up in Martinez’s face (in the same manner as the camera throughout the film, with prolific use of handhelds and close-ups), his strained dialogue absolutely littered with “bro” and “man” stuff as he tries to persuade this innocent man to confess to a capital crime that he did not commit. Martinez is weeping and begging for Haller’s help, and he – and we – know that there’s nothing he can do for this man. The book helped Haller out a bit more than the film here – while film-Martinez is a native English speaker, like Peña himself, book-Martinez (whose surname was originally Menendez) spoke very little English, was questioned by the police without counsel present, and would eventually reveal with the help of a translator that he didn’t fully understand the questions. The police initially withheld the nature of their investigation from him, and Martinez initially concealed that he was patronizing Martha Renteria, the sex worker who would end up being murdered. In the book, the police and Martinez look worse, and we have Haller’s inner voice to assure us that he really did try his very best to help this guy. He just…couldn’t, and didn’t particularly care whether the man was innocent or not, because it wouldn’t have affected his strategy one way or the other. And he regrets that. In the film, all we have to assure us of Haller’s good work and intentions is McConaughey’s slick charm and booze-soaked regret as the character is an unwitting accomplice to a miscarriage of justice, and in the end, it’s just not good enough. In both versions, the police and Haller alike had a few reasons to believe that Martinez might be guilty, but their actions are not defensible in retrospect. They should have tried harder. Jesus Martinez deserved better than exoneration after a painful and unjust prison sentence. Martha Renteria, who exists as nothing but a victim’s name in book and film alike, deserved better too. And marginalized people deserve better than to be objects of redemption for cop and lawyer protagonists. This is clearly a lesson that both Hollywood and the justice system are not done learning.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Joel & Ethan Coen’s “True Grit” (2010) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

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.

“When Chaney is taken, he’s coming back to Fort Smith to hang. I’m not having him go to Texas to hang for shooting some senator.
-“It is not important where he hangs, is it?”
“It is to me. Is it to you?”
-“It means a great deal of money to me. It’s been many months’ work.”
“I’m sorry that you are paid piecework and not on wages, and that you have been eluded the winter long by a halfwit.”

In our recent podcast review of Kelly Reichardt‘s 2020 film First Cow, I reductively summarized the canon of the American Western, by praising that film’s setting and narrative because, “It’s not California, it’s mostly not about men with guns, and it’s not all taking place in one 30-year period following the California Gold Rush”. In retrospect, I must admit that I was knowingly doing that canon a disservice, because- however much I scoff at American mythmaking, which began in the rhetorical drive toward reinvention and conquest that we called manifest destiny, and continued past the violence and broken treaties toward a full century of colonialist nostalgia – it is a genre that I’ve personally enjoyed for most of my life, and which spans a great many times and places. This enjoyment has persisted even as I’ve had those myths peeled away and deconstructed one by one, a process of reexamination that began – in both academia and popular culture – well before I was born. One of my favorite Westerns from my lifetime, the 1993 George P. Cosmatos film Tombstone (which takes place in 1880s Arizona) was as much about providing a nostalgic filter for modern-day gang violence (in the form of an organized gang of “cowboys” identified by their characteristic red sashes) as it was about reenacting the shootout at the O.K. Corral, or denying Val Kilmer a well-deserved Oscar. In addition to being a recent (27-year-old) example of a revisionist western that I enjoyed, it came to mind because one of its most memorable scenes, a late showdown in a knee-deep river, may have been loosely inspired by the mid-climactic confrontation between 14-year-old Mattie Ross and her father’s killer, Tom Chaney, which appears in both adapted versions of True Grit.

True Grit is an interesting case for a few reasons – for starters, it’s explicitly not about westward expansion, but rather about run-of-the-mill law and order in a place where it should rightfully exist as a measuring stick of civilization. The film takes place in and around rural Yell County, Arkansas, a state in the Deep South with a population of a little over 800,000 in 1880 when the film takes place (more than 200,000 more than present-day Wyoming). The film, adapted by the Coen Bros in 2010 from a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, was adapted previously into a 1969 film starring John Wayne, Glen Campbell, and Kim Darby as 14-year-old rancher’s daughter Mattie Ross. When she was cast, Darby was a 22-year-old mother, styled with what would’ve been regarded at the time as a short-cropped boy’s haircut (similarly used for Mary Martin as the title character of the 1954-60 musical/telecast version of Peter Pan). The Coens took the novel step of casting a real teenager, Hailee Steinfeld, who was the product of a massive talent search and had only ever appeared in a handful of shorts before this film. And while it’s fair to say that Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon embody their characters in similar ways to Wayne and Campbell in the ’69 film (Damon in particular seems to lift many of his mannerisms and accent straight from Campbell), Steinfeld is the reason why this film works so well, along with Portis, the late author of the novel. Because it wasn’t until this week, when I watched both versions of the film and perused a copy of the novel for the first time, that I realized just how little of the script and dialogue belongs to the Coens, with much of it lifted wholesale from the novel, and only the occasional little tweak or rearrangement or inner thought being spoken aloud that belongs to the Coens. Which is fine, honestly. True Grit is one of the Coens’ funniest films, but Ethan Coen was the first to admit in a 2010 interview that much of that humor came directly from the novel, and part of his desire to re-adapt the novel was to restore the humor that was lost in the ’69 version.

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

The novel takes place from young Mattie’s perspective as she locates and hires the meanest US Marshal she can find, Rueben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges), to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a drunken scoundrel with a powder-marked face who murdered her father as he tried to stop him from attacking a table of cardplayers to whom he had lost money moments earlier. Mattie is both exceptionally capable and knowledgeable of both law and financial matters, details which are established in a handful of introductory scenes in the ’69 film, but which come essentially out of nowhere in the 2010. Steinfeld is not only completely in charge of these interactions, but threatens multiple people with the litigious retribution of her family’s lawyer, J. Noble Daggett, who is voiced in the film by J.K. Simmons, as the only indication that the girl’s threats to sue and assert her rights are anything but bluster. Although both films contain a line which perhaps helps to explain the girl’s claim of authority – she defends herself against abandonment to a “congress of louts” (a Coen Bros line) by identifying her name and hometown, and asserting, “My family has property and I don’t know why I am being treated like this.” It’s not the girl’s fault that she comes from a place of wealth and privilege any more than it is her fault that her father was murdered by a hired man. But it is a bit of a reminder that wherever law and order are lacking, only crimes against the wealthy will be properly met with justice. This also relies on a prior assumption that the institutions of justice will, if brought to bear on the situation, truly result in a just outcome.

And this is where True Grit (take your pick from the novel or either filmed version) really shines, allowing Mattie to constantly assert her piety, innocence, and clear-eyed sense of morality, while also prodding her naïveté and ending on a note that perhaps suggests that her vendetta was not so well-conceived. As I’ve come to expect from the Western genre, all of the principal characters in the film are white, and the film’s treatment of race is confined to a singular punchline during a triple-hanging scene in front of the Fort Smith courthouse in the film’s first act. This an interesting scene because it is an instance where the adaptations diverge quite sharply, with the ’69 version containing no dialogue from the condemned men, whereas the 2010 opens on one giving a lengthy speech, begging the crowd to learn from his mistakes and be kind to his family, and lamenting his lack of proper instruction as a child that led to him murdering a man “in a trifling quarrel over a pocketknife”. A second man says he is on the gallows because he “kilt the wrong man”, and he sees men in the crowd worse than he is. Both of these speeches are taken almost verbatim from the novel, if slightly out of order. And then, in a Coen Bros punchline, the third man, an unnamed Native (who in the novel professes his faith in Jesus Christ and compares himself to the thief on the cross) only gets out, “Before I am hanged, I would like to say…” before the hangman shoves a bag onto his head. Both adaptations contain other little nods to unequal justice, but they’re subtle. The ’69 version handles this slightly differently, featuring a bit of side conversation between Mattie and a talkative woman in the stands, who points out Judge Parker sitting atop the courthouse roof, and says that he watches every one of his hangings out of a sense of duty. Kim Darby’s Mattie visibly scoffs at this, and dismisses the woman’s declaration by saying, “Who knows what’s in a man’s heart?” What is perhaps unspoken is that Mattie thinks Judge Parker may just like watching people die. Rooster refers to Judge Parker more than once as a “carpetbagger”, and given that this is 1880 Arkansas, it’s fair to say that this characterization carries a lot of the baggage of racist campaigns of terrorism visited upon former enslaved people in this region. Combine this with Rooster’s tendency (asserted to Mattie by the town sheriff, and confirmed under oath on the witness stand) to kill most of the people he is sent out to retrieve, and it’s quite easy to find some modern resonance in this story. Because a huge part of the American frontier myth has always been the concept of throwing together a posse to avenge ourselves, the civilized folk, upon the outlaws and savages who have done us wrong, without any judges or rules of evidence getting in the way. This is perhaps America’s oldest myth, and it persists into the cop genre to this day, because even as we insist upon a desire for justice, we still can’t get enough of the one-man killing machine who Gets Things Done (because he has True Grit, if you like). Even if in practice, we know what this looked like even a century ago. It looks like decades of lynchings and Jim Crow juries refusing to convict their perpetrators. It looked like the terrorist bombing and massacre of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, 1921 – an event I had never heard of in 2010, and which is now HBO TV fodder. In fact, between Watchmen and Westworld, wherein the western genre is rendered literally as a sex/murder nostalgia party with robots, I daresay HBO may have its real measure.

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

I still regard True Grit as one of the Coens’ funniest films (owing a great deal to Jeff Bridges‘ performance as Rooster, which vacillates between buffoonish and menacing with remarkable skill). But its punchline is murder of the same, thoroughly justified sort that exists throughout the frontier myth, directed at a conveniently despicable man, Tom Chaney, whom the Coens actually make even more despicable in the 2010 version. In the novel, when Mattie first confronts Chaney in the creek, he immediately expresses regret for killing her father. The ’69 version gives no such dialogue to Jeff Corey‘s Chaney, who merely played him as cocky in his refusal to go quietly (prior to Mattie pulling the dragoon pistol and gut-shooting him). The 2010 version also starts with cockiness and ends with attempted murder by Chaney, but the Coens have Josh Brolin say aloud that he truthfully doesn’t regret killing Mattie’s father at all. Like I said, conveniently despicable. And now, disposable, because he flatly refuses to return and face justice, and he has no regrets. All that remains is to put him in the ground, which Mattie contributes to in both films, albeit a bit differently in each. In the ’69 version, it’s a perfunctory act of self-defense (occurring within a few seconds of Chaney clubbing LaBoeuf in the head), and it doesn’t even finish Chaney off. The shot sends Mattie tumbling into the snakepit to be threatened by a bleeding Chaney from above, before Rooster returns to finish him off. In the 2010 version, Mattie struggles and yanks LaBoeuf’s fallen Sharps carbine from Chaney’s grasp, orders him to his feet, and blasts him off a cliff, before tumbling into the snakepit, as did her predecessor. The difference between these two scenes is subtle (and happens so quickly in both films that I had to rewatch each more than once), but I daresay the Coens are the winners here, sticking more closely to the novel (wherein Mattie’s fatal shot catches Chaney in the head rather than the gut), and putting the moral choice to kill, as well as its immediate consequences, firmly into Mattie’s hands. Or, as LaBoeuf might say, her hand. That’s what makes the upshot of this film work so well. For all the girl’s piety and sense of justice, her violent retribution against Chaney was ultimately unnecessary, and the circumstances were such that she was instantly punished for it, losing a limb for the rest of her life.

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

This is probably where I should say something nice about Roger Deakins’ cinematography as well as [Coen-alias] Roderick Jaynes‘ editing and Carter Burwell‘s hymnal-influenced score, because it is indeed this triad that makes the Coens’ take on this material so memorable, concluding with Rooster’s desperate midnight ride to save Mattie’s life, and layered throughout the film as it attempts to create a sense of wide-open spaces, isolation, and grandeur. One memorable montage of long fades (easily ten seconds apiece) starts with the trio traveling across the Arkansas prairie into the Choctaw Nation, with a rising crane shot, lush with cool blues and purples, panning upward to keep the riders’ heights uniform with the distant, silhouetted mountains as they ride toward the camera, with the slow fade ushering into a static, warm-hued shot as they ride away across grassland toward a broken line of low, rocky hills. The long fades continue, some to emphasize the position of the sun and the passage of time, some for the changing terrain, and some to highlight Rooster’s varied disposals of his waning supply of whiskey bottles. However shrewdly Mattie operates in the opening act, hiring Rooster was perhaps her least advisable maneuver, choosing the “meanest” marshal even as she is warned that he loves pulling a cork. When we see Mattie (played at age 40 by Elizabeth Marvel as well as a visual stand-in, Ruth Morris), she retains the same rather arbitrary sense of moral clarity, speaking cordially to real-life bandit Cole Younger (Don Pirl), but telling his Wild West Show partner, Frank James, to “Keep your seat, trash,” after the pair reveals that their show partner, Rooster, passed away three days earlier. This moment is straight out of the novel, and offers an explanation from POV character Mattie, who asserts that despite having similar body counts from their outlaw days, Cole Younger spent 25 years in prison for his crimes and expressed a bit of Christian regret, whereas Frank James was acquitted, despite likely pulling the trigger on innocent victims more than once. Hence, trash. But I’m not sure how much credit for irony I can really give this film, opening as it does on a Bible verse (from Proverbs, “The wicked flee where none pursueth”), and sandwiched between a pair of pious voiceovers which emphasize, if nothing else, how little Mattie’s experience changed her, merely ossifying moral tendencies that she possessed since childhood. This is perhaps the most enduring trope of the frontier genre – that a departure from what you regard as civilization is revelatory, but only of the sort of person you always were. And in that sense, the Coen Bros’ True Grit stands strong, even in the Western’s waning years.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Edward Zwick’s “Love & Other Drugs” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Love & Other Drugs"

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.

“I love you! You don’t understand – I’ve never said that to anyone before.”
-“You’ve never said ‘I love you’? “
“No!”
-“You never said it to your parents?”
“No.”
-“You never said it to your brother?”

“Ugh!”
-“Jesus, you’re more fucked up than I am. I once said it to a cat.”

Flashback to 2010, as director Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Siege, Glory), a director whose work I’ve tended to enjoy as it beats me about the head and face with its point, takes us on a tour of the alarmingly sexy and morally dubious world of 1990s pharmaceutical sales! We open on a montage in 1996 – “Two Princes” (Just Go Ahead Now) by the Spin Doctors plays, as we meet one Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), effective and charming stereo salesman, who is highly successful at selling 1980s boomboxes by charming, flirting, and dancing with customers. Then he takes a quick five to have sex with the girlfriend of the store manager in the backroom, before she accidentally buttdials the manager on her Motorola Razr as he stands with customers on the showroom floor. At the place where all three of them work. Naturally, Jamie gets fired for gross, gross misconduct, but not before getting another girl’s number. Fifteen seconds post-coital, we learn that Jamie has chutzpah, and is, to put it mildly, a bit of a womanizer. This definitely feels like a ’90s period piece for at least the duration of this scene, but after that, the dialogue is pretty well peppered with modern references, including Jamie’s rich asshole brother Josh (Josh Gad), whose wife “looks at his dick like it’s the eye of Sauron”, and throws him out of the house because he’s addicted to internet pornography – an impressive accomplishment in ’96! Must’ve gotten an ISDN line installed for that. After a brief dinner in which Jamie’s rich asshole parents chide him for getting fired, Josh offers him his next gig, as a pharmaceutical sales rep for Pfizer, hawking Zoloft (a name-brand anti-depressant) and Zithromax (a name-brand antibiotic) by visiting doctors’ offices with swag and out-and-out bribes in order to gently encourage them to prescribe it to their patients. I already knew this profession existed – my mother did this job in the 90s before switching to insurance, and I can still remember all the swag she would keep around the house.

This is before another montage shows us that A) Pharma conventions in the 90s were gaudy as hell (think Tony Robbins meets WWE, plus the “Macarena“), and B) Pharma reps, also known as the “detail team”, were encouraged from the outset to push off-label usage of their drugs. It is at this point that I’ll mention, I chose to re-review this particular film because of my recent reading of Gerald Posner‘s excellent and exhaustive history of the pharmaceutical industry, Pharma, which I’d encourage everyone to check out (especially if you want to be nice and angry at what a softball deal Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family has just received after basically inventing a half-century of pharmaceutical advertising tricks, as well as the epidemic of Oxycontin and other opioid abuse). According to Posner, promoting off-label usage has not only always been routine in the industry, it is a core component of their business model. In fact, if you want to get even angrier, read up on how off-label usage combines with misuse of the so-called Orphan Drug Act to allow companies to maximize revenue while blocking out generics for an extra-long patent period, and jack up the prices, with their research heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Jolly fun! But that’s about as far into the Pharma book as I’ll be delving in this review, because apart from occasional barbs about America’s ridiculous healthcare system (which was even worse in the 90s), Love & Other Drugs really only uses pharma as a romantic backdrop, as well as a platform for dick jokes. Lots and lots of dick jokes.

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

So Jamie is a newly minted, slick-haired pharma rep, and also a big ol’ asshole, who reveals early in the film that he dabbles in pick-up artist bullshit, calling a hot girl by the wrong name (so that she’ll wander up and correct him, and he can reveal a backstory of thinking she’s a woman he rejected, which’ll make her want to get with him, and it honestly sounds so tedious as I’m describing it). This puts him in good company with Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), currently an avid Prozac prescriber, and apparently the most important internist and GP in Pittsburgh, who can somehow singlehandedly redirect every doctor and headshrinker in the City of Bridges toward Zoloft if only he switches his own patients off Prozac first. So Jamie straight-up bribes him with a $1,000 check from Pfizer to “shadow his practice” and give him the hard pitch all day. Dr. Knight responds with feigned moral outrage before pocketing the bribe, then uses the time to ignore Jamie’s pitch and ask for a bribe that’s several orders of magnitude larger, asking for a plum consulting gig in place of all the gifts and swag and beach conferences in Cancun that he’s apparently getting from Eli Lilly to promote Prozac. I knew this even before reading Pharma, but none of this, including the gaudy convention, is much of an exaggeration from reality. Despite Dr. Knight’s disinterest in switching meds, Jamie scams and seduces and petty-crimes his way into this clinic (with Judy Greer appearing as in one of her many, many devious and hypersexual secretary roles sandwiched between Arrested Development and Archer), and apart from making Pittburgh feel a bit small We basically only see a single medical practice, adjacent back-alley, and nearby bar in the entire film, and the characters are constantly running into each other. But there are is an amusing gag here – a homeless man who keeps retrieving the Prozac samples after Jamie tosses them in the dumpster, and over the next few scenes, looks more and more respectable each time we see him, until we finally learn he has a job interview coming up! I didn’t mind this bout of silliness too much, since the butt of this joke is firmly the American mental healthcare system.

Jamie also reveals his predatory tendencies a bit more in this scene, as uninsured 26-year-old Parkinson’s patient Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) concludes her exam (for a refill of her Parkinson’s meds) by asking Dr. Knight to examine a mark on her breast, which he does, as a lab-coated Jamie gawks. That Maggie discovers his true identity and savagely beats him in the parking lot with a briefcase in the very next scene is at least narratively redeeming – especially since this is a pattern that will continue as the film goes on: Jamie’s shallow bullshit delivered with utter confidence and charm, before getting smacked down hard by reality until he tries something a bit more sincere. But he doesn’t try that yet – instead, he delivers a charming apology on behalf of the entire medical community for treating Maggie in such a dehumanizing manner, which is, if you really think about it… Maggie silences him with several barbs, snaps a Wall ‘o’ Shame Polaroid, gives him the finger, and quits the scene. It would be very easy at this point to say that Jamie is doing the mercenary libertine schtick from Thank You for Smoking and Maggie is doing the quirky, wounded fawn from Garden State, and but there’s something a good deal more mature and substantial happening here. While these characters obviously start off at different levels of likability, they are essentially just two self-possessed grownups who don’t have time for [other people’s] bullshit, and are each fairly upfront about their visceral attraction to one another. Their coffeeshop date contains a lot of metatextual patter in which they allude to how the scene might play out if they were each playing their respective roles as expected, but then they jump straight to the booty call that they each really came there for. It somehow landed precisely on that line between contrivance and sincerity – when I saw this a decade ago, I probably regarded it as an attractive fantasy that the hot, interesting people were probably engaged in. In my 30s, my reaction is just…yeah, this happens. It may not be a guaranteed recipe for anything more than a quick bang, but I know more than a handful of people in serious, long-term relationships that started on such terms, and quite as many that did not, but who’ve enjoyed a shallow bang or six in their time with no regrets. It also definitely helps that the brief, quasi-animalistic sex scene that ensues is not layered with an overwrought musical track (now for sale on iTunes!), doesn’t contain dubious or disturbing implications with respect to consent, and simultaneously feels sexier and more grounded in reality than anything that appeared in any of the Fifty Shades films, which were as much an austere, sanitized fanfic about sex as they were about Twilight. And we’re only 30 minutes into the film when this thing, whatever it is, gets started. The couple untangles their mostly-clothed bodies on the floor, and Maggie tells Jamie politely to get the hell out of her apartment. Then she pages him to fuck in an alley, literally 10 seconds into the next montage. Despite their mutually-stated desire to keep things simple and distant, Jamie manages to spill a bit of expository pillow talk about how he was smart enough to get into med school, but didn’t want to give his dad the satisfaction, and Maggie manages to ask whether he’s ever said a true thing to a woman in his life. And they cuddle a bit. Progress!

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

Jamie goes back to the alley behind the only doctor’s office in Pittsburgh to toss out more of those pesky competing Prozac samples, only to catch a well-earned beating from Trey the Eli Lilly rep (Gabriel Macht), who is also both an ex-Marine and an ex of Maggie’s. Which is a genuinely bizarre and intriguing bit of backstory for Maggie’s character. I wasn’t quite sure how to classify Maggie besides…an experienced medical patient. But in a later scene, she flat-out calls herself a “drug slut”, and I found myself wondering whether being a pharma groupie is or has ever been…a thing? I’ve heard that Emergency Department nurses frequently end up dating cops, and it stands to reason there may be other professional romantic subcultures I may be unaware of. Before COVID, I joked more than once that the business travel market would collapse if not for the professional class’ insatiable need to get away from their spouses and children for a couple weeks a year to discretely bribe and fuck each other amid half-remembered keynotes and breakout sessions, and it fits this motif that Jamie gathers himself up and returns to Dr. Knight’s office (again!), only to get the cold shoulder from both of the receptionists (Judy Greer included), whom Trey has bribed with a convention/trip to Hawaii. The movie is…very unsubtle on this point, at one point showing Dr. Knight (who abuses Viagra samples later in the film) literally injecting himself with testosterone so he can attend a convention-adjacent orgy.

Jamie is naturally a bit bummed about these twin smackdowns, so he goes to see Maggie, who initially looks confused at his arrival with takeout. Structurally, now it’s her turn to be vulnerable and talk about her mother, before they both recoil away from it and remind each other they’re not quite a couple yet. Then they have some honest chitchat about her former affair with Trey the Eli Lilly Rep, who was and is married to someone else. Maggie gets a bit vulnerable here and admits she has a type, and Jamie very wisely gives her no grief for it. Now it’s time for more sex, but Jamie’s mind stays a bit unfocused and flaccid, and his penis follows suit. Maggie smiles and calls him a lying sack of shit with latent humanity (by way of accepting the situation and being kind about it), and they briefly, nakedly act as if they’re in an intimate relationship, eating cereal on the couch and talking about his day. She discusses the psychology of men and their capricious boners, and then lets slip that she read somewhere that Pfizer is developing a “fuck drug”. Hmmm… MDMA already existed in ’96 – and ironically can cause erectile dysfunction – so she must mean Viagra! A vasodilator with an accidentally lucrative side effect (discovered during clinical trials for pulmonary arterial hypertension), which would end up selling over $2 billion in prescriptions over the next decade. But enough about the history – I’m stepping on Hathaway’s superlative and scathing delivery on a rapid-fire series of dick puns as I type this, which finally gets Jamie going again. And for the rest of the movie (after a softball pitch to his boss), Jamie will indeed be selling Viagra, because, as he puts it with that unassailable Gyllenhaal charm, “Who can sell a dick-drug better than me?”

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

Over breakfast the next morning, Maggie has a hand tremor and can’t open a Pop Tart for Jamie. She covers for it, handing him the package, sending him out the door, and asking him not to call again, because she can’t do…this. This being a relationship, which she feels she doesn’t want, can’t handle, doesn’t deserve, shouldn’t inflict upon him, etc. Obviously, it only takes one more scene of [inexplicably pharma-tinged] rom-com theatricality before they decide to give the whole relationship thing a try anyway. It involves a busload of seniors trekking north of the border for meds they can’t afford in the US, an operation that Maggie is either a volunteer or participant for. Jamie endears himself to her by…showing up as the bus leaves, and then waiting all night until it returns, and okay sure, I guess. Love & Other Drugs offers a working definition of a relationship as a constant defining, prodding, communicating, and redefining of both internal and external boundaries to gradually coalesce around each other. In the usual rom-com fashion, much of what Jamie does meets the legal definition of stalking (and he conspires with her doctor’s office to commit multiple HIPAA violations!), and at first, it’s pretty clear that this is just one more dubious conquest for him. Until it isn’t. Then, after their nth hookup, Jamie casually refers to Maggie as his girlfriend, and she realizes she’s okay with that. Then he straight-up has a panic attack when he realizes (and states aloud) that he loves her. It gets worse from there – she has a bad day with her illness, which turns into a bad, drunk, insecure, borderline abusive moment, in which she caps off an unhinged rant by flat-out telling Jamie he’s not a good person just because he “pity-fucked the sick girl”. Then she drops and shatters her vodka glass and bawls onto the floor as Jamie is storming off, but…he comes back to comfort her. This seems thing-adjacent to the typical ebb and flow of a burgeoning romance, so it’s worth taking a step back to discuss this film’s treatment of disease, disability, and mortality.

I’ve seen a number of films in which creatives who aren’t dying or disabled make an effort to get into the headspace of people who are (there is also a healthy discussion around what disabilities it is appropriate for non-disabled actors to depict). Maggie’s illness is largely discussed as an inexorably fatal one, which is not exactly false (people with Parkinson’s do have, on average, reduced lifespans compared to people who don’t), but it’s not exactly true either (early-onset Parkinson’s cases tend to have many years ahead of them). In fact, for a film that’s clearly trying to drop a few real facts about the disease, it somehow elided a detail that I didn’t know until I looked it up after the film: Parkinson’s is not a fatal disease! It is a complex and not terribly well-understood disease (mostly as true now as it was in 2010), but people don’t die from it directly. They die from complications caused by it, such as falls, infections from injuries, aspiration pneumonia (due to swallowing difficulties or feeding tubes), etc.. This may seem like a semantic distinction, but it’s important to consider when viewed in the context of Jamie and Maggie’s respective dysfunctions about it. Jamie and Maggie’s relationship is generally pretty relatable, even if it seesaws back and forth a bit more than a conventional rom-com.  The film seems to generally treat Maggie like anyone else who feels she’s undeserving of, or doesn’t have time for, love, perhaps because of her romantic history, or other concerns in her life, or both. Her Parkinson’s, therefore, feels less like an intrinsic component of her identity than an obstacle the film completely forgets about during the extended fuck-montages and bits of interstitial cringe comedy (including every single appearance by Gad’s wholly excisable brother character), and then remembers when it needs to reach for a moment of romantic pathos.

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

After their drag-out fight and reconciliation, Jamie and Maggie head to Chicago for a pharma convention. Maggie is spotted in short order by another Parkinson’s patient who tells her the real party is across the street, so she excuses herself to the event, which calls itself the “Unconvention”. I thought perhaps the film was going in a weird, alternative-medicine direction at this point, but this was pretty clearly a community support group, featuring a number of real-life Parkinson’s patients. A comedian on-stage (played by Lucy Roucis, who has kept up her craft on the Denver theatre stage in the intervening years!) is doing a bit of disease-themed standup. She’s interspersed with various others, some of whom are clearly untrained actors, hollering out a cathartic series of “fuck [whatever]” type statements for things in their life that annoy them because of their condition – shirt buttons, coffee mugs, soup, etc. A woman in her 50s steps up with a cane and ponders aloud why God wanted Parkinson’s patients to be so good at giving handjobs. And so forth. It’s all very sweet and funny, and a bouquet of emotions flies across Hathaway’s face as we silently learn that Maggie has never seen anything like this, and finds it all terribly moving. And why not? She gets to see variety of people, all different ages, disease stages, and body types, speaking their truth onstage and think that maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a world where she doesn’t have to go through this thing alone. Jamie shows up toward the end, just in time for a man at the coffee bar (who is there with his wife, a Stage 4 Parkinson’s patient), to initially refuse to give him any advice, but when pressed, to admit that he loves his wife, but that his life as a caregiver wasn’t worth it, and he wouldn’t do it again. In fact, he goes further: he flat-out says that Jamie should dump Maggie and find himself a healthy woman. I’ve met multiple older folks who have succumbed to some degree of caregiver fatigue after a long life of looking after a sick partner or family member, and for this film to pretend like everything is hunky-dory for the families of all these people standing up onstage and enjoying community time together would’ve made the whole event seem contrived and insincere. I found this man’s attitude very sad, but I found it to be an honest and relatable narrative choice. I hope he was just having a bad day, and that he has time and people to look after himself as well. But for him to express this attitude aloud illustrates the very real peril that the caregivers of a Parkinson’s patient are in (which in turn places the patient themselves in similar peril). Burnout is a real thing, and kudos to the film for neither overstating it nor shying away from it.

Jamie doesn’t really react to this, because Maggie ushers him out to apologize in the street for the vodka-soaked tirade in the previous scene and say that she loves him. This is a curious repetition of how Jamie came to realize that he loved her – by interacting with other people who weren’t her. This is admittedly still rather sweet, largely because of the actors’ chemistry, but it was also the part of this rom-com that I perhaps found the least relatable. Coming to say “I love you” is something I strongly associate with spending time with the person I love. Finding that feeling through separation seems to be a rom-com trope, but to me, it has always suggested that what these people really love is life itself, or perhaps themselves – and they just felt the need to run home and tell it to their partner. I’m not sure if this makes movie love feel less than the real thing, or if it’s simply narrative shorthand that I can excuse, but my receptivity to it will largely depend on how much I believe the actors when they say the words. The other mirror image going on here is that neither of these two is sure whether anyone else deserves the affliction of being in a relationship with them – Maggie because of her illness, and Jamie because he has spent far too much of his life trying to be an asshole. It’s pretty easy to say Maggie deserves whatever happiness she can grab onto, but what of Jamie? Does he “deserve happiness”? I would say that deserve is not a meaningful framework here. No matter how many bad things a person has done, the only person who can practically deny them happiness is the person himself, and perhaps anyone they think they love. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, discounting any belief in karma or a fair and just world, I think it’s appropriate to say the world is better off if people like Jamie are happy, because then they the world won’t have to deal with his toxic bullshit quite so much – and perhaps neither will his partner. His happiness has the potential to make the world a better place. As for whether Maggie deserves happiness, she obviously does – she’s a kind, intelligent, and creative person who has a lot to offer a potential romantic partner. But there is a similarly brutal utilitarianism that applies to her situation. The idea of Maggie thinking of herself in these terms – as someone that neither the world, nor the people she loves, should have to make the effort to help – felt completely human and sincere, but also made me very sad. As did what happens next.

Jamie gets to work with all of his powers as a pharmaceutical rep who knows Philly’s biggest sexpot physician to try to cure what ails his girlfriend. I’m sure he’ll sort it out, right? He hits up Dr. Knight for contacts for all the cutting-edge, experimental Parkinson’s treatments, and we enter a montage of him dragging Jamie from one medical provider to another trying to order up one (1) Parkinson’s Cure, please! Minus the please. There’s an extended sequence where he harangues a receptionist at Massachusetts General, telling her they flew 2,000 miles (from Pittsburgh – not the first time he has used this weirdly specific numerical lie in this film), only to find out their appointment has been postponed two weeks without notice, then starts Karening out all over her, demanding to see the doctor (who’s not there), the head of the hospital (who doesn’t care), etc., as Maggie sits in the foreground looking more and more mortified before finally getting up to leave. They argue in the snowy parking lot, and she tries to give him a way out here – says she’s bored, and tired, and wants to go home – before he asks her whether she wants to get better, and…that’s it. Maggie realizes that this impossible thing, a cure for her Parkinson’s, has become much too important to Jamie, and tells him they need to go home, make some goodbye love, and then he needs to get his stuff out of her apartment, because they’re breaking up now. Because, as Maggie puts it, Jamie is such a good man he doesn’t want to be the one to walk away, so she’s doing it for him. This doesn’t feel like sarcasm on her part so much as mutually assured destruction. She really does think he’s a good man, but also a weak one. She doesn’t want to inflict herself upon him, but she knows he would allow it…if only he could spend the rest of his life trying to find a cure that doesn’t exist. It’s fraught. And her choice to dump him feels neither arbitrary nor unwise, even if it may not be her only choice.

Excerpt from xkcd webcomic, "Ten Years"Excerpt from xkcd webcomic, “Ten Years“. Comic artist Randall Munroe’s wife recovered from a serious case of breast cancer while in her 20s. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License, almost the same one I use!

Like I said, Maggie makes me very sad. This is obviously a breakup that will reverse itself before the end of the film (if you’ve never seen a rom-com before, I apologize for the spoiler, but I won’t mention the sex-mansion pajama-party breakup-threesome Viagra-mishap!), but even their return to romance feels like a rather dour ending, because this feels like the origin story for the bitter old man at the “Unconvention”. Jamie will stay with Maggie, and spend every waking moment for the next 30 years trying to cure her (a terminal voiceover informs us that he’s thinking of applying to medical school!), before telling a young man in his former position that it wasn’t worth it. And Maggie will let him stay, but she’ll always feel like she’s imposing on him, and will occasionally chase him off for it. In that sense, the movie doesn’t really feel like it even has an ending, so much as it hits the predetermined beats of a rom-com in a story that can’t really mesh with them. This ebb and flow will continue, hopefully for the rest of their lives? Perhaps that was the filmmakers’ intent, but it left me giving this movie some credit for swinging high and missing rather than for telling a complete story. And Love & Other Drugs did swing high. It reflected on the interplay between romantic love and mortality as it relates to the human condition, and its treatment of disability felt neither tokenistic nor disrespectful. And for a film in which every dude is an irredeemable asshole, that counts for a great deal. There is nothing revolutionary about the idea that people who with reduced life expectancies have value and deserve love for whatever time they have, nor is there any separation between them and the rest of us. Maggie may know that her CNS function is on a path to deterioration, but Jamie could still be hit by a bus tomorrow. And for that matter, so could Maggie. Or they might live on. The most horrifying adventure of all.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Banner poster for "Inception"

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.

Inception is 10 years old. I’ve seen innumerable sci-fi films since, but it’s hard to think of an original sci-fi property in the past decade that has so thoroughly remained in the popular consciousness. Even Christopher Nolan‘s 2013 big-budget space adventure Interstellar, which I found to be the more narratively ambitious of the two films, has largely faded from memory apart from people cruelly scoffing at Matthew McConaughey‘s well-earned and well-acted tears. As this is a 10YA review, I will be grappling with how well the film’s big ideas have aged, but it seems worth acknowledging that it never really left the building, and is perhaps the most influential and oft-referenced original sci-fi property since The Matrix. There are broadly two concepts at work here. I’ll spend most of my time on the first, “Extraction,” in which thieves hook themselves up to a subject’s brain using wired briefcase devices that look like a quiz-bowl scoring rig by way of The Fifth Element, in order to enter their dreams and steal their secrets. As cool as the dreamcases look, they might as well be laptop computers for all of their sterility. The Matrix or even eXistenZ make jacking into the brain feel a bit more…personal, invasive, and organic. But let’s step outside the method for a moment, because while brain-machine interfaces have made small, incremental advances in the past decade, entering another person’s dreams remains the stuff of spy-fi (Season 4 of Alias once did two episodes in a row with this trope). While discussing the rules of a multi-layered dream world, team leader Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes very close to giving a shout-out to the 10% brain myth, which struck me as the film giving me permission to handwave plausibility and accept that the only reason we’re talking about “exponentially accelerated brain function” at all is so that Nolan’s sandbox can include time and gravity manipulation. Which is fine! That stuff is awesome! I wasn’t a curmudgeon on this point in 2010, and I haven’t become one in the intervening years. And Nolan’s ambition when it came to making conceptual use of this sandbox was completely matched by his execution. Whether the visual spectacle of Ariadne (Elliot Page) relishing their first experience as a dream-god and folding a computer-generated Paris cityscape up and over itself, or constructing a massive gimbled set so that Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can have a gravity-shifting hallway fight – these brilliantly conceived and executed scenes remain as iconic as Hans Zimmer’s trailer *BRMMMMMMMMP* (as well as myriad other tracks).

So I’m on board with the what. Now let’s talk about the how and why. In true Inception fashion, there are several different layers, some of which have become pretty dated in the ensuing decade. While dream heists are still the stuff of fantasy, the real world has come up with plenty of equally ridiculous methods of stealing information. Websites that track your every move, click, search, and shopping choice. There’s single sign-on, tracking cookies, zombie cookies, third-party domains, adware, transparent pixels, hardware benchmarking, canvas fingerprinting, facial recognition, eye tracking, voiceprint recognition, and probably some other stuff I don’t know about yet. Smartphone apps hoovering up every piece of information you’re willing to give them, including Bluetooth and WiFi connection information which it can use to pinpoint your location and identity, often with greater accuracy and speed than simply handing them GPS data, which many of them either ask for unnecessarily or harvest in the background or sneakily steal anyway. And that’s just the mostly legal stuff. There’s also plenty of non-trivial opt-in surveillance from children’s toys to baby monitors to doorbell cams that invite people to share their data with the cloud, often insecurely. There are man-in-the-middle attacks, phishing, header-spoofing, and SQL injecting. There’s Spectre, Meltdown, Foreshadow, and MouseJack, and other, less cool-sounding hardware vulnerabilities. But there’s also plenty of other cool sci-fi sounding shit here today, including reconstructing LCD monitor emissions from acoustic leakage (essentially a new technique for Van Eck Phreaking), reconstructing keystrokes from an audio recording, and my new favorite, Lamphone, wherein an attacker eavesdrops on a conversation using a laptop, an electro-optical sensor, and a telescope trained on a hanging lightbulb, whose emission variance can be used to reconstruct any audio that exists in its vicinity, including music with enough fidelity to be recognized by Shazam. Many of these are proofs of concept presented by security researchers, but their very nature as covert methods of data theft makes their usage difficult to detect. And while I think Nolan made a wise choice by making the secret-stealing tech in Inception seem so very fantastical, my career in information technology has left me asking an unexpected question about dream-stealing this time around: why would anyone bother? Kidnapping and dreamjacking a billionaire may well yield valuable secrets, but they’re not the sort that would be irretrievable through easier means.

Still from "Inception"

The other thing that has happened in the past decade is that secrets have become less valuable and protected than ever before. We live in a world in which entire media ecosystems exist to provide incontrovertible proof of the wrongdoing of the people in charge, and also to ensure that they never face any consequences for it. Remember the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers? The revelation of secret offshore tax havens used by rich people around the world to evade taxes and responsibility for the systems they’ve helped to create and exploit, which journalists from around the world worked tirelessly for over a year to extract and reveal every last scandal from? Has anything really changed as a result of this? Okay, sure, they brought down the Prime Minister of Iceland. But nearly all of the business practices revealed in this “damning” trove are still legal and broadly used. Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns even released a (not very good) movie to try to explain this to us (in the same year that Burns adapted another several thousand pages of dry text to try to explain that the US tortured people for most of the 2000s), and still: nothing. Millennials have managed to maintain a baseline level of simmering rage (and unapologetic profanity) as we remember that we only hold 3% of the household wealth in the United States. But that’s no secret. And the specific malfeasance of the specific set of jamokes in charge is no secret either. Meanwhile, our leaders openly flaunt their dogshit-terrible InfoSec, and all of our secrets are stolen semi-annually from public and private entities alike.

This led to my most surprising reaction to Inception, a film that I still had an absolute hoot while watching. And that reaction was…taken on its own terms, why should this plot, whether about stealing secrets or manipulating billionaires into doing a slightly different arbitrary thing while maintaining all of their outsized and unaccountable political and economic power, really matter to me? If this were taking place in the real world, would it affect my life in any measurable way, or would one company’s “total energy dominance” just be one more tacitly government-sanctioned monopoly, slowly picking my pockets along with the rest of them? The film attempts to add personal stakes by furnishing Dom with an elaborate and tragic backstory with his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who – despite being a capable femme fatale, comes pre-fridged before the film even begins, and only appears as projection of her widower’s subconscious who torments him as he feebly tries to return to their never-aging kids, who may or may not still exist. How much more literally can you render Nolan’s persistent screenwriting problems with female characters than that? On the side of the angels is dream-architect Ariadne, a solid character made doubly so by Page’s would-be naïve, but ultimately commanding performance. She functions not just as an audience surrogate that the team can explain things to, but as someone who immediately sees the appeal of this life, and starts jonesing for a fix of being a lucid dream god the minute she first (initially) walks away from it. And even as a newcomer, she’s clearly a more capable architect than either Dom or Mal ever were, from the look of their “world”, which has a real copypasta look to it, with the same three or four identical buildings repeated ad infinitum. When Ariadne returns, she immediately starts ignoring Dom’s rules, bearing into his mind and using his own techniques against him, justifying herself to him in the voice of a jilted lover. This has everything to do with me. You’ve asked me to share dreams with you. She has just met Dom, but she knows his subconscious inside and out, and recognizes the threat that dwells within it. Unfortunately, Ariadne’s story basically concludes before they enter the dream. While she tosses out a few wild new dream rules after the two-hour mark, it’s basically Dom and the Dream Team’s story at that point, with Projection Mal occasionally throwing a monkey wrench (or a train) into the works. But apart from some brief strong character work from Ariadne, and Dom’s personal stakes, the rest of the team are simply guns for hire, as well as a writers’ room for the film to make it absolutely clear that all of this was essentially a metaphor for filmmaking and storytelling. And honestly, all of that is fine, and I’m certain that if you’re reading a retrospective on Inception, you’ve probably read plenty on that subject already. An anti-monopolistic plot fueled by a billionaire with daddy issues is as fine a MacGuffin as any. Even Saito (Ken Watanabe) was acting selfishly and never pretended otherwise, and that he and Dom ended up being failed dream-gods, trapped in limbo for decades before then relinquishing their power for equally arbitrary and personal reasons never inspired much sympathy in me then or now. As an elaborate blockbuster spectacle, Inception fires on all cylinders, showcasing some of the most compelling and original filmmaking ever put to the big screen. But for all of the detail, there was never very much substance here. It was all just…a very good dream.

Still from "Inception"

Astute readers may notice I’ve wandered afield from the plot of this film, and barely touched upon the titular concept of “Inception”, a violation that amounts to brainwashing bordering on replacement of an unknowing individual. Planting inspiration into someone’s mind in order to change every aspect of who they are and what they’ll do is an act that the film’s dialogue casually treats like murder, or at the very least involuntary manslaughter. But Inception doesn’t dwell long on the morality of this procedure, and I don’t see any reason why I should do so either. I suppose I could add a sentence on the twenty boring and inconsequential minutes of Tom Hardy (or perhaps his stunt double) reenacting Die Hard 2 with some anonymous goons on snowmobiles, or spend a paragraph quibbling over totem mechanics. But we’re in the middle of a pandemic and a long overdue reckoning on unaccountable police brutality and systemic racism in America, and I can write whatever I want. Even more astute readers may have noticed…that the dream is collapsing. Whether it’s the release date of the next Nolan film, the always-preposterous notion that anyone was sincere when they said “all lives matter”, or the idea that America is exceptional in any measurable way besides military spending and political and economic dysfunction bordering on cultish mass suicide, it’s hard to engage in this sort of diversion…okay so the totems they really do make no sense at all as a means of discerning reality from dreams because they rely on surety about the totem’s inimitable physical characteristics that would vanish the first time the user goes to sleep in a room with someone else for the second time, with the unavoidable knowledge that they might’ve rifled through your pockets while you were asleep the first time, except for Dom’s spinning top, which is completely different from all the other totems and relies on its ability to exhibit behavior that is physically impossible, which, ya know, good totem if you can get it…without keeping some of my mind occupied on the depravities of the real world. Revisiting a blockbuster from the past is a fine diversion. I wouldn’t do it unless I still enjoyed it. But it also reminds me of what we’re in the process of losing, which may include the very idea of a blockbuster. And I’m definitely starting to wonder how we’ll distract ourselves after the theaters are gone, and the only bold new worlds remaining are made for half-watching.

FilmWonk rating: Feels a bit of an afterthought at this point, but 7.5/10.

Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "The Kids Are All Right"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“Each of my moms had a kid, you know, with your sperm…”
-“No, I didn’t know.”
“Oh.”
-“Both of them?”

“Yeah.”
-“Like in two?”
“Uh huh. Like in gay.”
-“Oh. Right on. Right on! Yeah! Cool! I love lesbians!”

“Listen, when you’ve been a parent for 18 years, come talk to me.”
-“I was just making an observation.”
“Yeah? And I need your observations like I need a dick in my ass!”

If I were to include a third quote above, it would be “I’m not looking for a pat on the head”, which is something I said in 2012 by way of endorsing Referendum 74, a ballot initiative which had the effect of legalizing same-sex marriage in my home state of Washington – three years before the Supreme Court would rule in Obergefell v. Hodges that marriage is a right guaranteed to all Americans (including LGBTQ Americans) under the Constitution, and must therefore become legal for same-sex couples throughout the United States. And I’m really not. Looking for a pat on the head. Washington only narrowly approved the measure, with 46.3% of the state, 1.4 million voters, voting against it. My fellow citizens cast their gaze upon marriages such as the one in this film, between Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules Allgood (Julianne Moore) and said, “No, I won’t call that marriage, and I won’t call that family.” I’m relieved in retrospect that I never got a chance to vote on other people’s marriages before I was quite ready to treat them as deserving of the same rights as me. 2012 was the year I got married, and it was my own impending walk down the aisle that finally kicked me across the lazy libertarian line to say that if civil marriage is to be something that the government is involved in, then it needs to be available for everyone. A few years later, over a celebratory backyard scotch, a friend – himself in a long-term relationship – asked me why I’d gotten married, as opposed to just continuing with a long-term relationship. He and his girlfriend were willing to make such a commitment, but neither of them felt as if the designation would change anything. The punchline of this is that the two of them would end up marrying in secret and not telling the rest of us for months. To this day, he insists that I never sold him on it. But I sure did try. I yammered on for 20 minutes or so, offering variations on the same answer: “It’s institutional shorthand!” I could offer my insights on what I think marriage should be – a situation of confidence and trust, partnership, with mutual respect and support. As a practical matter, something that you’ll both have to work at with varying degrees of success for the rest of your life. A safe place.

But I was talking about what it is, to the rest of society, even if they know nothing about either of us. Shorthand. This. Is. My. Wife. She is the family I’ve chosen, and I am hers. Now give me her fucking prescriptions. Quote me for our next year of health insurance, oh wait, she has her own now, let me know how much I’ll save on health insurance. Let us file our taxes and manage our accounts. Call her if you can’t reach me and vice versa. Lemme change our broadband. Lemme consolidate our phone plans. Or let her. Depending which of us lost the coin flip. Let me know she’s okay. Tell me which room she’s in. Tell me what meds you’ve given her. Ship her my records. Ship her my effects. Tell her if I’m dying. Let her make choices for me, if I can’t make them for myself. Respect our personal, legal, and moral decision to belong to each other for the rest of our natural lives. And if it comes to it, let her claim and then decide where to scatter my ashes, or tell me where to do the same. I can’t tell anyone what marriage should be for themselves. Except, at minimum, a safe place. But marriage is a civil right guaranteed to all Americans precisely because we – the straight, white majority – afford it such power in our society. It makes everything smoother. Simpler. A common external rule set for all, even if the internal one may vary.

Still from "The Kids Are All Right"

The only feedback I can find from my first viewing of The Kids Are All Right was from early 2011, where I said the film “didn’t quite do it for me” by way of backhandedly praising Bening’s performance as Nic, and I felt like I enjoyed it more this time around, even if my reservations have only increased. At the very least, I’ve aged and married into a slightly richer appreciation of it, even if I’m not quite old enough to have much to say about parenting teenagers. What began at least in part as an instructional tool to coach the hetero crowd about how ordinary and non-threatening same-sex marriage between a pair of upper-middle-class white people can be (which is itself conceding a great deal of power to define “ordinary” as “what most closely resembles the majority”), in truth, the film always contained a measure of substance and insight about marriage in general, while also positing concerns that are unique to a family with two mothers and two biological children who are technically half-siblings with the same sperm-donor, with one carried by each mother. When Nic criticizes the flightiness of their 15-year-old boy Laser (Josh Hutcherson), Jules (who carried Laser in her womb) regards it as criticism of her personally. Both of these women are clearly loving parents to both children (at least until the events of this film), but it definitely comes through in both performances that these women can’t simply turn off their feelings, and there are clearly moments in which they each feel more protective of the child they personally carried. Which is…kinda fucked up! But the film seems aware of that, and Cholodenko’s willingness to engage with these sorts of feelings is a mark in favor of the film’s emotional honesty.

Enter bio-dad Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who indirectly furnished sperm to this family for sixty bucks a pop when he was 19, and had no idea these children existed until they reached out to him. Joni (Mia Wasikowska), who has just turned 18, only reaches out to the sperm bank because her brother (who is too young to legally make this request) begs her to do it. She doesn’t have any particular interest in meeting Paul, and is far more concerned about hurting their mothers’ feelings. Once the pair of them meet Paul, they basically flip positions. Joni finds herself charmed by Paul in spite of herself, and Laser thinks he’s a bit of a loser. Wasikowska and Hutcherson give fine performances here, but there’s not a lot of detail to these teenagers beyond the arc of their feelings for Paul, and I really don’t have much else to say about them. As for Paul, I think we’re initially just meant to find him a bit dopey (that is very much the vibe with his “I love lesbians!” quoted above). He is presented as a layabout who is somehow also running a successful organic foods restaurant and sportfucking with one of his employees. Tanya (Yaya DaCosta) isn’t an elaborate character, starting off as a comic foil to make sperm jokes with Paul between rounds of casual sex and even more casual restaurant bookkeeping, but she is 15 years younger, and also transparent about her desire to have a more serious relationship with him. I remain mixed on this subplot. The completely unexamined power dynamics of this boss-employee relationship notwithstanding, I think this character pretty much only exists to help Paul seem like a dope who was already kinda dopey prior to the events of the film. While he more or less confirms that judgment by turning down a woman willingly offering to make a family with him – the very thing he claims to want by the end of the film – it really does feel like putting a hat on a hat at that point.

So Paul and Jules have a fling. And if I might share another area of personal growth in the past decade, my mind is substantially less blown by the idea of lesbian women recreationally watching gay male pornography, or a lesbian woman having sex with a man and continuing to speak and think of herself as Kinsey-6 gay. People are what they are, and they do what they do, and the extent to which their behavior informs what labels they apply to themselves is both a product of their own decision-making and self-awareness, as well as a huge, heaping spoonful of societal pressure. In this film, real-life lesbian Lisa Cholodenko posits that, eh, this particular fictitious lesbian might decide to have sex with a man, but that’s less a byproduct of any identity-shattering change to her sexuality than of the dysfunction within her marriage and her simple desire to feel something outside of her wife’s web of control. That’s to say, the film posits that people in same-sex marriages cheat for the same reasons as people in heterosexual marriages, and the specific other [person] is less important, and by the way, human sexuality is fluid. I’ll admit, I think I’m reaching a bit in giving this film credit for self-awareness on the fluidity of human sexuality. I tend to give films credit for perceived good intentions – I even have fond memories of Chasing Amy, no matter how poorly that film and director Kevin Smith‘s contemporaneous explanations of it have aged. And yet, such stories exist in a world in which gay conversion therapy is a very real (pseudo-scientific) thing that has resulted in very real harm to thousands of children, which makes the legacy of films that suggest, but do not say anything terribly specific or insightful about, the fluidity of sexuality (which tends to most frequently come in the form of men “curing” women of their silly lack of attraction to men) rather tricky to evaluate.

This is what makes representation such a double-edged sword. I do believe that a film featuring a same-sex couple raising two happy and healthy and relatively well-adjusted children – even amid their own mistakes – will gradually help society acclimate to the existence of such families, and gradually expand their mental picture of what a family can look like. And yet, it is also true that any attempt to over-universalize depictions of a minority group will run the risk of stereotyping and maintaining a limited understanding of them, and reinforcing blind spots that the film either lacks the time or inclination to address. Which leaves the poor hapless critic, seeing yet another underrepresented group finally represented in film, shooting their privileged mouth off with the memory and context of a goldfish when it comes to evaluating the authenticity of such depictions, and forgetting their prior praise just as quickly whenever the next one comes out, whether it really manages to push some new boundary or not.

Professor Suzanna Danuta Walters discusses this film at some length in her 2014 book, The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality. After appropriately excoriating mainstream critics for their tendency to universalize the film’s characters, she offers this withering feedback:

“No, my problem is much more with the reliance on universality, which entails—almost always—a de-gaying of gayness, which gets to the heart of the tolerance trap. This tolerant de-gaying relies on stereotyped gender paradigms so that the women are depicted as—really—just like our neighbors down the street, where daddy goes out to work and mommy stays at home. Lesbian culture and lesbian friends are invisible, and the film erases the extended queer kinship networks that most of us do construct out of both need and desire. This last issue remains—for me at least—the most persistently troubling. If invisibility and sad stereotypes were the problems of the past, then a new glib tokenism and erasure of community seem to be the signs of the difficult present. Gayness is the motivation for these plots, but is emptied of any specific (gay) meaning. Instead, these stories offer up a liberal universalism that acts as a cultural pat on the back for tolerant heterosexuals and an accepting hug for assimilated gays.”

I don’t have a good answer for this, except that Walters isn’t wrong. As someone who has built a family over the last decade, I can speak to how I identify with Nic when she calls Paul a “fucking interloper”, and tells him to go out and make his own family. But I can’t speak to whether that desire to assert control and possession over one’s family, a societally coded trait of traditional masculinity, is A) something that the film regards as essential even in a household run by lesbian women, and B) is a position that the film is advocating for as a positive good, or is simply presenting as the capstone of Nic’s most persistent character flaws throughout the film: her desire to control every situation even when her family is warily eyeing each other like, “Mom, you’re doing it again.” To attempt to answer this question makes me feel, frankly, like a fucking interloper. But one thing I have learned in the past decade is that as film critics, we need to do better than just, “This story made me feel feelings, and also made me realize that people who lead different lives from me also feel feelings.” I can express at some length what marriage and family mean to me, and attempted to do so above. I can try to both reinforce and challenge those beliefs in the culture that I consume, and I did find some of that to latch onto while watching The Kids Are All Right. But if I really, truly want to know how a community feels about the quality of their limited representation in media, that’s not a question I should need to open my mouth too wide or too frequently to answer.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #169 – “The Vast of Night” (dir. Andrew Patterson), “Holy Motors” (dir. Leos Carax)

Poster for "The Vast of Night"

On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel head back in time to the age of radio to check out the outstanding small-town sci-fi drama debut from director Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night (which premieres on Amazon Prime today), and then come almost all the way back to the present day with Leos Carax‘s delightfully wacky 2012 film Holy Motors (54:03).

Still from "Holy Motors"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (The Vast of Night): 8/10 (Daniel), 9/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Holy Motors): 6/10 (Daniel), 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [02:14] Review: The Vast of Night
  • [17:19] Spoilers: The Vast of Night
  • [33:42] Review: Holy Motors
  • Music for this episode can be heard on the AM radio.
  • We mentioned a pair of audio drama podcasts as points of tonal comparison for The Vast of Night:
    • The Message by Mac Rogers (made for the former GE Podcast Theater; shares a feed with another excellent audio drama, LifeAfter)
    • Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
  • Daniel chose Holy Motors from an excellent list from David Sims at The Atlantic, which we may be revisiting again.

Listen above, or download: The Vast of Night, Holy Motors (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

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

Poster for "Final Destination" (2000 film)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth (or in this case, 20th) anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

Still from "Final Destination"

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

Clear Rivers (Ali Larter)

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

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

Still from "Final Destination"

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

Still from "Final Destination"

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

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

Stay safe out there.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10