Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” (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.

Ad exec Will (Ryan Reynolds) wanders through Manhattan to pick up his daughter, playing “the perfect song” for when you’ve just been served with divorce papers: “Everyday People” by Sly & the Family Stone. Let’s agree to disagree, movie. This is perhaps the most generic song until “ABC” the following year, and it isn’t nearly as catchy. My overt hostility this early into the film should tell you what to expect here – this is the first 10YA film I’ve rewatched and found substantially less enjoyable than my first viewing a decade ago. So let’s do this thing. Will’s tiny individual Bluetooth earbuds indicate that he is abundantly wealthy and tech-savvy by 2008 standards (these are still barely a thing). He interacts with a series of New York street people from central casting as the credits play, then wanders up to his daughter’s school.

“Sometimes, no matter how carefully you plan your playlist, there is no right track for what awaits you.”

I normally begin my 10YA reviews with a selection from the opening voiceover, but this is really the first time it’s been this trite and inconsequential. His song is uninspired, his metaphor is now dated, and “what awaits him” is a bit of a cacophony at the school because the kids have just started sex-ed. His daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) explains the mechanics of sex, and asks a perfectly reasonable question – her friend Sammy Boigon’s sister says he was an accident, and how do you accidentally thrust a penis into a vagina? Will shuts her down, telling her to stop saying such accurate words (“say tinkle-part or wee-wee or something cute”) – bad form, Will. Comprehensive sex-ed is better for a reason. She then asks more pointedly, “If they didn’t want to have a baby, why did they have sex?” Will misses a second teachable moment, and says they were rehearsing. He’ll miss another one later when his daughter asks, “What’s the boy word for slut?” One thing I’ve done since 2008 is become a parent, and I really try not to judge how other parents handle common pitfalls. But Will seriously biffs this moment, and given that it’s one of the only consequential moments with his daughter until the end of the film, it seems worth noting.

Anyway, all of this was an awkward lead-in to Maya asking how Will met her mother. Does this premise sound familiar? The CBS series “How I Met Your Mother” was in its third season and largely unknown to me in 2008, although seeing this film may have seeded my interest in it. Now that I’ve seen that whole series, which spawned a skip list and series-end podcast in which I called it “one of the finest sitcoms on television,” this film suffers by comparison, both in the credibility and structure of the story, and the likability of the characters. More on that later. Will agrees to tell Maya the complete story of his adult dating life, but he’s going to change the names, and he won’t reveal until the end who her mother is. Definitely, Maybe does a poor job of justifying its premise. It attempts to lend a sense of urgency and purpose to the story by couching it as Maya’s precocious attempt to “solve” her parents’ impending divorce. And Will makes it clear (to the audience) that he knows this, but never that he’s doing this for some definable purpose, or even against his better judgment. Beyond the appropriateness of the subject matter, this just really seems like a bad idea. But…what the hell do I know, I’ve never been divorced. To call this situation desperate and sad seems a bit obvious, but it’s all I’ve got going in.

The tale begins. In 1992, Will is a volunteer for the Young Democrats of America in Madison, Wisconsin, and we meet Lady #1: Will’s college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks). If I remember correctly, this is Maya’s mother. I obviously didn’t know this the first time I saw the film, but seeing it now, the film definitely pats itself on the back several times for hiding this result. Maya even guesses that it’s never the first girlfriend you meet – which implies that she knows more stories in this “rom-com mystery” genre that I’m unaware of. The only other one I can think of is Extraterrestrial, and the mystery there was “What’s up with the alien spaceship hovering over our one-night stand?”, but no matter. These particular early-90s Democrats work for the Clintons, and Will is leaving for New York to work for Bill’s presidential campaign. Because Will wants to be president. I give the movie kudos for presenting Will’s political aspirations (with a mix of real and fictional politicians) as something admirable and sincere. Reynolds plays Will’s later disappointment with President Clinton’s scandals in a way that feels genuine and devoid of cynicism. Clinton is his idol, and his fall from grace disappoints him. It doesn’t count for much of the film’s plot, but it’s something.

Emily, who is staying behind, sends Will along with a book-sized package to return to one Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz), whom she met on her exchange program at Cambridge. You may be assuming that this means Weisz will speak with her native British accent, and you would be wrong. Emily notes that all the guys wanted to sleep with her, and Will suggests that perhaps she should mail it instead. Whoops. We haven’t seen her yet, but Summer is Lady #2, and Will is definitely, 100% going to sleep with her. Flying into New York, Will looks out the window and sees…what looks like archive footage of the NYC skyline. The WTC towers are visible, but also it looks a bit grainy, which is a strange thing to see in HD. He’s handed a cellular telephone just slightly more advanced than the one Zack Morris carried in ’92, and is sent to get coffee and bagels. When he returns, he wipes out offscreen into the men’s room with a comically huge pile of TP while the campaign manager briefs everyone, and screams “what am I doing here?!” We get it, movie. Shit rolls downhill. This film largely predates the gig economy, but like its politics, Will’s bitching about his no-future entry-level political job feels petty. Suck it up, intern.

Will meets April (Isla Fisher) at the copy machine, and they flirt. April is apolitical – this is just a gig for her. She’s also Lady #3. Will makes some vague promises about how great Clinton will be for African-Americans and women, and then the Gennifer Flowers scandal breaks. Whoops. The campaign gang goes out for beers, and they spontaneously compare notes on who their romantic “types” are. Will’s type is brunettes with horn-rimmed glasses (neither Emily nor April). He drunk-dials Emily, who correctly concludes that he’s never coming back from NYC. Back in his room, with some prodding from his campaign roommate Russell (Derek Luke), Will rips open the package from Emily and finds…a diary. They decide they can’t read it. Then they read it, it plays as light erotica written by a dude, and it seems that Summer might be Emily’s ex-lover. I’ll go ahead and admit an area of personal growth for me here: This is definitely something that would’ve seemed like a bigger deal to me in 2008 than now – I didn’t really grok the Kinsey scale in those days, and this sort of revelation would’ve made me feel insecure in a more categorical way than the existence of ex-boyfriends. But it’s a personal hang-up that I find silly in retrospect (you’re either confident the person you’re dating likes you, or you’re not), and I’m glad to be past it.

Will heads over to Summer’s apartment without calling first, and finds Kevin Kline in an open bathrobe. He is Professor Hampton Roth. Will asks if he is Summer’s father, and he confirms, “Yeah, I’m her daddy.” Gross. Then – and I’ll pause here to note that it’s about 10AM – he pours some Johnny Walker. The boys get hammered and pass out, and Will awakens to the face of Summer, who introduces the professor as her boyfriend (and thesis advisor). They engage in some flirtatious banter in Weisz’s hit-or-miss American accent. This was a miss. The accent, and the character. She asks if he read the erotica-diary, throws it at him and suggests that he read it when he’s lonely, then follows him into the hallway and kisses him. “Sorry,” Summer says, “I was just curious. Hampton encourages me to cultivate my curiosity.” Ugh. These two met 60 seconds ago. This is utterly bizarre, even in this genre.

Back at the campaign, Will is stapling signs, nearly staples his hand, and screams aloud again, “What am I doing here?!” Each of these complaint beats feels like the failure mode of an “As Seen on TV” commercial.  Luckily, the movie has also lost patience with this, and campaign manager Arthur Robredo (Nestor Serrano) realizes he needs someone with a Wisconsin connection to court Madison donors in the NY area. Will now has a desk and a real job, and it turns out he’s an ace at it, selling out an entire fundraiser table. He runs into April buying cigarettes at the convenience store, and the two have a dumb argument about which of their brands is healthier and/or burns faster. Then they proceed to have a competitive smoke-off. During the ensuing chat, we learn that it’s April’s birthday, her musician boyfriend stood her up (on her birthday!). She wins the bet, but declines the payoff, and they haggle their way into attending a party together. They end up on a rooftop, and Will reveals that he plans to propose to Emily when she comes to NYC. April invites Will to practice the proposal on her. He starts with a half-assed “Will you, um, marry me?”, and she gives a solid rehearsed speech excoriating him for it. This is a decent scene – not because of the overwritten rom-com speeches, but because April is not being a ridiculous caricature here – perhaps just a hit heightened. She’s neither manic, nor pixie. I buy that she has a life outside of this moment. They go back to her apartment for tea, and they have a nice chat about a copy of Jane Eyre that her father inscribed and gave her before his untimely death. This’ll be important later. They chat all night about music, politics, travel, etc, and she tosses in a line about how this is nice that they can just sit here and chat and not have to worry about flirting or all the attraction stuff. Then they frantically make out, and then he leaves. It’s a mess. So far, I believe this relationship the most of the three.

Back in the hotel, Emily – Will’s actual girlfriend, remember – has arrived on the red-eye to surprise him in the morning! She takes the elevator, he takes the stairs, and he magically gets to the room…long after she does. Well played, movie. But it’s fine, because his roommate has covered for him. They kiss, and Emily notes a bit frantically that his tongue tastes different. They wander through Central Park, and Will tells a rambling story of how his father ran into an ex on his way to propose to his mother (meta-story!), and it turns out he’s proposing to Emily now, and Emily panics and scream-admits that she slept with Will’s roommate Charlie. So it’s over. And I now remember with absolute certainty that Emily is the mother, so at some point this will all be a double-reversal. Back at the campaign, Bill Clinton has won the New York primary (and three others, including Wisconsin), and it’s party time. April drops by to see why Will is so miserable, and they banter and apologize for the kissing. They have a competitive metaphor-off for how disastrous their hypothetical romance would be, and she wins with “Sandpaper and bare ass (you’d be the ass)”. Then she asks him to dance. I continue to buy this relationship the most of the three.

Will and Russell hit the road to continue with the campaign. And then time advances, montage-style. Once Clinton is elected, the two form their own political consultancy, and they join the [fictitious] gubernatorial campaign of their old boss, Arthur Robredo. Will starts dating again, April dumps her loser boyfriend and goes traveling, and the two become pen pals, and fast friends. It’s 1994 in New York. Will lazily informs us that the internet is getting started, everyone on the street has a large (but not huge) cell phone, and I start to think this movie has Forrest Gump ambitions of being a time capsule for future rosy-eyed nostalgia. It would really need a better soundtrack for that. Will gets invited to a book signing with Professor Roth, and runs into Summer again. Summer is writing for NYMag, and the professor has moved on to dating a pair of college freshmen. Legal, but still gross. And the three of them have engage in more preposterous banter. It is utter nonsense that any of these people would remember each other from a single meeting two years earlier (kisses and drunkenness notwithstanding), and all of this feels forced. Summer agrees to write an article about the campaign. She and Will go out for dinner again, flirt like crazy some more, and montage their way into a relationship (much of which is weirdly musically-focused and takes place on the same park bench). They make out on various couches, decide to spend the whole day in bed together, then they’re immediately called away to the hospital to tend to Professor Roth, who has had an aortic rupture (a condition with a 90% mortality rate) and is somehow still alive. Roth is just conscious enough to criticize her for not writing a sufficiently hard-hitting exposé on Robredo’s campaign, seeding the destruction of this relationship, which is barely five minutes old in movie time.

And then April returns. They wander the streets, and she tells a story of bursting into tears after making out with a hot stranger on a Cretan beach, because she realized that she couldn’t see a relationship with this guy going well. And then she realized she simply had to tell someone specific about this, and that someone is right in front of her face- annnnd while they’ve been talking, they’ve walked into a jewelry store because Will is picking up a diamond engagement ring for Summer. Whoops! Back in the present day, daughter Maya recites some subtext: “Weren’t you listening? She came home for you!” Will looks pensive, as if he somehow didn’t realize this. This is where the structure of the movie strains credulity a bit. It’s certainly possible for someone to interrupt a personal anecdote to say, “Hey, you were the asshole there”. But it doesn’t really make sense that Will would tell this story, which obviously emphasizes April as a major participant, if he never realized that April was one of his own love interests. He can tell the story of how he met Maya’s mother, but April is only an important character if she’s a potential mother, and it sounds like Will is supposed to be gobsmacked by this sudden realization.

Back in ’94, he goes to meet Summer. NYMag has asked her to do a followup on Robredo, which she has already written, and it’s a doozy: Robredo abused his political influence to get a friend an early parole from prison. Will says this is bad…that his boss is the “tough-on-crime Democrat”. Then he tells her if she hands this in, “we won’t survive this.” Summer starts to equivocate, and then he makes it clearer. “I’m talking about you and me.” This is the point in the story in which I interrupt Will and say, “Hey, you were the asshole there,” because that’s a hell of a thing to say to someone you’re about to propose to. It’s also the point where I say the same thing to Summer, because writing an exposé about her boyfriend’s campaign…well, I’m no journalist, but it sounds like a serious conflict of interest. And it turns out she’s already handed it in, so the campaign and the relationship are over. The relationship careening off a cliff makes sense, since this relationship was utter tosh to begin with – but politically, this feels quaint in a post-2016 world. This is a mundane bit of patronage, and it’s hard to imagine this scandal would torpedo a campaign today, when every politician with a national profile is gleefully ignoring multiple career-defining scandals each week. The world got weird and ugly. The GOP backed Roy Moore. And this would barely make a dent today.

Speaking of scandal, we flash forward to 1997, when Clinton is about to be impeached, and April finally calls Will back, leading with “Are you watching?” I guess their meta-awareness that they’re in a story is just something I’ll have to suspend disbelief on, because this is a weird way to call someone after a three-year break. They banter. April is quite sure that Bill did it, saying of Monica Lewinsky, “Look at the picture of her! I love her, she’s so his type.” I was rather incredulous at this line – both because we seem to have found the one person in 1997 who was kind to Lewinsky, and because… Well. I’m not going to pretend we (or I) have found some sudden piety on the subject of powerful men abusing their positions to make advances on the women in their employment in the past six months, much less the past decade since I first saw the film. This is an issue we’ll be coming to terms with for a long time as we begin the slow, generational task of reducing the incidence of women being drummed out of male-dominated industries by sexual harassment from men in supervisory roles. That said, it seems worth acknowledging that “she is so his type,” while perhaps a period-accurate statement for someone to make in 1997, is a little fucked up. As if type has much bearing on it when he’s the President of the United States.

Later, Will and April are back in a diner, and they discuss the nature of finding “the One”. April says it’s not a matter of who, but when – you reach a point where you’re ready to settle down, and whoever you’re with then becomes The One. More on this at the end. But first, Will dopily inquires if there’s ever been a guy that made her think, “This is it, this is him.” Isla Fisher kills this moment, because standard rom-com misfortune dictates that she has had this exact thought about Will, but April reveals just enough of this for the audience, but not enough for dunderhead Will. Then she reveals that she’s seeing someone (a dude named Kevin), and Will gets drunk. He’s disappointed with his life, Clinton’s linguistic dickery over the word ‘is’, and obviously the April situation. He checks his answering machine (kids, this was like a Google Home that only worked offline), and finds messages from April about his upcoming birthday, a surprise call from Emily (who is in New York), and April again. He wraps himself in a blue blanket of sadness, and April shows up at his door. This is the second time she has come looking for him when he’s being a sad sack and avoiding a party. This happened to me once in my early 20s, and I also failed to pick up on its meaning at the time. Will fails similarly, falling on his face off-screen as April marvels inconsequentially as his disheveled apartment, and- WHOA. Aggressive smash cut to them arriving at the party, and it really feels like there was supposed to be more dialogue here. I guess the movie was running long.

Here we see most of the minor characters from earlier in the movie. They chat about Bill Clinton, whom Will has genuinely lost faith in, and thinks maybe should be impeached. Will leaves the party, gets drunk (again), and wanders to April’s doorstep, where she finds him and cheekily berates him for missing his cake, which she baked (*sigh*). And hang on, folks, because this scene is quite a ride. He quotes Nirvana. She takes an intimate swig of his beer without asking. He calls her beautiful and she thanks him. He drunkenly confesses that he likes her, then soberly confesses that he’s in love with her. He then projects some insecurity onto her, and she says he’s an idiot. He kisses her, and she pulls away and demands to know why he didn’t tell her sooner, instead of like this, when his “shit is a mess”. And he apparently took the ‘mess’ thing personally because he gets personal, and nasty. Nastier than their friendship can withstand. He insults her life and her career and her choices, and then twists the knife by saying he’s just saying this as a friend. She slaps him and goes inside. Reynolds made his bones playing the loveable asshole, but I’ve seen him play truly unlikeable only a handful of times. It works for the villain at a nostalgic theme park, but not the hero of a romantic drama.

Will wanders past a bookstore and finds the lost copy of Jane Eyre that both he and April were looking for, with the inscription from her father inside. Finding a specific lost copy of a book is a ridiculous plot device, but we’re moving at lightning speed now, and this is the only artifact that can save this relationship. He arrives at April’s apartment to deliver it. April’s roommate answers the door, and she is visibly amused by the torrent of sad sack apology messages he has apparently been leaving on the answering machine, because restraining orders don’t exist in Comedy World. She lets him into their gargantuan apartment, where he finds April’s boyfriend Kevin, who is Model-Hot, and who mentions he lives with her. This means Kevin should also be aware of the apology messages, so he’s either the most chill dude in the world, or he just sees Will as that non-threatening. Will leaves. Oh, and April’s in grad school now, so his abusive rant apparently stoked her ambition. More on this later.

Next up, he’s at a sidewalk café, a waitress brings him a gigantic glass of wine, and asks, “Do you know what you want yet?” “No, ” he responds, with a dumb double meaning. Summer wanders up, and is pregnant. Baby-daddy’s out of the picture, and she invites him to a party to make amends, and – whoa whoa whoa. Back in the present, Maya is now completely freaked out and demands to know if Will is really her father, and I have to say, the movie is being downright sadistic now. He is her father, and he’s a terrible one at that. He says this story has a happy ending, and she demands to know how that could possibly be, when whoever her mother is, they’re getting divorced. He offers to stop, then goes to get her a cup of tea before they continue. She falls asleep. Poor kid. The next morning, they get a bagel and continue the story. Will arrives at Summer’s party, and gives her flowers. She makes niceties, we learn that Professor Roth died alone in his office, and he…accuses her of planning to seduce him. Seriously, this rom-com narcissism is getting tedious. It’s like Will has read the script and knows these women are required to be into him (à la Black Mirror‘s “USS Callister”). She shrugs that off and asks if they can be friends, he agrees, and she leads him across the room to meet an old friend…his ex-girlfriend Emily, who lives in New York now. The two share some easy banter over whether he intended to call her, and he puts her number directly into his Motorola StarTac (I had one of those!) because he actually means to call her back this time. Later, Emily and Will wander in the park, and she makes overtures about continuing the relationship, and reaches up and strokes the side of his head, and BAM – Maya figured it out. Emily (real name: Sarah) is her mother, because she does that head-stroking thing to her too. Do I even need to point out that it would seem a bit odd for Will to include this particular visual detail in a story told verbally? No? Okay, let’s move on.

Sarah (who is Emily, remember) walks up, and they all share a stoic trip to the zoo. They stand in front of the penguins, and Maya teaches them all about lifelong penguin monogamy. It’s sad. We don’t know why these two are splitting up any more than we know why they got back together, so it’s hard to invest much in this scene apart from the grim knowledge that there must be a good reason. Maya leaves with her mother, then runs back to thank her dad for telling her the story. Will says he forgot to tell her the happy ending. He looks his daughter in the eye: “You.” They embrace. It’s a sweet and completely unearned moment. Bless her, Abigail Breslin adds almost nothing to this film. This girl was Little Miss Sunshine, and here she is relegated to a sympathetic sounding board for a midlife crisis. Then Bill Clinton (impersonator Dale Leigh) jogs by with a Secret Service detail, and Will shouts a greeting. Clinton waves, and…Will has closure, I guess? About something?

Will goes back to his office, signs the divorce papers, and finds the copy of Jane Eyre that he located for April, now many years earlier. And it’s happy ending time. He finds April at the offices of Amnesty International, in an unspecified do-gooder dream job. And here’s something I definitely didn’t realize in 2008: the movie is pretty clearly telling us that the torrent of drunken abuse that Will threw at April earlier was instrumental in helping her go back to school and get her life back on track, and this feels deeply unsettling in retrospect. All that we saw of April earlier was that she was confident, capable, gainfully employed, had saved enough money to go traveling (and then did so), and was in multiple relationships that we have no particular reason to believe were unhealthy. Will’s criticism of her in that scene is all the more baffling because it comes out of nowhere, and if the movie intended for him to be wrong or misguided, it does a terrible job of showing it. April laughs at him on arrival (in a “happy to see you” sorta way). They trade details: No one’s dating anyone, no one’s currently smoking, he just got divorced (which she somehow heard already), and the two are maybe finally ready to be together? He gives her the book. She cries and thanks him. He completely unnecessarily tells her that he’s had it for years, and apologizes. She tells him to leave. Come on, movie. Coffee is for closers.

Back home, Maya berates him, and reveals that Summer’s real name is Natasha (“who writes for that magazine”), and asks why he didn’t change April’s name in the story. She tells him he’s not happy. He tells her to get her coat. They head for Brooklyn. This is incredibly inappropriate, and I guess it’s really happening… They buzz April’s apartment, she demands to know who the kid is speaking in the background. He tells her. “That’s kinda cheating, isn’t it? Bringing your daughter?” Yes, April, yes it is. They decide to count to thirty and leave if April doesn’t come down. As April listens to this on the intercom, Maya tells Will he should tell April the story, and “Then she’ll know!”. They reach 30 and start to walk away, and April bounds out the front door, surprising no one, to ask, “What story?” He says he kept the book because it was the only thing he had left of her, and he couldn’t let her go completely. They embrace. Then they go inside for some awkward storytime, but not before the two grownups pop back out to the front step for a huge smooch. Annnnd we’re out. Good luck folks.

At the risk of vaguely spoiling How I Met Your Mother, the series did all of the same things as this movie, and it certainly had its share of redundancy and meandering subplots. It also tried to have its ending both ways in a similar way, giving the main character a happy (but ultimately doomed) romance with one character, only to pair him with another at the end. But what was it all for? Well, in How I Met Your Mother, the explicit message (as narrated by Bob Saget) was that love is hard, but it’s worth it, because it’s the best thing we do. The only thing close to a coherent message I can extract from Definitely, Maybe is April’s speech about finding The One – that at a certain point, everyone just decides they’re ready, at which point they love The One they’re with. It’s a glib message, but it’s one that’s supported by the complete lack of foundation for Will’s romance –
and re-romance – with Emily/Sarah. All we ever saw of this relationship was failure. I don’t know why these two were ever together, apart from the convenience of college geography, and I have no idea why they got back together, apart from quarter-life desperation. But at least they got a nice kid out of it?

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

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2017 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2017)

#11: The Disaster Artist

Directed by James Franco, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

As ever, the #11 slot on my Top 10 list goes to a film that I loved, with some reservations. The Disaster Artist is a thoroughly inessential comic indulgence that is purely for super-fans of The Room. Since I count myself among them, I adored this film (again, with reservations) – but I’ve been doing my very best to discourage others from seeing it unless they fall into that same camp. The original headline for this review was actually, “Fuck it, let’s indulge,” and I went on to say it felt “less like a meal and more like a bowl of miniature Kit Kats”. And that’s honestly fine. Let it never be said that we critics are incapable of taking joy in a film that panders to us so effectively (I did make Hugo my #1 film of its year after all). But you should know going in whether or not this film was specifically made for you.

Check out my full review here:

James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” – Let’s indulge.

#10: Molly’s Game

Written for the screen and directed by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Molly Bloom

It’s probably for the best that I didn’t see I, Tonya until after the New Year, as there’s a good chance it would’ve sparred with this film for the #10 spot. Both films are about aspiring real-life Olympians who get involved in a world of criminality, and Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) is easily as fascinating a persona as Tonya Harding, even if her story is a bit less morally ambiguous. This is just an immensely entertaining crime drama that’s equal parts Rounders-caliber poker flick and taut legal thriller. Sorkin, along with DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen, is a steady hand in his first turn behind the camera, telling a plot-complex and lengthy story in a manner that flies by despite being two-plus hours long, and eliciting four outstanding performances. There are the two you’d expect – Chastain as Bloom, along with Idris Elba as Bloom’s attorney Charlie Jaffey, with the pair spending much of the film debating exactly what Bloom has done, and how much truth there was in her published memoir (which has been written, and is directly addressed in the film). There are also outstanding turns from Kevin Costner as Bloom’s father, and Michael Cera as Player X, an unnamed Hollywood celebrity who may be primarily based on Tobey Maguire. And all I can say about that is…I hope Maguire wasn’t really like this, because Cera effectively plays the character as a voracious sociopath.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #124 – “Molly’s Game” (dir. Aaron Sorkin)

#9: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh now has three outstanding features under his belt – In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and now this – and each of them has demonstrated some maturation of his storytelling. The third act of Seven Psychopaths is almost a rumination on the writer’s own shortcomings, as the characters (including a screenwriter named Marty) wander off into the desert and debate how the story should end. Three Billboards is about a grieving mother named Mildred (Frances McDormand) who erects a series of billboards demanding to know why her daughter’s rape and murder have gone unsolved for over a year. And while it does strive for some notes of bittersweet ambiguity with its ending, this is a much more laser-focused narrative than anything McDonagh has done previously. It has something ugly to say about small-town America, and it isn’t going to mess with that ugliness for the sake of facile redemption. Sam Rockwell – in his least likable role to date – plays Officer Dixon, a drunken, violent disgrace of a cop who retains his badge despite a town-wide consensus that he tortured an African-American suspect in custody. His superiors and colleagues at the Ebbing PD never really question this narrative (although they do tiptoe around addressing it directly), and Dixon never expresses any remorse, or explains or redeems himself. This goes beyond “flawed protagonist” for me. Dixon is a terrible person who is on the edge of being the film’s biggest villain unless he decides to do his job. This is alongside Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is suddenly dealing with Mildred’s PR crisis while simultaneously dying of pancreatic cancer. Naturally, the town turns on Mildred, because she can’t just accept that her daughter’s rape and murder will go unsolved. They’re all on her side, the town priest assures her, just…not about the billboards. Then Mildred gives a cutting speech likening the Catholic Church to a criminal gang of pedophiles, then shows him the door, and I remember why I love McDonagh’s dialogue so much. All of the film’s acerbic little speeches are crafted with theatrical precision – so much so that I wonder if I should be more critical of McDonagh for peppering in quite so much racism. Is he throwing it in because he thinks it’s funny, or because that’s the real world as he sees it? Maybe both? This is the same question I’ve long had about Quentin Tarantino, but he’s perhaps a bit easier to critique when he literally writes himself into his films to rattle off the N-word like punctuation. I saw Three Billboards with a friend – a Chinese-American, as it happens – and she had a blunt answer to this question: “I think it’s fantastic. I’ve had total strangers call me a [racial slur] out of nowhere, multiple times. It doesn’t feel excessive. This is the real world for me.” Fair enough – and in either case, casual racism certainly isn’t the only way in which these characters are nasty to each other.

This film is uncompromising and clever with its plotting, but there’s nothing about it that I would describe as narratively tidy, and that’s exactly what this sad, ugly story needed. And if there’s anything that occurred as frequently as the gladiatorial repartée, it was the surprising flashes of humanity that shone through despite everyone’s posturing. An early scene of verbal sparring between Mildred and Chief Willoughby is interrupted when the latter begins coughing blood (he’s dying, remember), and everything stops, because suddenly, these are just two human beings dealing with one of them having a serious medical crisis. Mildred is no less enraged or committed to her billboard plan, but there is a sudden moment of grace as she embraces the frightened, dying man in front of her and assures him it’ll all be okay. There are multiple moments like this – of people treating each other decently despite having severe and legitimate beefs with each other, and in many cases, having actively made each other’s lives worse over the course of the film – and then suddenly dropping the pretense and just treating each other with honesty or decency, if only for a moment. Mildred’s ex (John Hawkes) repeatedly beats the hell out of her, and they still have multiple semi-cordial conversations. Mildred is strong, but not invulnerable. Willoughby means well, but legitimately fucked this up. Dixon is an almost irredeemable bastard, but manages to do some good. Nobody is a single thing, and everyone in this film retains their flawed humanity – and that’s what makes this story so compelling.

#8: Una

Directed by Benedict Andrews, written by David Harrower (based on his play)

This is a difficult film. Una (Rooney Mara) plays an adult woman who ventures to a remote factory in England to confront her former next-door neighbor, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), with whom she had an illicit sexual relationship when she was thirteen years old. The pair ran away together (posing as father and daughter), until he abandoned her in a motel. At which point she was recovered and returned to her parents, and he was arrested and sent to prison. He is now living under a new name, and she hasn’t seen him since that night 15 years earlier, and she wants to know why he abandoned her. Did I mention this is a difficult film? Absolutely no good can come of this interaction, and Mara and Mendelsohn extract every last drop of tension out of it. The journey that Una has gone on as both victim and damaged adult is put on merciless display through flashbacks as the pair verbally spar in a windowed breakroom at the factory. It feels like court without the courtroom, and the film presents Una as both accuser and disruption. She is a smasher of the status quo who would make everyone’s lives a lot easier if she would just shut up, go away, and deal with what has happened to her without bothering the rest of us, thank you very much. And that is every bit as uncomfortable as that sounds. In the year of #MeToo, the year in which an unabashed predator of teenage girls (with no legal or moral right to call himself “Judge”) was very nearly elected to the US Senate, this film forces us to watch a conversation that probably doesn’t happen nearly often enough in the real world, and without any sense of vigilante wish fulfillment (à la Hard Candy). Like I said – absolutely no good can come of this interaction. But there is something socially rotten at the core of this story, and Una seems like just the right person at the right time to smash it to bits so it can be washed into the gutter.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #121 – “Una” (dir. Benedict Andrews)

#7: Lady Bird

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig

A pair of fine performances by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf bring glorious life to indie star Greta Gerwig‘s solo directorial debut, which began its life with the title of Mothers and Daughters. Lady Bird certainly seems a more appropriate title for what this film turned out to be – the focus is squarely on the waning high school days and coming-of-age of 17-year-old Christine, who styles herself as “Lady Bird” – a nickname she enforces under threat of leaping from a moving vehicle if her mother Marion should refuse to call her by it. There is an honest bite at the heart of this film that propels it forward – Lady Bird and Marion flit back and forth between harsh bickering and protestations of love, sometimes multiple times during the same scene. But the tone of the film never feels uneven or manipulative. I’ve seen the coming-of-age film that’s trying too hard, and it’s called The Way, Way Back (or Boyhood if you’re nasty) – this isn’t it. The film feels like a fundamentally honest recounting of Lady Bird’s life and times, even as the character is certainly striving to put on a show, trying out various personas and plans as her life unfolds. Ronan adds some marvelously subtle notes to this performance, right down to introducing herself to multiple characters (“I’m LADY-Bird!”) with an ever-so-slight vocal twinge of, “Don’t you just love this awesome nickname I thought up myself?!”. There are no people like show people, and I could watch this awkward emotional powerhouse of a drama kid come out of her shell all day. A note on the time period covered here… Gerwig and I are around the same age, and it appears that I’m now vulnerable to appeals to nostalgia for the time when I was in high school (I quite liked the soundtrack of this film, for reasons I can’t entirely explain or justify). Noted.

#6: Keep Quiet

Directed by Sam Blair and Joseph Martin

At this year’s Seattle Jewish Film Festival, we had the immense pleasure of seeing Keep Quiet, a documentary about Csanád Szegedi, a former far-right, antisemitic political party leader in Hungary who discovers that he has a [still living] Jewish grandmother, which causes a sea change in his political and religious beliefs. Specifically, he goes from being an outspoken neo-Nazi to an orthodox Jewish convert, with the help of a local rabbi, and goes on a speaking tour to denounce his former hatred. And…if this all sounds a bit sanctimonious to you, let me just say: if this had just been a great big pat on the back for tolerance and pluralism, I’m sure it would’ve been rather tedious. But like The Imposter before it, this film’s strength is its ambiguity. How can we ever believe this man has truly changed? Neither his old tribe, nor his new one really seems to buy his conversion, and that’s precisely the tension that’s at the heart of this documentary. And in light of the resurgence of Nazism (even the polo-shirt, tiki-torch variety) in public life in the past year – it couldn’t be more timely. As of this writing, the film is available to stream on Netflix.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #108 – “Keep Quiet” (dir. Joseph Martin, Sam Blair) (#SJFF2017)

#5: Graduation

Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu

Graduation is the story of a father and his teenage daughter in a small Transylvanian mountain town. The girl, Eliza (Maria Dragus) is about to graduate from high school. She is an excellent student, about to receive an academic scholarship to Cambridge, and her father Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is desperate to see her succeed and leave their town to seek a better education abroad. Eliza, meanwhile, is in a happy relationship with her local boyfriend, and is noticeably ambivalent about her father’s plans for her. Her fortunes change abruptly when she is brutally attacked outside her school, a sexual assault which ends with a sprained wrist that severely hampers her chances of doing well enough on her final exams to qualify for admission to Cambridge. This dilemma, in and of itself, absorbed me straight away and was certainly enough to carry the film. But Mungiu pulls off something far more subtle and complex as the film goes on – an exploration of a deeply corrupt town in which everyone considers themselves to be honest, but regards greasing the wheels and doing illegal favors for one another as just the way the world works.

The generational conflict between father and daughter is essential to this film. All of the greased palms and sly favors are performed between men of a certain age, but the father’s plot (with a local town political fixer) to help Eliza commit academic fraud will ultimately require her cooperation. This is a tale as old as time – Romeo raised his daughter to do what’s right…until the moment it harms her future prospects. And then it’s time to start making exceptions. There are two separate scenes of Romeo attempting to corrupt Eliza in this film, and each of them is as heartbreaking as it is ethically fascinating. He believes in her – believes in her abilities. And yet he thinks her future has been derailed due to an event for which she bears no blame, so she simply must cheat a little to get back on track.

From my review:

They aren’t the corrupt ones ruining life and making the world unfair for all of us regular people. They are us. And for anyone with the power to break the rules for their own benefit, they are making a conscious choice to bend the moral arc of the universe in the wrong direction. And in the moment, it all feels righteous. Coming back to the film’s American tagline, “A father will do anything to save his daughter’s future,” I’m struck by how much Romeo seems determined that his daughter will follow in his corrupt footsteps. He’s not safeguarding her future, per se – he’s teaching her the same set of privileged skills that led him to his own place in life. Society only functions if there’s a common rule set for everyone, or at least, if that’s everyone’s nominal goal. And Romeo is the epitome of replacing that standard with, “What would you do to give your children a leg up over everyone else?”. Graduation revels in this contradiction – and confronts the viewer with the assurance that if that answer is specific and situational rather than broad and ethical, then civilization is a fragile experiment that is all but destined to fail.

As of this writing, the film is available to stream on Netflix

Check out my review here:

Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” – An engrossing tale of societal decay

#4: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Written and directed by Rian Johnson

The only direct comparison that I’ll make between this film and The Empire Strikes Back is that I believe history will vindicate it as one of the best films of the series.

From my review:

And of course, an epic struggle plays out between the nascent Force-users over which of their destinies Snoke will control this week. But looking back, that all feels like the old, childish Light-and-Dark stuff to me. These people – strong with the Force or otherwise – will chase and blast and slice and blow each other up til the end of the universe, and perhaps the only real villain that the series has left for us to face…is nihilism. Rey tells Luke from the outset that General Leia (Carrie Fisher) sent her to see him for hope. If Leia was wrong, she deserves to know why. “We all do,” says Rey. This poor woman is begging a Jedi Knight for his help, and all he wants to do is stay put and die. Hamill’s performance is impressive, bringing a gruff intensity that thoroughly spells out what a disappointment Luke Skywalker turned out to be, for us, and for himself. He is the flip side of del Toro’s unnamed gangster, neither losing nor profiting from the endless war – instead, simply bowing out. If the Force is what binds all things together in perfect harmony, then hope is as fine an emotion as any to invest in it. But what’s on the other side? Not darkness or evil – those are forces to be actively fought. This is despair. Nothingness. Abrogating your power and purpose in the universe and declaring that it can do whatever it wants, because it’s not your problem anymore. This is some dark stuff coming from Disney, and frankly, a great deal more moral complexity than I expected from a Star Wars film.

[…]

I’m taking this film’s narrative ambition as a promise to be fulfilled with the next film. If The Last Jedi dares to challenge the duality of the Light/Dark-side narrative by couching it as a matter of perspective; if it dares to ask the question of why we should be invested in the outcome of a struggle between two flagging military superpowers for any reason besides the names and flags they use to denote their respective teams, the next had better answer the question in a satisfying manner. What is it all for? The Resistance, or the Rebellion, fights for what they love (Rose seems to exist solely to spell out this point) – but they’d better have some idea of what the peace will look like. The First Order – or the Empire – fights for blood, vengeance, and the tautological maintenance of its own power, with its association to the Dark Side as barely an afterthought. They fight to control the galaxy, and their resolve is steeled by having a rebellion to crush. Anyone who wants to win this war will need to figure out what winning looks like. What a better tomorrow looks like. What exactly it is that they’re hoping for. But they’ve got everything they need to sort that out.

Check out my review here:

Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” – What is it all for?

#3: The Big Sick

Directed by Michael Showalter, written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon

I’m always pleased when I can place a comedy on this list, especially when it’s one that has already held up to repeat viewing. The Big Sick is written by comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, based on their real-life courtship, which gets derailed initially due to cross-cultural disagreements (Nanjiani’s family wants him to marry a Pakistani woman of their choosing), and then due to Emily having a serious medical crisis. This kicks off the film’s second courtship: between Nanjiani and his future wife’s parents, a North Carolina couple played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who bond as Emily lies in an induced coma.

From my review:

Her parents arrive and are outright hostile toward him, because they know that (as they see it) he broke their daughter’s heart. And yet, they bond. This is some messy, human nonsense right here. There are no clean lines or definitions to these relationships. It is completely unclear to the people involved whether Kumail and Emily will be together at the end of this, or whether these three will have any reason to ever speak again. But still they bond. Because the one thing they all have in common is that they’re all in the trenches on Emily’s team. The parents are a fine portrait of unfathomable worry, but Holly Hunter is particularly masterful. The three make a reluctant foray to a comedy club where Kumail’s show goes awry (and both parents get shockingly profane for the first time), and then they find themselves getting hammered at Emily’s apartment. Kumail and Beth decide to drink whiskey and “stress-eat” after Terry passes out on the couch, and they try to talk about anything but Emily’s impending surgery. Later on, Terry sleeps at Kumail’s place and they chat awkwardly in the dark about the struggles in Terry’s marriage. All of this works. These scenes have time to breathe, and ring constantly true. These people grab onto each other –  not without hesitation – in an impossible situation, and they remain raucously funny as they handle it.

If any marketer for this film is looking for my pull-quote, I’ll offer: “This is some messy, human nonsense right here.” This comedy rings true because it is true, and its level of honesty demonstrates a respect and humility for its characters and story that is often lacking in depictions of real-life romance. Nothing about this was destiny, none of the dialogue is perfect, and none of it had to work out this way. And it’s a beautiful thing.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

‘Silicon Valley’ Showdown: “The Big Sick”, “Entanglement” (#SIFF2017)

#2: Get Out

Written and directed by Jordan Peele

This is one of the most tightly constructed horror films and works of social satire ever made – every detail of the life and dangers surrounding Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) serves a dual purpose, as both a deft portrayal of the day-to-day reality of racism faced by African-Americans today, as well as a pillar of the horror-mystery that is gradually taking shape around them. As Chris ventures into upstate New York to meet Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), he starts to realize that something is very wrong with all of the other black people that he meets. They don’t quite speak or act the way he expects. They all seem to have a secret. Something has happened to them…or been done to them. The precise nature of this Stepford mystery is certainly a major component of the film’s appeal, but there’s a lot more to this film than plot revelations. The performances are uniformly outstanding. Kaluuya and Williams sell the quiet moments within this couple with the sort of humanity that is often lacking in horror characters, who will often scream at each other about an impending threat, but fail to ever sell any prior affection in the first place. Keener and Whitford are quietly menacing, Lakeith Stanfield, Betty Gabriel, and Stephen Root have outstanding supporting moments, and a particularly hilarious turn from Lil Rel Howery keeps the film from venturing too far into darkness. As a directorial and horror genre debut, Jordan Peele completely knocks this one out of the park, delivering an intense ride that will keep you thinking long after it’s over.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #99 – “Get Out” (dir. Jordan Peele)

#1: A Ghost Story

Written and directed by David Lowery

The concept of this film is a bit goofy. A married couple’s life is shattered when the husband – known only as C – (Casey Affleck) is suddenly killed in a car accident outside their rural home. The wife, M (Rooney Mara), is left to fend for herself as her husband lingers on in the form of a ghost. Literally. The actor Affleck (purportedly never a stand-in) stands beneath a floor-length sheet for the duration of the film – invisible to his grieving widow and everyone else among the living. Did I say a bit goofy? The premise of this film is overtly ridiculous. It’s almost a deliberate riff on the very concept of supernatural horror. Ghosts? Pfft. Even if you believe in them, they’re just dead humans standing around in sheets. Who cares?

But A Ghost Story manages to pull off two stunning tricks. The first is that it occasionally makes its goofball supernatural horror genuinely frightening. As C hangs around his former house, he gets to watch his wife engage in the ugly process of grieving, and eventually move on. And then the house moves on. Other people live, laugh, and love there – and all the while he waits for something that he can’t quite remember, only occasionally getting angry and breaking things. Life goes on for the living, and this film really highlights for the first time what a conceptually sad existence that the ghost myth really posits. Being ignored, forgotten, cuckolded… These things only matter if you’re alive. The idea of a dead person (even as a dude in a sheet) bearing witness to the world moving on without him is incredibly sad, and this is the most thoroughly I’ve ever felt this sadness woven into supernatural horror. This ghost only occasionally startles its audience, but it never stops being frightening. The second trick is that A Ghost Story is really an existential horror film in disguise. At the tail-end of an insufferably brilliant speech by an unnamed partygoer (Will Oldham), the music swells and time rages on as the ghost stands alone to bear witness. This sequence – which I won’t describe in detail – made me feel the fullness and passage of time so acutely that I experienced what I can only describe as a panic attack in the theater as I watched it. And that’s not a phrase I use lightly, as I have friends who have experienced them in a more diagnostically sound fashion. It felt wrong, and too much to bear – and when it was over, my companion and I left the theater in silence as writer/director David Lowery did a Q&A in the theater behind us. It was nearly midnight. Empty lobby, empty sidewalk, empty block. Thunderstruck, we didn’t speak a word until we reached the car. This film hit me like a ton of bricks and hasn’t left my head since.

When Lowery introduced this film to our SIFF audience, he began by invoking the work of the late, great director Abbas Kiarostami, and said that he found the man’s best work to be like a dream – a free-flowing stream of consciousness that you could easily drift in and out of without losing its appeal. He then said he didn’t mind if we fell asleep during his film. This ominous and cryptic introduction made me glad of the Americano I grabbed on the way in, but I’m not sure what to make of it in retrospect. This is a film that lacks a conventional narrative structure, and I suppose is not for everyone in that respect. It’s framed in 4:3 with lengthy scene edits, which didn’t seem like an arbitrary choice, but rather an invitation to get sucked in and share in the characters’ grief and experiences. Life is for the living, and this film’s essential appeal is in watching life go on. The only unwelcome guest is the ghost standing awkwardly in the corner – essentially watching it along with the rest of us. This film will flow over you like a river, forcing you to feel the fullness and enormity of time and life. I’ve long believed that a primary purpose of art is to distract you from your impending demise, and this film makes a deliberate and merciless choice to direct your attention towards it. How dare it.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #110 – “A Ghost Story” (dir. David Lowery), “I, Daniel Blake” (dir. Ken Loach)

Honorable Mentions:

  • Call Me By Your Name (directed by Luca Guadagnino)
  • Patti Cake$ (directed by Geremy Jasper)
  • Wind River (directed by Taylor Sheridan)
  • It (directed by Andy Muschietti)
  • Colossal (directed by Nacho Vigalondo)
  • Wonder Woman (directed by Patty Jenkins)
  • Crown Heights (directed by Matt Ruskin)
  • Logan (directed by James Mangold)
  • Glory (directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov)

Biggest Disappointments:

High expectations, low results.

  • Baby Driver (directed by Edgar Wright)
    I really hope I’m not getting too old to appreciate Edgar Wright‘s mad music video hijinks. His previous film, The World’s End, demonstrated some definite growth as a filmmaker and storyteller, and I was really hoping to see that evolution continue. Instead, this film was a mixed bag of solid gangster performances (probably the last one I’ll ever watch from Kevin Spacey, and grand turns by Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm), wasted and one-dimensional female leads, a boring soundtrack with a very high opinion of itself, and action that wasn’t particularly well-choreographed, filmed, or plausibly conceived. This was a fine dance film, but it barely resembles the sort of gangster movie I was hoping Wright could muster, and I found the experience of watching it to be physically exhausting. Check out our podcast for more.
  • mother! (directed by Darren Aronofsky)
    From my review:

    These ideas are all over the place, and for much of the film’s third-act Saturnalia, I found myself wondering whether this was an exercise in self-awareness or egotism on Aronofsky’s part. I haven’t said much about Bardem’s performance here, and that’s for two reasons. First is that Bardem succeeded in making Eli both delightful and repulsive to me – a figure who can conjure up the finest words to promote, justify, and reinforce the most despicable acts that the world has to offer. Second is that I don’t really know how much of an avatar Eli is meant to be for Aronofsky himself. Much of the film’s conflict is over whether or not this couple really cares about each other, as Eli’s persistent neglect of Grace in favor of a gang of strangers is repeatedly justified on the grounds that the experience might help him create more art. Talking with these people, Eli argues, is better than talking to her, because at least they’ve got something novel to say. This is Grace’s lot in this film – not merely the put-upon wife who grapples with her husband’s ingratitude and straying affections, but also a flagging muse, cast against her will as a man’s source of creative light, useless and thrown away as soon as that light has faded. And it doesn’t fade with a wimper. I found myself simultaneously reveling in the film’s excesses and wanting to warn others not to expose themselves to it for the sake of their sanity. This isn’t the best rumination on creativity I’ve seen – not even the best this year. And even while Aronofsky is at the top of his technical craft, I still can’t answer definitively whether his latest exercise in creating, enslaving, and agonizing an innocent woman was really worth it.

  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (dir. James Gunn)
    Turns out my limit of self-indulgence for a Marvel film is 90 completely inconsequential opening minutes before the actual plot begins. And this is easily one of the least visually impressive Marvel films. Nothing about Ego’s planet worked for me, because I never bought for a second that the characters were standing anywhere besides a soundstage. More on the podcast here.

Pleasant Surprises:

Low expectations, high results.

  • Okja (directed by Bong Joon-ho)
    Confession: I’m a meat-eater, and I avoided this film not precisely out of low expectations (although Snowpiercer started out middling and has aged poorly in my memory), but because I didn’t want to feel bad about eating meat, and the film’s trailer suggested this might be little more than cute fantasy-animal torture-porn. Nonetheless, this perhaps suggests that I’m aware there’s something to feel bad about, whether it’s the horrors of factory farming or the environmental impact of raising livestock. And yet, the measure of an effective satire cannot solely be its ability to prod the existing insecurities of its audience, and Okja largely succeeded at being a well-made action-adventure blockbuster on top of its subject matter, about a world in which a big evil agribusiness giant (which might as well be called Bonsanto) creates a huge, grey elephantine creature they call a superpig, in order to feed millions at a lower cost and environmental impact. Their CEO(s), both played by Tilda Swinton, sell this as a miracle of nature, born mysteriously on a farm in Arizona after some careful selective breeding (this is a lie that barely attempts to pretend otherwise). Each superpig is sent to live with a small, local farmer around the world to be raised using whatever method they see fit, and the winner – the one that thrives the most under its farmer’s care – will be crowned “Best Superpig”, an award whose value in unclear, and likely comes with a trip through the meat grinder. Okja is raised on a Korean mountaintop, enjoying a carefree life with its human companion, Mija (played by marvelous newcomer Seo-hyun Ahn). Mija’s adventure in pursuit of Okja is beautifully rendered, and the story retains Bong’s signature darkly comedic streak throughout. Who knew that Paul Dano as an Animal Liberation Front paladin would be so compelling? Ditto Jake Gyllenhaal as a drunken sell-out of a wildlife TV presenter. A vegetarian friend asked me how I can call Okja an effective satire if it failed to make me want to change my diet, and I think this is a fair question…My answer was honestly that I don’t think the film is arguing its point effectively for anyone that doesn’t already have ethical qualms about eating meat. A vegan probably sees a 15-minute sequence in which we learn that Okja is beautiful and compassionate and intelligent and a great friend to humans, and thinks, “Yes! That’s why eating meat is bad!”. I suppose a meat-eater sees the same scene and thinks, “Okay, let’s maybe not eat that particular animal.” There’s a bit of criticism of the consumer for this ambivalence – wanting all-natural, cruelty-free meat production without recognizing that such a thing is impossible. The two Tilda Swintons address this in various ways – the “nice” one saying that it’s the consumers’ fault for being ignorant and paranoid about GM foods (which is certainly true IRL), and the “evil” one stating flatly, “If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it,” while not particularly caring about the animals except for their value as commodities. I don’t think we’re meant to take the plausible words of either of these overt psychopaths at face value, but this film’s third act is a hard watch regardless. The slaughterhouse horrors are large-scale and well-rendered, and their production apparently had a profound effect on Bong himself – he says he became a vegan while making it. This is worth a watch and will stick with you – one way or another.
  • Patti Cake$ (directed by Geremy Jasper)
    An incredibly fun hip-hop musical featuring a career-making performance from Danielle Macdonald as an up-and-coming Jersey rapper. This is a better movie about would-be performers than La La Land, and unlike that film, its array of original songs didn’t leave my head the moment I finished listening to them. Great supporting cast as well, including Mamoudou Athie as a weird, awesome dude named Basterd Antichrist.
  • Justice League (dir. Zack Snyder)
    j/k, this movie is not good. But Sigrid‘s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows” is hauntingly beautiful and worth a listen.

Daniel’s Top and Bottom Films of 2017

Everything above represents Glenn’s top (and bottom) picks for the year – but FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel also saw a lot of films this year (we did a record 29 episodes in 2017), and we sometimes disagreed!
Here are Daniel’s Top 5 and Bottom 5 films of 2017.
Top 5:

  1. Molly’s Game
  2. Victoria & Abdul
  3. Keep Quiet
  4. Get Out
  5. A Ghost Story

Bottom 5:

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
  3. Justice League
  4. Fifty Shades Darker
  5. Wind River

James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” – Let’s indulge.

For someone whose birthdate, nationality, and endless source of funds are an enduring mystery to this day, Tommy Wiseau, the writer, director, producer, and star of the 2003 self-financed film The Room strikes me as essentially guileless. What you see is what you get. And what you get is…quite strange. From his pallor to his dyed, jet-black hair to his uneasy laughter in an ineffable accent, Wiseau is a living cartoon vampire whose most enduring mark on the world has been to make his very best impression of a Hollywood film, which ticks every box that he thinks a film needs to tick. Johnny (Wiseau) is a young bank manager who seems to have it all. Great friends like Mark (Greg Sestero), a great girl like Lisa (Juliette Danielle), a great betrayal when the two start sleeping together behind his back, and a series of additional random high-stakes subplots that are introduced and dropped without further ado. This is pure melodrama, and I must emphasize that what makes this film work so well is that – with the singular exception of Mike Holmes, who mugs horribly at the camera about his “underwears” – all of these actors are playing this horrendous and overwrought material completely straight. When criminal Chris-R (Dan Janjigian) threatens wayward, youthful creep Denny (Philip Haldiman) at gunpoint in a dispute over missing drug money (on a rooftop for some reason), they play it as straight as day players on Law and Order hoping to put together a convincing highlight reel. When Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) pauses a monologue about a real estate dispute with her brother with a surprise announcement that she has breast cancer, you feel it as surely as daytime TV. And you continue to feel it when the credits roll, along with a nagging realization that these events are never resolved or discussed again in any way. The Room is a bizarre, meandering film, and its saving grace is a lead and script whose ineptitude is only matched by its sincerity.

So what do we make of this film, in which young actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) becomes friends with Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), and – in the act of writing the book that inspired this film – repeatedly violates Wiseau’s oft-spoken admonition not to discuss him behind his back? Is this a memoir, or a polemic? Is it a tribute, or a betrayal? After I watched the film’s trailer, which consisted of repeated attempts to film a wonderfully bizarre rooftop scene, I went in with a question in mind: who exactly is this movie for? Would this be a mere celebration of Hollywood and filmmaking, like The Artist or Hugo or [literally hundreds of other films]? Or is it an exhibition of nostalgia, intended purely for superfans of The Room? I’m thinking here of something akin to Cary Elwes’ memoir, As You Wish, which consists of 273 pages of saccharine anecdotes from the set of The Princess Bride (including the time he and the entire cast got the giggles from André the Giant cutting a thunderous fart during a scene that they had to play seriously) – less a cutting exposé, and more a parallel novel with a likely dollop of fan-fiction, neither offering any grand insights on the filmmaking process, nor particularly sullying the nostalgic glow that surrounds a beloved film. Something nice, but thoroughly inessential. The answer I came up with is that it pretends to be the former, but it is definitively the latter. This is an indulgence akin to Ed Wood, a thoroughly entertaining film which holds little appeal without prior familiarity with the featured director. It ends with a completely unnecessary credits sequence of side-by-side comparisons between Wiseau’s film and Franco’s recreations, which we’ve already seen throughout the film. I didn’t need this, but I wanted it. Make no mistake, I was delighted by this film, but it is fundamentally a parasitic – or perhaps symbiotic – work that feels less like a meal and more like a bowl of miniature Kit Kats.

The early scenes between the brothers Franco – attending acting classes, acting out a scene in a diner, discussing their frustrated dreams of the silver screen – are easily the film’s strongest. Wiseau’s bizarre antics are nearly indistinguishable from those of his character Johnny, and the elder Franco’s performance, as well as his burgeoning friendship with the younger Franco’s Sestero, is simply outstanding. It is this friendship that forms the sole emotional core of the film that is not nostalgia-driven, and it largely works throughout the film, as do both performances. The only time that James Franco’s performance crosses over into imitative, SNL territory is during the recreated scenes from The Room, where he is no longer playing a character, but rather, trying his very best to match the exact cadence and camera-work of Wiseau. This duplicative puppet show plays a bit like a pair of Highlights for Children pictures where I’m invited to spot the differences. James Franco matches the closest, but some of the others are eerily spot-on as well. Dave Franco’s version of Sestero is such a close, and yet slightly wrong match for the actor that he looks like a mo-capped video game cutscene – uncanny valley territory. That weirdness is less of a problem with the other actor-characters, such as Juliette Danielle/”Lisa”, Philip Haldiman/”Denny”, and Dan Janjigian/”Chris-R”, played by Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, and Zac Efron respectively. The 2017 actors are nearly unrecognizable in their wigs, and have much less to do in the film, and as such, they don’t seem to feel quite so much pressure to be carbon copies of their 2003 counterparts. Efron-as-Janjigian-as-Chris-R (still with me?) is a particularly delightful psychopath.

Carolyn Minnott/”Claudette” (Jacki Weaver), who has just passed out due to a lack of air conditioning or water during a particularly hot and egotistical day on set, makes a trite observation that the worst day on a film set is still better than the best day anywhere else. This may well be an authentic quote, but it’s also the closest that the film comes to acknowledging that “magic of Hollywood” fluff from the other films I mentioned. And there’s perhaps a bit of intended irony here, because Wiseau is certainly depicted as abusing these actors a bit. Hitchcock abusing Tippi Hedrin, this is not – although that relationship does get a shout-out in the film – but there’s definitely a minor, timely depiction of actors (particularly female actors) being sacrificed on the altar of their director’s ego. The conflict comes to a head as Wiseau is about to film a bizarre and overlong sex scene with Danielle, and he struts around naked (wearing only the standard-issue Hollywood dick-sock), defending the need to show his ass in the film (“to sell movie!”), and screaming that Danielle’s body looks disgusting (because he spots a bit of acne that will probably not be visible to the side-by-side film and HD cameras). DP Raphael Smadja (Paul Scheer) engages in a bit of masculine bravado, threatening that Wiseau is “a dead man” if he should ever disrespect Danielle again. Smadja is fired, then not fired, Sestero tries to calm his friend down, and Danielle – consummate professional, or perhaps just afraid of getting fired herself – says repeatedly, “I’m fine – can we just do the scene, please?” This scene was a monkey-fight at the zoo, and honestly, I have no idea if I believe it went down this way or not. This is about as unlikable as the character Wiseau ever gets in the film, and while it has a lasting impact on his relationship with Sestero, I honestly found it too shallow a conflict to really affect my image of Wiseau as an earnest and mostly amiable weirdo. Much of the conflict with Sestero stems from a “best bud vs. girlfriend” dynamic featuring Dave Franco’s real-life wife Alison Brie in an utterly insubstantial role, and despite how well the Franco brothers play this friendship, none of this felt like it mattered all that much. James Franco can get into multiple shouting matches with every guest-starring comedian in this film, and all the while, I’m just thinking, Franco – and Wiseau – are the bosses of their respective sets. They are the money, they make all of the decisions, and we’ll get a movie out of this no matter what. We don’t spend enough time with any of the other characters to know or care about their feelings on the situation, and there’s fundamentally very little at stake here. In retrospect, my judgment of Wiseau as guileless starts to feel more like a cop-out, designed to avoid admitting that I learned very little of substance about the man from a film that is supposed to be his biopic.

Perhaps I’m asking too much here. I took two full weeks to write this review, partially because of a Thanksgiving vacation, and partially because I was unsure if it’s okay to enjoy an indulgent, pandering film if I’m the one that’s being pandered to so effectively. The film ends with Wiseau at his premiere, Sestero back as his reluctant friend, and the audience giving a biopic-standard round of applause for the film and its subject (perhaps not for the reasons he intended), and of course, my real-life audience did the same. Wiseau drives past the premiere twice in a limousine full of an excessive amount of The Room swag (the very same swag was in the theater with us as well) – his ideal red carpet premiere containing a generous sidewalk crowd, as one more box that his film needs to check. And in the end, I’m happy to acknowledge that any love I experienced for this film is inextricably tied to my love of The Room – love that I at least believe that Franco shares on some level. If The Disaster Artist feels like anything, it’s a sequel and spiritual successor, and perhaps that’s enough. And as the credits roll, and I watch the two films side-by-side like the post-modern, tech-addicted weirdo that I am, my inexorable conclusion is: Fuck it, let’s indulge.

Hi doggie! You’re my favorite customer. I did NAHT.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual. Further, it contains candid discussion of kidnapping, child abuse, and sexual assault as it pertains to the film’s subject matter. 

I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that makes you who you are. Your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in these things, like it was something they’d accomplished. The bodies around their souls, the cities wrapped around those. I lived on this block my whole life; most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks and then fell through. This city can be hard. When I was young, I asked my priest how you could get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to His children. “You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”

Opening voice-over is hit-or-miss with me, but this is the second 10YA film and review that I’ve began with that clause, so it’s as solid a framing device as any. Or at least better than what I feel obliged to start with, in light of the past few weeks. Gone Baby Gone is a film that I remember fondly. It’s a compelling detective story with a provocative ending, it launched the surprisingly laudable directing career of Ben Affleck, and it helped to launch the lead-acting career of his younger brother Casey (which includes one of my favorite films of this year). It continued a long collaboration between the elder Affleck and Miramax, the production company co-founded by the ignominious [alleged] sexual predator Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob (who had already departed for The Weinstein Company by 2005, and had no involvement with this film). Meanwhile, Casey Affleck was sued in 2010 for alleged abuses of his female co-workers on and off set (the suits were settled under terms of confidentiality), Weinstein has been revealed to be a rapacious creature on par with Bill Cosby or Donald Trump, and a litany of actors and producers (including Ben Affleck) have lined up left and right to excoriate Weinstein out of one side of their mouth, and grouse unconvincingly that they didn’t know a thing about it out of the other.

These 10YA retrospective reviews are meant to showcase how my thinking on a film has changed since I first saw it a decade ago, and one belief has certainly not changed: Art must stand on its own. It’s the inanimate product of a thousand decisions by a thousand people. While I still occasionally nod to my auteurist leanings by referring to a film as the possession of its director (as I’ve done in the headline above), I recognize that it neither exists in a cultural void, nor is the product of a single voice. I can’t judge art retroactively by the artists that created it, no matter what happens afterward – although it’s a fine argument for expanding the pool of artists. That said, all of this sucks. My awakening to the hardships of sexism, discrimination, harassment, and assault that women are categorically more likely to face is older than the past few weeks, but its latest hashtag iteration (#MeToo) is a grim reminder. I still believe that art must stand on its own, but it is equally true that art can have a cruel human cost that taints it in retrospect. And I’d be lying if I said that this feeling of disappointment wasn’t on my mind while re-watching this film. I’ve been writing about film for over a decade, and right now, Hollywood and its margins give me an icky feeling, just as surely as the casual outspoken racism, sexism, and homophobia of older films. Society will move on, and some of these people – who either did wrong, or knew about it – will have their misdeeds ignored, or experience tepid, PR-friendly redemption narratives, or win Oscars (some already have). And we’ll be judged by history accordingly. Now on with the film.

The missing little girl is Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien), and she’s understandably not present for much of the film. She is stolen from her bedroom in a dank apartment ill-maintained by her mother Helene (Amy Ryan), and as we begin the film, her disappearance is a known quantity, and Lionel and Bea (Titus Welliver and Amy Madigan), Helene’s brother and sister-in-law, are in the market for a pair of detectives to supplement the police investigation. There’s no love lost in this family – Helene openly mocks Bea for her infertility, and Bea refers to her as an abomination. “Helene has emotional problems,” says Lionel. “It’s not that, Lionel… She’s a cunt,” says Bea. Ryan is simply marvelous as Helene, flitting between disinterested party girl, casual Boston racist, and broken, prideful parent with incredible ease. Her television career runs the gamut from The Wire to The Office, and all of her range is on display here. Helene is…not a charmer. And her unreliability and unfitness as a mother is essential to the film’s ending.

The detective couple is Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). If I might rave about Monaghan for a moment, this is an actress who spent much of the 2000s in do-nothing love-interest roles, and is frankly a talented enough performer to deserve better. This film, along with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, is one of the few opportunities she’s had to do something interesting on-screen. Angie and Patrick have several private chats about how to proceed over the course of the film, and her reluctance to take on the case is key. She’s a skilled detective who doesn’t want to take on a missing kid – not because she’s afraid they won’t find her, but because she’s afraid they will – either dead in a ditch, sexually abused, or both. As police captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) – whose backstory includes a murdered child of his own – puts it, “I don’t care who does it. I just want it done.” In light of the film’s ending, it’s hard to make sense of these initial reactions as each character joins the investigation, but the film does thoroughly sell the notion that anyone who willingly investigates a kidnapping is performing an important duty, but also welcoming abject horror into their life.

Patrick and Angie head for a local haunt and interrogate some barflies, who quickly reveal that Helene was not across the street for a quick sandwich when her daughter was taken, but rather pounding rails of coke and getting busy with her boyfriend Skinny Ray in the bathroom. This is where we first learn of a violent Haitian drug lord named “Cheese” Jean-Baptiste (Edi Gathegi), for whom Helene is occasionally employed as a drug mule. Then it gets nasty, words are exchanged, all of the barflies get aggressive and start threatening the pair with violence and sexual violence respectively. Patrick pulls a gun, and they leave to meet their fellow investigators assigned by Captain Doyle: Sgt. Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Detective Nick Poole (John Ashton), who introduce a possible suspect, convicted pedophile Corwin Earle (Matthew Maher), who’s known to hang out with a couple of cokeheads. Not much to go on – and Remy and Patrick have great fun throwing barbs at each other. “You got something to contribute, be my guest,” says Remy, “Otherwise, you can go back to your Harry Potter book.” At which point Patrick gives up the goods on Cheese, and they go to interrogate Helene (after briefly pausing to hand off the pedophile info to a shady acquaintance, played by Boston MC Slaine). 

This is all an odd sort of mash-up between a police and private investigation (which seems to be author Dennis Lehane‘s specialty). Helene is confessing to multiple felonies in the course of this, and Remy vacillates between mocking her obvious half-truths (“No. It don’t ‘sound familiar’, Helene. He’s a violent, sociopathic, Haitian criminal named ‘Cheese’. Either you know him or you don’t.”), and demanding whether she even gives a fuck about her kid. This is all terribly convincing, perhaps because both Remy and Lionel already know where Amanda is at this point, and their disapproval of Helene’s lifestyle is the one sincere detail of the scene. Regardless, it plays brilliantly. Helene confesses that she and Skinny Ray conspired to steal drug money from Cheese (under cover of the police busting their contact and seizing the drugs), which makes all of the investigators in the room presume aloud that Cheese kidnapped Amanda for ransom. They all drive over to have a chat with Skinny Ray.

Helene rides with Patrick and Angie, and they bond over some casual “faggot” talk about a mutual high school acquaintance. This is how blue-collar Boston talks. Got it. Helene is still not taking this particularly seriously, but she does lay out her self-inflicted dilemma: She couldn’t just call Cheese and confess to ripping him off, and she couldn’t just tell the cops that she ran drugs. Amanda disappeared, and she had no recourse but to report the disappearance and hope for the best. She also reveals that she hid the money. From everyone, including poor Skinny Ray, whom they find tortured and shot to death. And this is when Helene finally loses her shit. As soon as she sees Ray, it suddenly becomes real for her. She knows Cheese must’ve taken Amanda. She knows it’s her fault. She remembers that when she left Amanda alone at bedtime, the last thing the child said was that she was hungry. Helene wonders whether they fed her – begs Patrick to tell her that her daughter isn’t still hungry. I was prepared here – this is the part of the film that I expected to bother me more, as one of the things I’ve done in the past decade is have a child of my own. And it’s fair to say, I did find these scenes (and the whole concept of a kidnapped child) a bit more upsetting than I did the first time. But…not as much as I expected to. Perhaps because this time through, I knew Amanda wasn’t in any real peril, and perhaps because she’s little more than an offscreen MacGuffin for most of the film. Helene’s emotions are real (and Ryan renders them brilliantly), but she’s such a selfish and unfit parent whose feelings are so fleeting that I had a hard time internalizing them. Sure, she wants her kid to be fed, warm, and safe – and these are feelings I can relate to. But she didn’t bother to feel them until a half-day past the coke wearing off, and I assume another quick bump will sort that out. The team digs up the money (which was buried in the backyard, 20 feet from where Ray was being tortured – poor bastard), and makes a gameplan. Remy and Nick acknowledge that if this is a kidnap for ransom, they have to bring in the FBI. Patrick and Angie volunteer that they can do what the cops cannot: negotiate with Cheese for a clean swap – the money for Amanda (no one seems overly concerned with avenging Skinny Ray). So off they go.

Gathegi plays a marvelous cartoon gangster in this scene. This is an actor I’ve seen pop up all over TV and the occasional film over the past decade, and he’s always a pleasure. He plays up the Cheese shtick for a bit, declaring that, “Bitches love the cheddar.” I turn to my wife and ask, “Do bitches love the cheddar?” She considers a moment, and says, “Yes.” Good. That’s why I always keep a loaf of Lucerne Sharp in the fridge – as true a decade ago as now. Meanwhile, back on the screen, Cheese is not happy. If we believe the Haitian, not only did he have no idea he’d been robbed, he doesn’t know anything about a kidnapped girl, and is offended by the suggestion that he’d ever mess with a child. He pulls a gun, demands that Patrick lift his shirt to reveal any wires, demands the same of Angie a bit more aggressively, says the title of the movie aloud, and insists that he’s not involved. Patrick stares him down and issues an extremely elaborate threat to ruin Cheese’s life and business if he’s lying. Cheese points the gun in his face and offers to get “discourteous” if they should ever return. Patrick doesn’t blink. Man this scene is great.

The cops don’t buy it, and start surveillance on Cheese, who promptly calls into the police station offering to make the trade – Amanda for the money. Captain Doyle has a transcript of this call, and is pissssssed that his officers have involved him in an illegal ransom exchange without his knowledge or consent. And he agrees to make the deal anyway – nice and quiet. At this point, Angie is the voice of reason in the room, asking whether keeping the deal quiet is better for Amanda…or better for them. Doyle promptly shuts her down with the my child was murdered card, which is…admittedly a pretty good card. He insists he cares as much about Amanda as anyone in the room, and believes that this is the best way to keep her safe. Freeman…sells this deception well. We don’t learn until later that the whole point of this farce at the quarry is to fake Amanda’s death and throw Patrick and Angie permanently off the trail, but Doyle is speaking the truth when he says he believes this is what’s best for Amanda. And so it plays out. We see a gorgeous flyover of the flooded quarry at sundown. Then cut to darkness. They take their positions on opposite sides, in accordance with Cheese’s “instructions”, and all hell breaks loose. Shots are fired in the distance, and Patrick and Angie run around to the scene to find Cheese dead on the ground. There’s a splash – someone or something went into the water. All of the dudes stand around dumbfounded, and Angie jumps the fuck off the cliff into the water to rescue the girl. It’s downplayed, but this is an awesome and quite dangerous piece of heroics. Angie is the one who didn’t want to find a dead child, and she’s the first to leap for that possibility – good on her. But it’s all for nothing. We cut to Angie in a hospital bed, where Patrick tells her that divers are searching the quarry. Nothing is found – Amanda is presumed dead, and Angie blames herself. Captain Doyle takes official responsibility, loses half his pension, and retires. Helene gets a death certificate and a donated casket, and life goes on. I honestly can’t recall how I felt watching this a decade ago. I asked my wife afterward how she felt at this point, and it all seemed familiar: Hopeless. Aimless. Disappointed. Unsure how there could still be 40 minutes left in the film.

Two months pass, and a boy has gone missing. I’m going to TL;DW this sequence: Patrick’s contact tells him he’s located the pedophile from earlier, Corwin Earle. Remy and Nick show up for backup, an extremely well-staged shoot-out ensues, and Patrick enters Earle’s upstairs room to find him whining on the floor that “it was an accident”. A series of horrific montage shots: the missing boy is dead in the bathtub, Patrick vomits, Earle begs for his life, and Patrick executes him on the spot with a shot to the back of the head. I don’t want to write any more about this, because frankly, this is the part that disturbed me more as a parent. I’m with Angie on this. I know that a dead child is a necessary plot element in this film. I know that murdered children exist in real life. But I don’t want to see it. I don’t want my lizard brain to become terrified of every stranger and dark alley, when the people I know, and who have a pre-existing relationship with my kid, are statistically more likely to kidnap or harm him – and the overall risk of such an event is extremely low compared to more mundane harms. I know that. But I also know that I don’t want to ponder that scenario, because I’ll want to lock my child indoors and hold him in my arms and never let him go. As I recall my reaction from a decade ago, I was as baffled and disturbed by this sequence as my wife was this time. She said afterward that she was wondering what the point of all this would be – just an extended Law & Order: SVU episode? And then, finally, it all comes together.

In the next scene, Remy – whose partner Nick was fatally shot – drunkenly comforts Patrick about the summary execution. I haven’t said much about Ed Harris, but he also gives a fine performance in this film. In the fundamental conflict at play in this film, he represents the side of vigilantism, and he argues his case well. Many years earlier, he and his soon-to-be-dead partner received a snitch tip from Skinny Ray about a minor criminal, and they raided his house. And in that house, they found a disgusting hovel with pair of strung-out criminals, but no drugs – and an abused, neglected child in an immaculate bedroom who just wants to tell Remy all about how he’s learned his multiplication tables.

“You’re worried what’s Catholic? Kids forgive. Kids don’t judge. Kids turn the other cheek. And what do they get for it? So I went back out there, I put an ounce of heroin on the living room floor, and I sent the father on a ride. Seven-to-nine.”
“That was the right thing?”
“FUCKIN’ A. You’ve gotta take a side. You molest a child, you beat a child, you’re not on my side. If you see me coming, you’d better run, because I’m gonna lay you the fuck down! … Easy.”
“It don’t feel easy.”

This exchange, right here, is what this film is all about. It’s imperfect, grandiose, and both of these men have violated the principles that they claim to believe in. It describes the War on Drugs in myopic, moralistic, clash-of-civilizations style terms, and I’ll be honest – a decade ago, despite leaning college-libertarian at the time, I probably would’ve taken this at face value. Jack Bauer spent a decade popularizing torture in the War on Terror. These guys – along with every cop flick since the 1980s – justified vigilantism in the name of a war on a convenient other – “drug-people”, who aren’t like us regular, law-abiding citizens. It’s only the reluctance, and the moral complexity of the film’s ending, that makes this a better treatment of this issue than most. Because we know now what comes of fighting a war the way that Remy describes. More war. Mass imprisonment. An ouroboros of societal decay. And at the same time – you ask me what I’d like to do with someone who harms a child (which the film is keen to associate with the war on drugs, not entirely unfairly), my lizard brain says the same thing as Remy: Lay him the fuck out. It’s not a rule to run a functional civilization with, but it’s sure as hell satisfying. But more importantly, it causes Patrick to realize that Remy has been lying to him – he pretended not to know Skinny Ray during the investigation, but the dead man had been snitching to him for a decade.

This isn’t the last great scene in the film – there’s a tense moment back at the Fillmore bar, where Patrick confronts Lionel about his involvement with Amanda’s disappearance, Remy shows up in a mask to stop Lionel from telling him the truth under cover of a fake armed robbery (and the movie makes almost no effort to hide his identity from us), leading to a shootout and chase in which Remy dies on a rooftop proclaiming that he loves children. The exposition of this conspiracy (between Lionel, Remy, Nick, and Captain Doyle – without the knowledge of Bea, who hired the two detectives) feels a bit rushed, but is probably one of the tightest and most coherent reveals this side of Gone GirlIt’s a great sequence, but as I often say of falling action, I don’t have much more to say about it. At this point, I was just waiting for the consequences. Patrick and Angie wind their way down a wooded lane and arrive at the home of the retired Captain Doyle, only to find Amanda McCready, alive and well, where she has been the whole time.

And Patrick faces another choice between law and vigilantism. Does he do his duty, telling his client that he’s found her missing niece, and send Captain Doyle and the surviving conspirators to prison? Or does he leave her there? Angie’s answer is clear – leave that child where she is, in that safe, affluent house where a nice couple makes her sandwiches. I do wish the conversation between Patrick and Angie had been a bit longer – all that we gleaned of Angie’s point of view was that she was so glad to see Amanda alive that she was willing to do anything to see her safe. She warns Patrick that she’ll hate him, he does the stoic detective thing and calls the cops, Angie leaves him, and that’s that. All the conspirators go to prison, and we cut to Patrick visiting Amanda and Helene on any given Friday, with Helene about to go out for the evening. And Patrick realizes that Helene is still a terrible mother, and by making this choice, he has essentially volunteered to be Amanda’s babysitter until adulthood. This is a fine ending – it seems to be a marginally less disturbing version of a village raising a child than the conspiracy of Amanda’s relatives and the police to steal her away. Kids forgive. Kids turn the other cheek. But they still need meals and blankets and hugs and rides to school, and once a grownup – any grownup – has decided to take on that responsibility, they have a duty to keep it up for as long as the kid needs them.

But let’s talk some more about that moral choice. When Patrick arrives at Doyle’s house, he has to decide whether to continue – and become an accomplice to – Amanda’s abduction. While this dilemma prodded my incredulity a bit, I was willing to accept it on its own narrative terms, because it’s fundamentally the same question about vigilantism that he and Remy had discussed regarding the shooting of a criminal or planting of evidence. It’s about going outside the law to pursue your own definition of justice. The state holds a monopoly on deprivation of civil liberties for a reason (whether we’re talking about executions or forced forfeiture of children), and while our system of social services is an imperfect, underfunded mess that’s rife with abuses and due process violations of its own, it’s hard to imagine a situation where carrying out a life-long extrajudicial disappearance ends well. Not even a state could do this – I mean, it’s literally a crime against humanity for a reason. Amanda may well need to be taken away from her mother – at least one of the anecdotes was of Helene leaving her in a hot car and nearly killing her. But denying a mother closure on her child’s fate is a cruel and unusual punishment. That’s not my opinion – it’s legal fact, even as applied to a mother as execrable as Helene. For a film that strove for some ambitious moral complexity, I’m inclined to think that making Amanda a 5-year-old was a misstep. This is a girl that’s old enough to remember her former life. When we see her at Doyle’s, she seems to be treated well – but when you really think about what she’d have to look forward to in this scenario, she would be a phantom, hiding her true name and face in public, and only living half a life.

This ending forcibly called to mind the story of Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted as a teenager in 2002, forcibly “married” to a religious extremist (who horrifically abused and raped her over the course of nine months), until she was found on a public street with him and an accomplice. I don’t imagine that Doyle and his wife would dream of hurting Amanda – but I have to believe that the mere act of plucking her away from reality is still an act of abuse. Morgan Freeman was 70 years old when this film was made. Did Doyle expect to hide this girl from the world until his mid-80s, when she presumably found her true identity on Google or while applying for student loans? How would she even go to school? Have friends? What would she say to any of them about her upbringing? How long could this charade really last without some serious brainwashing of Amanda to keep it all nice and quiet? A “happy” ending for this story seemed implausible to me even in 2007, which is perhaps why the film doesn’t dwell on it – in 2017, when mass surveillance is a known quantity, and even children’s toys are spying on them, it’s hard to imagine a film even attempting that version. The audience simply wouldn’t accept it. Unless Doyle means the child harm, he simply couldn’t keep her a secret forever. If I were in Patrick’s place, I think I’d have a hard time living with either outcome, especially if Helene continues her reliable track record of being a terrible mother – but at least in this version, he can stop by every once in a while, call Amanda by her real name, and let her know that someone cares about her. And perhaps that’s enough.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” (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.

Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction. Seven years ago, the Icarus project sent a mission to restart the sun, but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Sixteen months ago, I, Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), and a crew of seven, left Earth frozen in a solar winter.
Our payload: a stellar bomb with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island.
Our purpose: to create a star within a star.
Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb.
Welcome to the Icarus II.

Opening voice-over is hit-or-miss with me, as are on-the-nose ship metaphors. Naming your solar rescue mission Icarus seems problematic, especially for a second attempt. I suppose we could’ve revived Apollo (a literal sun-god) for this, but the first Apollo mission…erm…died in a fire, so I guess there’d be trouble either way. In any case, it seems branding wasn’t a major priority – we don’t actually see much of Earth in this “solar winter”, but the planet seems to have unified, at least to the point of mining and transporting all of Earth’s fissile material (including, presumably, all of the nuclear weapons), so assuming Dr. Capa (Cillian Murphy)’s second attempt to save the dying sun manages to succeed, Earth might be a bit more peaceful than before. Or at least return to conventional warfare.

I first saw Sunshine in theaters on a friend’s recommendation. She assured me it was “two thirds character-based indie sci-fi, one third aggressive slasher flick”. This is largely accurate on its face – in fact, the movie has a handful of plot beats in common with Event Horizon, the Doctor Who episode “42”, and even Aliens if I’m playing a bit loose with it. “The first group went missing so now you have to complete their mission and grapple with the [unknown] problem they failed to solve” is a solid adventure trope, and imbuing it with world-ending stakes and psychological torment definitely sets this film up for success – that, plus its powerhouse cast. Besides Murphy, the crew includes Rose Byrne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, and Benedict Wong. Most of them have gone on to bigger and better genre projects, and they really do have a chance to shine here. And of course there’s Mark Strong, who generally gets a more comprehensible voice than this, but has made a career of playing equally creepy villains. The key takeaway here is that I went into this film knowing that it would eventually turn horrific, and that tension may have compromised my objectivity when it came to evaluating the movie’s world-ending stakes. Nonetheless, Capa’s opening voice-over spells it out concisely enough – this is Earth’s last, best shot, and if it fails, the species is done – and this cast (Evans and Curtis in particular) does a stellar job of letting those stakes inform their every action and character beat, even as the slasher elements gradually appear.

The screenplay, written by Alex Garland (Never Let Me Go, Ex Machina), begins at just the right moment, right when Icarus II is about to enter the “dead zone” – an area in which the sun’s electromagnetic field is so powerful that they will be unable to send transmissions back to Earth. So they get one final round of messages home, and then it’s radio silence for two years. I don’t know if this dead zone is based in fact, but the movie does get one other detail right that I didn’t know when I first saw the film – flying into the sun from the Earth is really hard – actually harder than leaving the Solar System! That’s to say, if you point a rocket directly at the sun and fire it off, you’ll just keep missing it, because the rocket begins by orbiting the sun at the same relative velocity as the Earth (30km/sec). So you need to fly very, very fast in the opposite direction along the orbital plane (or do something much cooler and more difficult to slow yourself down) before you’ll be able to fly toward the sun in any meaningful way. MinutePhysics on YouTube tells the tale better, so I’d encourage you to check them out. But the key takeaway is that this rocket had to expend a massive quantity of fuel to make it to the sun, and we briefly see a photo of the crew which confirms that it nailed this (record-fast) velocity at some point. What’s my point in bringing this up? This movie is not a scientific documentary (its scientific advisor is quite explicit on this point, and is happy to hand-wave things like artificial gravity), but it at least seems interested in science, and that was something I very much appreciated while watching it. Like Moon and Interstellar after it, this movie gets enough details right for me to believe that it respects the audience’s intelligence, and doesn’t toss away science for mindless peril like so many others.

Back to the imminent comms blackout – Capa and Mace (Evans) have a bit of a brawl. I like this moment, not because I think a fistfight on a spaceship is particularly professional, but because this is over a legitimately unsolvable issue. Capa took a bit too long to send his message, and now Mace won’t be able to talk to his family for two more years (or perhaps ever again). It’s more than just an accident – it’s a wound, and it won’t heal. There will be more of these. These astronauts, collectively, are the most distant humans in history from the rest of humanity, and this moment exemplifies that loneliness. The ship’s pilot, Cassie (Byrne), is not having it, and promptly calls the entire crew in to deal with the “excess of manliness breaking out in the Comm center”. Before too long, Mace is baring his soul with the ship’s doctor and shrink, Searle (Curtis), then basking on the holodeck grinning into a simulation of crashing waves on a boardwalk. We’re just now starting to understand the full psychological effect of long-term close quarters space travel and isolation, and virtual reality has been proposed as a means of mitigating its effects. 2007 was the year of the first iPhone, and portable computing power is finally starting to reach the point where VR could make a serious comeback. And by allowing the astronauts to feel like they’re outside of a confined space, perhaps their minds will forget their cramped quarters and intractable quarrels for a while.

And then the trouble really starts. Harvey (Troy Garity), the ship’s comms officer and XO, informs the crew that they’ve received a transmission from Icarus I. Apparently the previous ship survived, and is floating in orbit of the sun like Russell’s teapot, cloaked in the dead zone, just waiting for a ship to get close enough to hear their distress call. Trey (Wong) says – pending some very complicated math – that they could adjust their course and intercept with Icarus I. Mace, the consummate rationalist, immediately shuts down the idea. This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Mace is, of course, correct – they have one bomb, and one chance, to save humanity. So literally nothing else matters – not the other ship, not its crew, and not any of them. Searle chimes in to agree, but with a dangerous caveat: it may be worth it to retrieve the second bomb. Everything about the bomb is theoretical, and even with an ingenious physicist like Capa aboard, they still don’t know, can’t know, if it will work. So they have to decide whether or not the potential benefit of a second bomb is worth the danger of trying to retrieve it. This is a movie. We know the answer they’re going to choose. But I must emphasize, this is the moment where I really believed this was a crew of professionals. Mace may be correct in his assessment of the mission’s objectives and stakes, but it’s not his call. Captain Kaneda (Sanada) says it’s not his call either. There won’t be a vote, like some of them clamor for. The most qualified person will decide on the best course of action. “Shit,” says Capa, realizing who that means. Putting Mace and Capa on opposite sides of this debate, right after they’ve just had an irrational brawl, was an inspired choice, particularly since there is no perfectly correct answer to this question – they just have to make a choice. And so they go.

After a minor miscalculation, the ship is in peril. Two of them have to go outside to repair the heat shield, and the butcher’s bill is heavy. I won’t dwell on this sequence for too long, but suffice to say, it is one of the most tense and thrilling sequences in the entire film, is the first of several appearances of John Murphy‘s outstanding Adagio in D Minor (which would go on to appear in Kick-Ass and innumerable other projects). As the crew deals with the fallout of this minor arithmetic hiccup, they do so in gigantic gold spacesuits on a massive, James Bond-sized setpiece, and the sun’s imminent rise hangs ominously just over the ship’s tiny horizon, with the fate of the ship (and thus, the entire species) at stake. It is awe-inspiring, as is the battle of wills between Cassie, Mace, and the ship’s computer over whether or not to let the captain die for the sake of the mission. These are some smart, tense thrills, and I felt the same way watching this as I did watching Ryan Stone re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in Gravity – that astronauts are the closest thing we have to superheroes in real life, strapped to a nuclear-powered chariot hurtling through the heavens. Ideally, with the utmost safety and professionalism. But it’s still glorious.

I’m starting to sound a bit like Searle here, who – in addition to semi-religiously hanging out in the ship’s forward observation room and subjecting himself to higher and higher brightness levels recreationally – seems to be starting an internal sun-worshiping cult of sorts. As Kaneda is facing his imminent demise on the prow of the ship’s heatshield, Searle demands to know what he sees. Curtis plays this character with remarkable stability, and this fleeting, creepy moment almost feels like him indulging his hobby. But it’s a moment that comes back to mind as we meet Captain Pinbacker (Strong) later on in the film. Searle is tapped with maintaining the entire crew’s mental health, and he seems to be casually creating his own god. The rest of the crew should probably be a bit more concerned about this. But they have bigger problems at the moment. Not only is the captain dead, but the entire botany bay is destroyed, sapping the ship’s oxygen. They now have no choice but to rendezvous with Icarus I.

Cassie and Capa have a moment in the payload room, which appears to be a massive cube. Cassie thinks they’re going to die. Capa describes how he thinks the bomb will go off, in semi-poetic terms. He’s not scared. She is. I’ll say here, Byrne does an admirable job with Cassie, even though she’s a fairly limited character (and naming your resident doomsayer Cassandra sounds like more of that on-the-nose naming that Garland is so fond of). But the friendship between Cassie and Capa is one of the film’s only reasonably fleshed-out relationships, and it’s probably for the best that they didn’t take it any further into space romance territory. Really not the movie for that.

I’m going to skip ahead a bit on the recap, because the scenes of exploring Icarus I and discovering the fate of its crew (minus Pinbacker) are genuinely tense and well-staged, and lead to another moment of tense pragmatism. The ship’s airlock mysteriously explodes, and they have no means of getting the four of them back to Icarus II. And this is the moment when Harvey, the comms officer, XO, and least mission-critical person on the ship, reveals himself to be a selfish coward, demanding the only spacesuit for himself. Mace has already volunteered Capa for that slot, because he knows the physicist is more important than any of them. Searle finally solves the situation by volunteering to stay behind and die. He doesn’t do this out of suicidal nobility – it’s just that someone has to stay behind and cycle the airlock from inside, and he knows Harvey (the next least important person) can’t be trusted to do the job. So Searle does his duty, waiting in the sun room to literally meet his maker (if we’re being poetic about our parent star), while his three colleagues are blasted out of the airlock: Capa in a spacesuit, the rest in open vacuum, wrapped in shipboard insulation. My only objection to this scene (apart from being the most direct ripoff of Event Horizon) was that it was a bit narratively tidy – the movie still needed Capa and Mace, so they got to live. But it’s not like an exploding airlock has a sense of justice or practicality, and the conventional hero (Mace) surviving rather than the briefly selfish jerk (who floats away and dies horribly) was pure dumb luck – one of the only times the movie indulges in such contrivance.

Mace gives a post-mortem. He concludes that the ship’s airlock could only have been destroyed by sabotage, and the only possible saboteur is Trey, who at last word, was on suicide watch, blaming himself for Kaneda’s death. And there’s more, chimes in Corazon (Yeoh), who was responsible for the now-extinct oxygen garden. If Trey dies, they’re down to four breathers, and they have enough oxygen to make it to the sun and complete their mission. And so…we get the next scene of hyperrationality. These scenes hammer away at my psyche every time I watch the film, and as I watch these scientists coldly calculate the costs and benefits of murdering their colleague, I can’t help but think this alienation of their humanity is one of the film’s most important themes. Save the world, the movie asks? Sure. But it’ll cost you all the best parts of yourself. Mace volunteers to do the deed himself, but insists on a unanimous decision. “Kill him,” says Capa. But Cassie refuses. “You’re saying you need my vote, and I’m saying you can’t have it.” Their own mini-Circle has failed to reach a consensus, and Mace treks off to murder Trey anyway. But he quickly finds that Trey has beaten him to it, with a scalpel from the infirmary. Mace takes a moment to blame Capa for Trey’s death, and literally smear blood onto his hands, and then they have another feckless brawl while the women look on in disgust. And this is where Mace officially got on my nerves. I still like the sum of this character, but he is just as much of an emotional creature as the rest of them, and the film’s insistence on his rationality strains when he continuously engages in petty bickering, especially over the corpse of a man he was about to murder himself. He may be more reliable than someone like Harvey, but he’s not much better in the end. But as much as the character manages to put me off by the end, Evans’ performance is outstanding, and I can see why he was tapped for Snowpiercer after playing this character. His hyperrationality and stoicism were inflated to villainous excess in that film. He may have eventually become the cheery and optimistic Steve Rogers, but between those two films, I’ll never forget what Evans is capable of.

And finally, we have a showdown with Pinbacker, who was responsible for the airlock sabotage and has made it onto Icarus II. It’s a well-done thriller sequence (resulting in two more cool deaths), but I can’t help but wonder at this point what kind of film this might have been without Melanoma Man (props to Daniel for this) as the final twist. Pinbacker represents the worst excesses of mankind’s failure, monologuing about our foolishness in the face of annihilation by God. My final verdict on Pinbacker is that he was good, but not essential. Humanity could be destroyed by an asteroid or a gamma ray burst in the blink of an eye, and the collapse of our sole lifegiving star is on the same level. The Great Filter is terrifying enough without carefully-vetted professional humans bringing irrationality and quasireligious nihilism to the party. Humanity may bring its own demons to bear on its extinction, but it strikes me as unlikely that those demons will be quite so literal. But I may be trying to thread an impossible needle here. My main complaint about Europa Report was that watching competent professionals do their jobs well – even if that job is something that would utterly capture my imagination in real life – is pretty boring. Sunshine gets this balance right, whichever side it lands on.

Once the cinematic terror is sorted, it’s time for the surviving crew to fall into the sun, and that’s when things get a bit magical and weird. Earlier in the film, when Capa and Cassie were discussing the prospect of changing course, Capa explains, “Between the boosters and the gravity of the sun the velocity of the payload will get so great that space and time will become smeared together and everything will distort. Everything will be unquantifiable.” This is as close as we ever get to an explanation for the film’s ending, and you know what? It works. Humanity’s best scientist and smartest computer both can’t say what the subjective experience of falling into the sun strapped to a giant bomb approaching relativistic speeds will be like. Time dilation kicks in, and perhaps there’s room for a conscious being to experience its own annihilation in the elongated space within an instant. Either way, Murphy’s score is playing its heart out, Capa’s voiceover kicks back on, and the film is over. An ever-so-slight brightening of the sun over a snowy Sydney, Australia reveals that the crew succeeded, eight minutes after the crew becomes stardust. This isn’t an ending that belabors itself or grasps for meaning. This tale of salvation is big enough on its own, even after a decade and plenty more to compare it to.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” – An uneven, but fitting end

Poster for "War for the Planet of the Apes"

Caesar (Andy Serkis, voice and mo-cap) really is an epic, tragic hero, and his odyssey over the course of the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy is a grand spectacle to behold. It owes much of this to Weta Digital’s stunning visual effects and creature work on Caesar and his ape companions (Maurice the Orangutan is a particular masterpiece, and looked as good in 2011 as now). At the time, I said of director Rupert Wyatt‘s series reboot that “it’s easy to overlook just how smart and well-executed this film is, given that Rise of the Planet of the Apes nearly drowns in its rush to saturate itself with big-budget blockbuster stupidity”. The sequels from director Matt Reeves have only heightened these competing impulses – toward deeper and grander themes of the nature of war amid the collapse and clash of a pair of sapient civilizations, and increasingly ridiculous levels of well-rendered, low-stakes blockbuster twaddle. In this way, War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting end to this trilogy, because not only does it deliver a satisfying ending to the film’s only continuous group of characters – apes all – but because it doubles down on many of the series’ most facile impulses. Its homages to classic cinema perform a tenuous and inconsistent tonal dance as the film tries to have its cake and eat it too – delivering a sincere, satisfying, and at times, devastating emotional journey for Serkis and his team to digitally render before us, but also allowing his marvelous creature to become an over-the-top action hero who is repeatedly bailed out of serious trouble by happenstance, antagonist stupidity, and script-demanded good fortune.

I’m being harder on this film than I expected, but I actually had a great deal of fun watching it. After Rise showcased the accidental fall of mankind, Dawn delivered an astonishing allegory on the fragility of peace, showing how bad actors on either side can topple the equilibrium with far greater ease than those who are trying desperately to preserve it. The second film had a clear-eyed message: it didn’t have to be this way. If humanity’s remnants had simply listened to the better angels of their nature – and if its intelligent ape children had done the same – then they might have found a way to coexist on a planet that would be forever changed. It was a real achievement that the series ever made this peace seem possible (even knowing that a blockbuster’s second chapter seldom ends happily), and as this film returns years later into full-fledged conflict, that fleeting memory makes it that much harder to bear. Human soldiers creep through the jungle, ambushing apes and getting ambushed in return, with dozens dead on either side. The film revels in that tragedy, but it never feels exploitative. And it comes as no surprise when the ruthless human Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) is first introduced as a staticky voice on a radio, first telling a lone surviving grunt that he is now in command, and then – when his imminent death becomes clear – ferociously ordering him to “kill as many of them as you can”.

Woody Harrelson in "War for the Planet of the Apes"

The most obvious of the film’s influences is Apocalypse Now (an ape-pun version of this is literally spray-painted on a tunnel wall), but the strongest component of that homage is certainly Harrelson, who delivers a solid performance on fairly limited dialogue and screen presence. The Colonel is introduced as a sort of nightmare-creature – a nemesis who spits on your attempts at peace or compromise, and sneaks up in the dead of night to butcher you in your bed. And when his truer nature is revealed later as something a bit more banal in the fanatical fog of war, the distinction hardly matters. The film’s handling of the Colonel is masterful, because we first meet him from the apes’ perspective as a figure whose existence is so loathsome that it will rip Caesar away from his beleaguered tribe of apes on a suicidal vendetta. Strong, stoic Caesar, whom we’ve witnessed learning about the goodness and ills of human and apekind alike, is shattered by the basest of human desires – to vanquish one’s enemy at any cost. And what a grand journey it becomes. It is perhaps somewhere in Weta Digital’s contract that every one of their films must include a LOTR-esque epic journey, and this film certainly delivers it, as Caesar and his team of besties tear off on horseback. You know these beats already. Caesar doesn’t want them to come, but Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and a strange newcomer known as Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) simply can’t let him undertake this journey alone. Composer Michael Giacchino has grown since his Lost days, with the film’s boisterous themes trumpeting forth like a classic adventure film – Howard Shore meets Sergio Leone. The lush, cavernous cinematography as the troupe distantly (but not too distantly) trails the Colonel’s army will make you gawk at the glory of this cinematic war odyssey, but also ponder why no one in the baggage train bothered to glance back with a clean pair of binoculars. And the less said about the film’s haphazard use of floodlights, the better. War is a gorgeous and eminently watchable film that lets its characters get away with any reckless, ill-conceived action until the moment the script decrees that it’s time for the next conflict – and even then, the sheer lucky spectacle of it all makes those bad choices seem almost correct.

In a sense, the film is predictable, insofar as its genre influences are clear. If there’s an enemy camp, it will be invaded. If there are prisoners, they will escape. All of this will end in blood and fire and death, perhaps right where the giant fuel tanks are discourteously stored. But from a broader perspective, the film manages to maintain a foreboding sense of mystery about the overall tides of the war, as well as the state of the larger world and either species. The series is called Planet of the Apes, and yet it feels suspiciously like the death spiral of all life on Earth, and that is an unyielding source of tension as the series goes on. In much the same way as Game of Thrones, I found myself screaming silently at these characters: Stop this. Stop it now, while some of you are still alive. But that’s perhaps where the film maintains a sheen of optimism, because its most persistent and surprising message is about the tenacity of our nobler instincts. I say “our”, but I’m including the apes in this assessment. The film repeatedly argues, in a manner that is true to these characters, that the overriding impulse of any intelligent being is toward acts of grace, mercy, and compassion. The film hammers this sanguine point repeatedly through character beats, then drives the entire thing off a cliff for a final action sequence that, if I’m being honest, I had quite a bit of fun watching, but found rather narratively unsatisfying. The clashing CGI armies look as good as ever, and yet feel far more anonymous and inconsequential than ever before. War for the Planet of the Apes freely depicts the brutal and unfair horror of death in warfare, but is also happy to showcase death as an admirable, peaceful thing that happens on a mountaintop before sunset.

Still from "War for the Planet of the Apes"

The result is a mixed bag. Caesar makes some atrocious choices in War for the Planet of the Apes, and the film, in a sense, lets him off the hook by presenting a third act that felt utterly devoid of conventional stakes and still allowed him to be a triumphant hero. And yet, I can’t call the film a failure for it, because it still feels like as deep and consequential an exploration of warfare as this series has ever delivered. Perhaps the best avatar for this film is Zahn’s character of “Bad Ape”. He is almost a circus clown version of Koba, the scarred, bitter ape who gleefully started this war in the second film. Bad Ape was mistreated by humans in his former life, but retains the name they used to shout at him, as well as his status as a bitter, lonely, broken-down coward. He is nominally a comic-relief character, and yet I never once stopped feeling compassion for him. And that compassion felt vindicated through his actions by the film’s end. Bad Ape – in addition to being one of the finest CGI creations since Maurice – embodies a deep, abiding sadness. That’s what I felt at the end of this film. That might’ve been exactly what it wanted.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Alex Kurtzman’s “The Mummy” – A Movie About a Mummy and Some Other Stuff

Poster for "The Mummy" (2017)

Ladies and gentlemen, your Dark Universe. The Invisible Man (Johnny Depp), Frankenstein’s monster (Javier Bardem), Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe), and saving the best for first, The Mummy (Sofia Boutella). Don’t be perplexed, dear reader, by the fact that every single other monster is played by an A-List dude. Don’t spend too much time pondering Dr. Jekyll, this film’s Nick Furian monster-hunting super-spy, who runs Prodigium, this film’s S.H.I.E.L.D.. Don’t gaze long at the poster, which exclusively features the name of Tom Cruise above the title, despite his role as a soldier of fortune whose only distinguishing characteristic is a punny surname that means “Deadguy”. And think not upon the trailer which literally shows him dying in an almost vertical plane crash and resurrecting in a single piece. Whatever conclusion you may be drawing about Cruise’s prospects of replacing Boutella as a Mummy-themed Avenger by the end of the film is almost certainly not worth the time it took to type it out. Because The Mummy is not just a bad, boring film, devoid of original thought or a moment of suspense. It’s a film by committee, made in front of a corkboard replete with flash cards of ideas from other, better films. The Mummy is a thief, a liar, and a cannibal.

I shouldn’t rag too hard on Crowe, because he is given the thankless job of setting up a framing device for Universal Studios’ hamfisted attempt to create a megafranchise based on their stable of mostly public-domain, but strictly trademark-controlled movie monsters. And despite his dubious motivations, wildly ambiguous plan (see if you can figure out whether being stabbed with a ruby-hilted dagger is a good or bad thing during the last act, the answer may surprise you) and dialogue composed exclusively of self-important trailer narration, Crowe’s performance certainly provided the film’s only moments of levity. His Dr. Henry Jekyll is an amusing pastiche of Willy Wonka and Albus Dumbledore (with a good deal less narrative focus or skill), and his Edward Hyde is a cockney horrorshow. Crowe at least seems to be having some fun, which is a rare thing in this film. Granted, the creature design of Mr. Hyde makes me genuinely worry that Universal’s only look and feel for these monsters will be “shambling, lightly CGI’d corpse”. If you want poorly zombified actors, this film’s got em, and the quality (for a scant $125 million) is easily put to shame by premium cable these days. Hopefully we’ll get a half-decent Wolf Man or Creature from the Black Lagoon out of this Universe before it collapses.

The Mummy herself, on the other hand, with her ashen skin punctuated with black and blue hieroglyphic tattoos, and her strange double-pupiled eyeballs (the second pupil apparently represents eeeeeevil), is at least interesting to look at, even if her plan doesn’t make much sense. Revisiting Stephen Sommers‘ 1999 version of The Mummy last night, I was struck by just how much energy was put into the design and look of Ancient Egypt. Significant modeling (or late-90s CGI) was put into crafting Ancient Thebes, and that Mummy’s evil plan at least started with a mildly sympathetic motivation – forbidden romance between High Priest Imhotep and Pharaoh’s wife, punishable by death or worse. 2017’s Mummy, Princess Ahmanet, not only lives in a staggeringly low-rent version of Egyptian antiquity, consisting almost entirely of translucent curtains, off-screen stabbings, and standing on undeveloped sand dunes looking at distant pyramids, but her plan is incredibly basic and unsympathetic. She was heiress to the throne of Egypt, but then her Pharaoh father had a baby brother who jumped to the head of the line, so she made a pact with Set, the god of death, to allow her to rule the world in exchange for murdering everyone. This plan has some serious problems. Notably, it is incredibly vague what Set adds to this plan, since Ahmanet seemed quite capable of slaughtering her family without divine intervention, and this didn’t elevate her to the throne. Subsequent to this, she was immediately caught, killed, spirited away to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and Syria), and buried in a cursed tomb. In the end, all Set adds to her plan is a proxy – she needs a mortal to embody his spirit, and that mortal will obviously be played by Tom Cruise. But it’s unclear what her role will be after the death god’s avatar takes over.

Still from "The Mummy" (2017) with Sofia Boutella

Back in the present day, we get a depressingly forced action opener featuring soldiers Nick Morton (Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson). Of these two, I’ll simply say that I never bought them as friends or adventurers, despite some strong work by Johnson later in the film (when he’s done dropping audience-friendly gems like, Iraq is a whole different country that’s a thousand miles from Egypt). But there’s really no better way to sap all tension from an action sequence than to give your heroes the ability to call in an instant airstrike, and announce that ability several minutes before it actually happens. But no matter. The Hellfire missile drops, the unspecified insurgents flee, the cursed tomb is unearthed, and their surly superior (Courtney B. Vance) arrives to tell them that the Mayor’s going to have his ass for this, but also assure them that they will face no consequences whatsoever, and a woman named Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) shows up, seemingly by magic, to explore the tomb for a moment or two. Jenny and Nick, you see, had a one-night stand in Baghdad, he stole her map, she impugns his sexual prowess, and that’s the entire basis of what this film laughably calls a romance between these two. They lack any chemistry or even a plausible motivation to care about each other’s survival. And this is a major problem for the film, because the third act – and Nick’s dire decision of whether or not to vaguely embrace evil – entirely relies on buying these two as romantic partners. The Mummy so thoroughly botched its romance that it actually makes me look back even more fondly on Wonder Woman, which shares a number of adventure and romantic plot beats in common with this film, but executed them with a great deal more skill.

I like Tom Cruise. I like him even when he’s playing cocky or unlikable characters, which is more often than not these days. But this character is an utter failure. His “infection by evil” carries no real weight or tension, because The Mummy‘s inept storytelling telegraphs the ending repeatedly from the opening voiceover. The result is a mirthless slog that I struggled to even make it through without repeatedly checking my watch. And I really have to hand it to this film. It takes a lot of work to not only make me not care if any of the characters live or die, but to also make it objectively not matter.
This has easily outclassed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as the saddest (hopefully abortive) attempt to start a megafranchise to date.

FilmWonk rating: 2 out of 10