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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

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

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

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

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

“I think shit just happens.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then…

several…

more…

things…

happen.

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

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

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

2018 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2018)

#11: They Shall Not Grow Old


Directed by Peter Jackson

I usually make an excuse for my #11, but I’ve got nothing this time. Just couldn’t stand to leave this one out. Now let me ply you with an anecdote. I was visiting coastal North Carolina one year, and we stopped at a historical site of a former Confederate fort during the American Civil War, Fort Fisher. This fort sits at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and was thus a crucial choke point for the port city of Wilmington, where the Confederacy continued to trade in tobacco and cotton (and other commodities supported by slavery) throughout the war. The Union knew it needed to seize this point in order to complete its blockade of the port. After an initial failed attempt in December of 1864 (which resulted in a Union Major General being relieved of command for disobeying General Grant’s orders to put the fort under siege if their assault should fail), the Union tried again in early January 1865 with a force of nearly 10,000 troops and 58 ships. After a vicious battle (which included a lot of close-quarters hand-to-hand combat), the Union took the fort and demolished significant portions of it. In the process, they successfully blockaded Wilmington, depriving the Confederacy of its last port, and serving as a major contribution to the end of the war. If you visit the historical site today, you’ll see many of the original earthworks intact, as well as many of the original (or later restored) walls and cannons. You can walk the site and see the exact spots where the close-quarters battle played out. Then you can go into the visitors’ center, where an elaborate fiber-optic audio-visual display and diorama awaits to explain the progress and significance of the battle (you can get a sense of it here).

I mention this because it’s one of the few experiences in my life that I can describe using the phrase, “History comes alive.” There’s something about being there, seeing the sights and hearing the simulated sounds of a real event that was experienced by real people in that exact spot, that renders the experience a meaningful part of your reality. People lived here. People fought here. People died here. I now have another item to add to this list, and that’s Peter Jackson‘s stellar documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, which has earned the same pedigree. By enhancing original newsreel footage from the Western Front of World War I using modern color, visual effects, frame interpolation (to bring it up to a modern 24fps), as well as a complete and original soundscape to gird the voiceover contributions of hundreds of real World War I veterans that were recorded over the years by the BBC and the Imperial War Museum, Jackson has crafted nothing short of a cinematic time machine that can now be experienced by the entire world, without having to travel anywhere in person to do it. The storytelling mechanic of the film is similar to that of György Pálfi‘s Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen, cutting together footage and audio from many individual soldiers, and using them to tell a semi-continuous story of a single, anonymous soldier – arriving, fighting, and dying on the Western Front – whose face constantly changes. This was a bold choice, as it ran the risk of becoming disjointed or taking the audience out of the film emotionally as their minds told them that the smash cut from an individual 19-year-old man (with terrible teeth) smiling and playing cards during rec time outside of the trench, to a similar-looking but obviously different person lying dead in the mud, was merely a representative figure and not a literal piece of storytelling. As I began to notice this, I expected it to bother me more, but I found that it did not. Perhaps this is because we already consume war history in this way generally. The end of the Great War had its centennial this year, and war is the great anonymizer. It destroys lives, and it destroys individual stories – and likewise, when it comes to studying a conflict as complex as World War I, we never learn the fates of individual soldiers in the meat grinder that was the Western Front. We see battlefield statistics. Perhaps a few artifacts. The rest of them – a collection of human tragedies – are lost to history, except for those they left behind, who may only know the barest details of how their loved ones died.

Jackson accepted no directing fee for this film, and notes in an interview that while he only used about 90 minutes of footage in the film, his production company restored the entire 100 hours that they received from the Imperial War Museum. In this way, the film’s title has a double meaning, as both a line from the Ode of Remembrance, and a promise to the future. Preservation of history is an active process that requires hard work and dedicated individuals to keep alive. Building on the work of archivists and soldiers – most long since deceased – who helped to to share these stories over the decades following the Great War, Jackson stands on the shoulders of giants with this film. But in the process, he has performed a great service to the world and to students of history, and has surely become one of the giants himself.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #144 – “Aquaman” (dir. James Wan), “They Shall Not Grow Old” (dir. Peter Jackson)

#10: Tully


Directed by Jason Reitman, written by Diablo Cody

Eighth Grade appears on this list as an unrelenting hellscape that merely feels real to me, but Tully is an unrelenting hellscape with which I have some intimate familiarity. The first third of this film, about the experience of parenting a brand new baby (which I’ll be going through for the second time this year), played like a documentary. You’re never alone, but nighttime with a baby is lonely time. And it’s time that seems to stretch on. Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is brought in as a sort of parenting surrogate to show up at night and help tackle this early period so you can get some godforsaken sleep. More on her in a moment, since she arrives only after we’ve spent 30 minutes getting to know Marlo (Charlize Theron), who is in peak not-giving-a-fuck territory as she’s horribly third-trimester pregnant with her third child. She grabs a coffee and deals with a judgmental stranger who informs her that “decaf still has trace amounts of caffeine” and feels huge and tired and useless all the time, even as her kid’s school informs her delicately (saying without actually saying anything specific) that they’re sick of dealing with her weird son’s bullshit. Diablo Cody knows how to speak the awkward truth and make me squirm in my seat, and this felt like as true and unglamorous a portrayal of motherhood and parenthood as has ever been put to screen. Marlo and Tully’s relationship is quite fascinating, and I don’t want to delve too far into it, except to say that she’s fascinating as both character and construct, and Davis’ performance is marvelous. She’s meant to be an unnerving Mary Poppins figure with no real inner life of her own, and yet it comes out in unexpected ways as she and Marlo delve into deeper topics in their late-night gab sessions. There’s a lot here, and it’s only clear why by the end. This is one of two Jason Reitman films I saw this year, and it is surely the one that will stick with me.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #140 – “Five Fingers for Marseilles” (dir. Michael Matthews), “Tully” (dir. Jason Reitman)

#9: The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful


Written and directed by Yang Ya-che

The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful is a Taiwanese gangster film about a trio of women (well, two women and a teenage girl) who collectively run a respectable crime family. Madame Tang (Kara Hui), ostensible land baron and antiques dealer, and the wife of a general, is the Godmother – and this is surely the finest portrayal of a Mob matriarch I’ve seen since Jacki Weaver in Animal KingdomMadame (who is only ever known as such) is firmly in charge, and handles the respectable side of the business, dealing with high-ranking government bureaucrats and military officials alike as her daughter Tang Ning (Wu Ke-xi) acts as fixer. Ning is a fascinating character – we first meet her in an act of sloppy tardiness for an important meeting (specifically, a drugged-up threesome), but this character is defined for the rest of the film by her shrewd competence bordering on ruthlessness, as well as her effortless charisma. Wu is delivering something akin to Audrey Hepburn‘s performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s here (a comparison I make with all appropriate irony), instantly taking command of whatever room she’s in, shepherding whatever problem (usually a person) off to another room to be dealt with permanently. And she’s always fine, even when she’s not fine, because she has to be. She’ll only ever break this persona in private, with the members of her family, who are mostly having none of it. Her sister Tang Chen (Vicky Chen) is the quietest of the bunch – Chen (I’m referring to the actress) is of an appropriate age to play the character, and watching this child take in everything that’s happening around her creates some remarkable tension as to what we’ll finally see when her shell cracks and we learn what she actually thinks of all of this.

I can’t say too much more here. The film, which chronicles a shocking multiple murder and its aftermath, contains one of the most complicated mob plots I’ve ever seen, and utilizes a framing device of a flashback from long after these events are over, repeating scenes (often recontextualizing things we’ve already seen, with additional character details), as well as a Greek chorus in the form of a pair of string players on a sort of Kabuki diorama set (definite Japanese influence on display in this film), who will periodically explain what’s going on and what it means. Like voiceover, this is a mechanic that needs to be used carefully, so as not to cover for shortcomings in the screenwriting or overstay its welcome. This sounds a bit obnoxious as I describe it, but I can assure you it’s not – it’s used just enough here. Right when I was on the edge of losing the thread of the plot, the singers would pop in with a bit of musical context. The film is thematically rich, with religion (in this case, Buddhism) mingling with Madame Tang’s criminality in an interesting way – similar to, but culturally distinct from, Catholicism’s pall over films about the Sicilian mob. And the relationship between these three women, as the crimes and corruption and police investigations play out, we come to understand in greater depth over the course of the film. The film utilizes sex, violence, and some brief sexual violence sparingly – and in a manner that passed the storytelling scrutiny that I tend to apply to such scenes. Like The Godfather before it, the tragedy and triumph of this film is not in any one incident, nor is it in the progress of a family seeking to advance itself at any cost, no matter how much of an impact it has on each of them as individuals. It is in the horrific, intergenerational cycle of violence and expectation and torment that they each inflict upon themselves, and promise to keep inflicting into the future. Yang Ya-che’s film demands a great deal from its audience, but it’s a trip. And I hope it finds its way onto a streaming platform so that more Americans can check it out.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #133 – “American Animals” (dir. Bart Layton), “The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful” (dir. Yang Ya-che) (SIFF)

#8: BlacKkKlansman


Directed by Spike Lee, written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee

This one’s personal. There came a moment, shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, that I realized profanity had become completely inoffensive to me. I promise I’m not being topical here; I wrote most of this before the word “motherfucker” led the news cycle this week. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve had sprinkled it throughout my speech since early adolescence. That sprinkling became more frequent as I got that unearned personal confidence that we millennials received in lieu of inflation-adjusted wage increases since 1979, but…at a certain point, I simply stopped believing that keeping society polite was a good or useful outcome. Perhaps it was the sad little Nazis with tiki torches marching in Charlotte telling me that (((I))) would not replace them, before one of their terrorist friends murdered an innocent woman. Perhaps it was the 81% of White Evangelicals, a demographic I grew up in, who decided that Jesus’ favorite politician would be a gleeful philanderer, tax cheat, liar, racist, xenophobe, and coward. Maybe it’s our giddy embrace of apocalyptic, man-made climate change. One way or another, our zeitgeist became more overtly obscene to me, and I’ve found myself uniquely primed for a movie that was willing to have some fucking balls when it came to describing it. And that film, this year, was unquestionably Spike Lee‘s BlackKkKlansman.

I’m using “balls” in the illustrative sense here – embracing the seven dirty words doesn’t mean sacrificing all decorum, of course. But this film, which takes place in the 1970s, perfectly describes the inception of the Ku Klux Klan’s strategy to take their hateful ideology mainstream, and puts words into the mouth of David Duke (an unnervingly hilarious performance from Topher Grace) about their plans to move their burning crosses into a three-piece suit, couch their racism in neutral-sounding terms like “law & order”, and bring them squarely into the mainstream of Republican Party politics, and eventually the White House. Is this a reach, and a bit of present-day glibness about the past? Absolutely. But I don’t mind it. Because I’m sick to death of the media and culture and Republican Party politicians who’ve spent the last two years tiptoeing around the fact that the President of the United States is the most powerful white supremacist in history, and this movie isn’t afraid to say it, even as it tells a thoroughly entertaining period police drama in which such commentary is as unexpected as it is unsubtle. I’m not reading this into film – it literally ends with footage of the Charlottesville rally and a “Rest in Power” message to the murdered activist Heather Heyer. But before that, there comes a moment where police detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is asking his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), with whom he has successfully infiltrated their local Colorado Springs Klan chapter:

“Why haven’t you bought into this? …you’re Jewish, brother. The so-called chosen people. You’ve been passing for a WASP. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, cherry pie, hot dog, white boy. Mmm. It’s what some light-skinned black folks do. They pass for white. Doesn’t that hatred you’ve been hearing the Klan say…doesn’t that piss you off?”

In light of the first paragraph, it’s hopefully apparent the extent to which this rant spoke to me personally. And its coterie of outstanding performances and taut police drama – along with a graphic personal account of a 1916 lynching of a mentally challenged child (link is to a BBC documentary, which contains disturbing, graphic content), delivered with appropriate solemnity by a fictional witness and friend (Harry Belafonte) – certainly helped. But it’s fair to say that this film resonated with me so much because I now understand – with the help of friends from marginalized groups that have known this for much longer – something that I didn’t embrace until recently as a self-styled white boy. Whatever I call myself, it’s the violent racists who set the rules of engagement. They decide who’s inside and who’s out, and drive policy and violence alike to achieve that aim – and that’s true even if some of them would be quite stupid enough to let me into their sad little club if I said the right dirty words about myself in their presence (like both Driver and Washington do so effectively and disturbingly here). This is a story of triumph – the good guys over the bad – even if its climax, foiling a bomb plot, is a complete fiction. More to the point, it’s a call to action that the United States sorely needs right now: to identify, infiltrate, and destroy these assholes before they can get any firmer of a foothold.

#7: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman

I’m still annoyed at Solo: A Star Wars Story for wasting so much of the time and creativity of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (and for turning Kessel Run fanwankery into permanent canon; don’t @ me), but Disney’s loss was…and another division of Disney’s gain, I suppose. I knew of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) from back when Donald Glover was being quasi-drafted on social media to play the role (eventually doing just that), but I had little interest in the character – he was just another Spider-Man. Ditto Spider-Gwen, Spider-Pig (or is it Spider-Ham?) or any of the other essentially interchangeable spider-heroes that just sounded like the same lack of creative focus and inconsistent quality that doomed Andrew Garfield‘s incarnation of the character. How wrong I was.

Often, when a film is described as a “loving tribute” (as this rightfully should be), it’s a slightly backhanded compliment. It suggests niche appeal or some mandatory reading required beforehand. But Spider-Verse‘s ethos that “Anyone can wear the mask” is more than just an overdue cry for inclusive casting, and it’s not a dilution of the brand – it’s a joyous celebration of a beloved character. And all you need to know going into this film is who Spider-Man is, why you love him so much, and that this film seemlessly merges different visual and animation styles into one of the most innovative animated films in a decade. As the whole Spider-Verse spills its incarnations into Miles’ world (which is not our own – small touches like the PDNY, some amusing parody film posters, and unexpected incarnations of known characters spell this out over the course of the film), Miles remains the beating heart of this film – a new take on the teenage prodigy discovering his powers for the first time amid the existential chaos of realizing he’s surrounded by other Spider-Men and that his story – while the most interesting and terrifying thing that has ever happened to him – is not unique. And he’s not alone. It certainly helps that Miles is eminently likable and has interesting personal stakes, but he also has well-written banter with the rest of the team, from the more ridiculous, quip-driven members, such as cartoon pig Peter Porker (John Mulaney) and hard-boiled Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage), to the more serious and slightly pathetic Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) who is living the same life as the Peter Parker (Chris Pine) from Miles’ universe, just with a bit less personal success. And no Christmas album.

Among the two December superhero flicks that exceeded my expectations, this is easily the better of the two (and it deserves greater box office success than Aquaman, even if that genie is firmly out of the bottle). See it in theaters while you can, in 3D if you can. It is easily the best superhero film of the year, and perhaps one of the greatest of all time.

#6: Leave No Trace


Directed by Debra Granik, written by Granik & Anne Rosellini, based on novel by Peter Rock

In 2016, my #10 was a three-way tie for “Weirdos in the Wilderness”, which was mostly an excuse to talk about Swiss Army Man a lot. But I feel the need to single out Debra Granik‘s Leave No Trace as a crowning achievement in the genre. This is perhaps because – like her previous narrative feature Winter’s Bone – it presents another stellar up-and-coming young actress, Thomasin McKenzie, who plays Tom, the daughter of Will (Ben Foster), a war vet with PTSD, and the pair of them live…well, in the wilderness. But here’s the thing. Unlike a film like Captain Fantastic, with Viggo Mortensen raising 7 kids as physical and intellectual prodigies who jog up a mountain every morning before debating Nabokov in their trailer, this film has a streak of realism that’s not a mere side order to the heart and wish-fulfillment. Sure, living in the woods away from civilization might be fun for a while. But what Leave No Trace seems to understand is that there’s something a bit off about anyone who chooses this life repeatedly when faced with alternatives, and it’s keen to explore that atypicality with depth and compassion. Will and Tom have a deep familial affection for each other, but they’re really not okay. They’re living in a forest park, hiding from the rangers who are there to ensure that Tom goes to school and is well taken care of, and even as Will is keeping his daughter well-versed in survival skills (including escape and evasion), it’s clear that she has a few skills and desires that he is fundamentally incapable of experiencing or providing for – namely, those that involve interacting with other humans in the outside world. Tom can occasionally fake it – there’s an amazing moment halfway through the film where the pair attends a church service with a private landowner who is playing host and patron to them, and Tom tells his daughter afterward that they’re merely going because if you go to church when asked, people make certain positive assumptions about you. This is both a bleak and insightful picture of community as a form of social camouflage. Clutching a hymnal to your face as if it’s a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Acting Normal, in lieu of actually dealing with the decision to attend or not attend in any consequential way. This film has a lot to say about family, community, and mental health, but it does so in an appropriately subtle fashion, with Foster having to convey a great deal of personal anguish in the guise of a character who speaks very few actual words, even to his closest confidante and only companion in the world. It merely seeks to examine the relationship between these two, and allow us to subtly absorb what behaviors each of them considers normal, and what sort of life each of them wants to live.

#5: Eighth Grade


Written and directed by Bo Burnham

I can’t speak to how well this film encapsulates the current adolescent experience (particularly for girls), but it sure feels real to me – and while much of its resonance is specific to the modern era, with digital natives who spend their entire adolescence sharing bits and pieces of themselves, with appropriate filtration and automatic touchup, a great deal of it feels recognizable to me as part of the horrific in-betweener time that is eighth grade. Elsie Fisher is a precious soul whose performance as Kayla Day is such a natural and effortless awkward, cringe-inducing hellscape that I teetered back and forth between admiring her acting chops and pondering the extent to which making this film was an act of real-world adolescent torture. An eighth grade pool party, are you freaking kidding me? That’s hell. I don’t care if you were the wallflower or the fat kid or the popular kid – nobody was thrilled to be there. By letting Kayla speak her piece through the mantle of a little-watched YouTube series, the film extracts a great deal of insight about her inner life, which largely remains silent and introverted throughout the rest of the film. In my head-canon, this is perhaps a plausible prequel to Lady Bird, despite the totally different dynamic at work between Kayla and her single dad (Josh Hamilton). Mark Day is doing fine, and Kayla is doing as well as can be reasonably expected, and it seems like these two will be fine, hopefully, once she’s done being a kid and starts the process of becoming a young lady. And I was rather pleased to see a film present an example of strained, awkward, but fundamentally capable and ordinary fatherhood. Some little details, like her sitting, earbuds blaring, relentlessly scrolling her phone at dinner (which is established as a Fridays-only privilege at the dinner table), before her dad briefly interrupts her with some encouragement and she screams at him to stop being weird and let her be on her phone. THIS IS FINE. This film was simultaneously poignant, true-to-life, and excruciating to watch, and it feels suspiciously like a loving missive to a target audience of children who are just putting themselves out into the world for the first time. Eighth Grade is a heartfelt assurance – perhaps what was missing from previous attempts like Boyhood, which has aged poorly in my memory – that as they discover their new identities, navigate their new relationships, and decide upon the lives they want – they’ll figure it all out eventually.

#4: Mission: Impossible – Fallout


Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Tom Cruise is one of the most daring and hard-working actors in Hollywood, and this film is the crowning achievement in a franchise that has lapped both 007 and Bourne to become the undisputed champion of the 21st century spy genre. And I feel utterly baffled to be typing that sentence as a part of a Top 10 list in the Year of our Lord 2019. How did we get here? How did the Fast and Furious crew and the IMF come to be contenders in the same business as even as the legacy Cold War dinosaurs have struggled to answer such simple and inane questions as “Can James Bond be black?” (yes, obviously)

The Mission: Impossible franchise has been the sleeper in this genre, with producer J.J. Abrams and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (and one turn by Brad Bird) bringing the franchise’s second trilogy into stark relief as a series of films that is built entirely on a tower of What Insane Thing Can We Make Tom Cruise Do For Real This Time, which has previously included some precarious wirework on the Burj Khalifa, and strapping him to the outside of a cargo jet during takeoff. In this film, that list includes a real-life HALO jump and actually learning to fly a helicopter, in a sequence that is easily the finest (and only) real-life helo chase I’ve seen since, what, Outbreak (1995)? This wasn’t a form of action that I even realized I was starving for until Tom Cruise and the stellar M:I stunt team gave it to me, and it continues the pattern that the series has established: Make the action appear at breakneck speed. Make it continue where you think it’ll stop, and stop where you think it’ll continue, and at all times, make me care about the characters. Just like the Fast and Furious crew, the IMF is all about family now. And that family includes such disparate rogues as Ving Rhames‘ veteran techie (who handles more plot and emotion in this film than the last two combined), Simon Pegg‘s earnest field agent (who has come a long way from his Q days), Alec Baldwin‘s Secretary, and Rebecca Ferguson‘s enigmatic Ilsa Faust, a master spy and love interest that barely deserves the latter moniker, whose story is such a rich and dire reflection of Ethan’s own that it deserves its own spin-off. This is an instant classic, and – in a true feat for the sixth entry in a franchise, one of the best action and spy films ever made.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #138 – “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)

#3: Bodied


Directed by Joseph Kahn, written by Alex Larsen

Joseph Kahn‘s filmography includes a physics-defying motorcycle-themed Fast and Furious knockoff, a short film featuring adult Power Rangers, a bizarre high-school horror farce, every recent Taylor Swift video, and now…a brilliant satire about racism, sensitivity, and political correctness, through the lens of competitive freestyle rap battles, produced by none other than self-styled Rap God Eminem. Let’s talk about political correctness for a moment. When a certain sector of American politics uses this term, they just mean they’re tired of being called racist when they say and do racist things and elect outspoken racists to the White House. If you find yourself in this position, look inward, and probably avoid this film, because I suspect its message – delivered with some subtlety between the violently offensive language and insult repartee – may elude you.

Don’t get me wrong – just because the American right-wing has little self-awareness about their snowflake status when they complain about being called out for their voluntary words and deeds by people who voluntarily dislike them, the very first people to be deservingly eviscerated in this film are white liberal intellectuals such as myself. When Adam (Calum Worthy) and his girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) arrive at a dingy warehouse to observe their first freestyle rap competition, and Adam begins translating the lingo for his girlfriend (“Probably just assume everything is a gun metaphor”), your first understandable reaction will be…what a pair of pretentious assholes. Then Adam meets his rap battle mentor Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) and informs him that his Berkeley English thesis will be on the subject of the N-word in competitive rap battles, this initial impression will be all but confirmed.

Because when it comes down to it, all of these people are skilled performers, and the surface-level racist and sexist insults are both what the audience expects, and a marker that you’re a total hack as a performer. Funny usually overrides offensive, but there’s no rule that says anyone has to like you when you’re done speaking your piece, nor to invite you back ever again. These people are ostensibly combatants, but they’re really more like coworkers. And a skilled performer will only cross unforgivable professional and personal lines if they mean to. and they certainly won’t have any right to complain afterward. A few secondary characters, Prospek (Dumbfoundead) and Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai) explore this motif in further detail, and it’s to the film’s minor detriment that this plotline wasn’t given a bit more room to breathe. But there’s plenty going on with Adam’s descent into madness to carry the film. The film’s Wiki page mistakenly declares that villain is a (legitimately terrifying) rapper named Megaton (Dizaster, who wrote all of his own lyrics for this film). But the truth is, Adam is the villain. He is his own worst enemy, and watching the tension that ensues as Behn Grymm tries to pull him back from the brink of becoming an utter monster is the real conflict that drives the film. Worthy is a stunning heel (and an excellent battler), but it’s Long that makes this film work. He’s the Obi-Wan, doomed to train a monster who will turn directly and willingly to the dark side. It’s just a matter of how far he goes, what consequences he faces, and whether there’s any chance of pulling him back.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #135 – “Tag” (dir. Jeff Tomsic), “Bodied” (dir. Joseph Kahn) (SIFF)

#2: Sorry to Bother You


Written and directed by Boots Riley

There comes a moment in Boots Riley‘s masterpiece, Sorry to Bother You, when Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) sits in dank luxury with a sociopathic executive (Armie Hammer), who begins a hilariously earnest monologue in which he’s desperate to explain and normalize the fucked up thing that is happening in the third act of this film. “See?” he says, brandishing a gun, “It’s all just a big misunderstanding. I just didn’t want you to think I was crazy – that I was doing this for no reason.”

That, perhaps as much as the performance and street art of Cash’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), seems to be the point of the film. To present a captivating, corporate-dystopian portrait of Oakland – a city that is having quite the cinematic renaissance in the past few years – that’s equal parts Neal Stephenson, Michel Gondry, and David Kronenberg. I first became aware of Stanfield as the lead in Crown Heights, and if there’s one thing he balances well as he carries another lead role, it’s Cassius’ fundamental moral dilemma – remain a decent human being in a happy relationship, or make money and find success in a world that will only allow him to do so if he veers toward evil. It’s a familiar, Faustian tale told with an original and authentic voice (including affected “white voices” for several of the leads, with Cash’s played by David Cross, Detroit’s by Lily James, and Mr. _____, an anonymous foil played by Omari Hardwick, voiced by Patton Oswalt) – and unlike other memorable audience surrogates like Bing in Black Mirror or [any lead in any film about Wall Street], Cash is thick with hilarious repartee (including a duel of compliments) and is buoyed by an outstanding supporting cast. Tessa Thompson, who has become an honest-to-goodness movie star in record time, is a fine choice for Detroit, but she only works because Riley clearly cares as much about the character being fully realized as Thompson does. Every detail of Detroit, from her outspoken opposition to the capitalist excess of the film’s world (and the real world by extension), to the assortment of profane feminist t-shirts and slam poetry earrings (with all due credit to costumer Deirdra Govan, as well as Riley and Thompson) – to her artistic and narrative and sexual agency, simply works. The film’s critiques of the role of labor in what it would certainly call late-stage capitalism is central to the film’s plot, and…I really can’t say much more about it, except to say that this sort of critique is veering firmly into the mainstream than when it’s featured in over-the-hill, libertarian legacy media like South Park. But while Trey Parker and Matt Stone are able to cloak their literal recitation of the Communist Manifesto under untold layers of irony, this film wears its sincere and unapologetically radical-leftist rage on its sleeve. And it believes the future for workers – particularly workers of color – is quite bleak indeed.

#1: The Favourite


Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, written by Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara

At the risk of being terribly on-the-nose, The Favourite is my favourite this year. I saw this film on the night of December 31st, and I’m quite sure I’ve succumbed to recency bias here, because it’s the only one I’ve wanted to talk about since seeing it (we’ll be reviewing it on the podcast next week), and the only one I’ve wanted to put in the #1 slot. Like The Lobster (my 2016 fave), this film was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and stars Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman, but unlike that film, it was not co-written by Lanthimos himself. It began its life with screenwriter Deborah Davis and producer Ceci Dempsey in 1998, which means it took twenty years for a period costume drama featuring a love triangle between three women – an aspect that is barely hinted at in the trailer) – to get made. And it’s quite unclear how to categorize what I’m watching here. Is this tale of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her two warring lovers, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz), and her cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), some form of secret history? Speculative fiction? A bit of both? A quick perusal of Wikipedia finds that the broad strokes of this story are true, and all of this taking place during the War of the Spanish Succession – the continuation of which is the subject of sharp political controversy in the film – lends an element of higher stakes to a proceeding that is already made monumentally entertaining with the wicked court dialogue and copious profanity. The word “va-juju” appears in this film, and I’m not entirely sure it existed prior to this century (although “fuck” certainly did) – but this language feels like a sort of Deadwood-style profanity-as-shorthand – using anachronistic language to try and make a modern audience react in the same way as people of the time might have done. And it works. These people are fiendishly cruel, playing their power games in a petty and representative fashion over a conflict that will spill real blood and treasure and affect the lives of millions in the real world.

And did I mention the sharp tongues? There are barbs in this film that made me want to take a sip of seltzer just so I could spit it out. There is a particular moment where Abigail greets a wigged and blushed nighttime visitor (with whom she’s been engaging in a steady and aggressive flirtation). She sets down her book, looks him up and down, and asks, “What an outfit. Have you come to seduce me or rape me?” “I am a gentleman!” he protests. “So, rape then,” she says dryly, before stealing his wig, wiping off his blush, kiss-biting his lip, and sending him on his way.

Whether it was dance parties, duck races, orange-pelting, formal break-dance parties, or darkly hilarious scenes such as the one above, a persistent reaction I had to this film was “The fuck did I just watch?“. Besides solid supporting work from Joe Alwyn and James Smith, this is perhaps the finest comedic work I’ve seen from Nicholas Hoult, who plays Robert Harley, the leader of the Tory opposition government, perhaps the film’s best practitioner of feckless, weaponized indignation (after reading this, Harley would surely ask me if I want to get punched before huffing and walking away). The relationship between Sarah and the Queen is extremely well-developed by the time the film begins, full of history and nicknames and court dynamics and comfortable banter. Sarah isn’t merely the royal favourite; she is a deservedly trusted advisor who can be depended upon to tell the truth, even when it hurts…but who is also transparently manipulating the Queen to support her own political aims. And the tension at work between all of these aspects of Sarah’s identity in this relationship – advisor, lover, confidante, and independent thinker – must come to a head. If Abigail hadn’t blown the whole thing up, something else surely would have. Abigail, meanwhile, is an obscure cousin of a family whose grandfather produced 22 offspring, and it’s no surprise that Sarah neither knows who she is nor has any particular desire to help her. Abigail is earnest, ruthless, and self-serving. She arrives, sexually harassed and dumped into mud and horse-apples from a carriage, and it’s all par for the course in a life that included being sold as a teenager to pay off her father’s debt to a German merchant. And she’ll tell Sarah all about these things, gaining her trust, and effortlessly advancing her station. But the most fascinating thing about Abigail is that it’s never quite clear if she’s intentionally competing, or merely advancing herself at any cost in a zero-sum game. It really doesn’t seem like she desires to take anything away from Sarah, but she’s happy to steal the Queen’s favor from her if that’s the only way she can have it. The Queen, meanwhile – apparently Colman’s third royal performance – is in a rotten state. In flagging health, barely interested in the affairs of state – cruel, self-indulgent, and capricious. And yet deeply covetous of love, and constantly surrounded by the insincere and insecure variety of the same.

While I’m not quite sure how to characterize its factual basis, the broad details of The Favourite are more-or-less, kinda-sorta-not-really accurate, the performances are stellar, and the love triangle that is central to the film’s conflict is fascinating in its depth and subtlety. What’s more, the film is relentlessly funny even as it honestly tackles some dour real-life material (Queen Anne’s husband was dead by this point, and she had had 17 miscarriages, stillbirths, or deaths in childhood – and no surviving offspring). These performances work because the characters are never afraid to speak their truth to each other, even as they’re back-biting and plotting on each other. And all of this chipper pretense, intercut with casual cruelty and shocking threats of violence, helps call out the ever-present voice of director Yorgos Lanthimos. This film is less of a dense meatball than his usual fare; it’s more of a chocolate mousse that you want to spread out over everything and never stop eating. It feels less like Downton Abbey and more of a spiritual successor to Patrice Leconte‘s Ridicule or Stanley Kubrick‘s Barry Lyndon. It is rich, decadent, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan (a new visual partner with Lanthimos) utilizing a whip-panning fish-eye lens that drinks in every detail of the floor-to-ceiling opulence of the palaces and dresses and endless corridors, barely able to contain it all as it literally and optically bulges at the seams. This look and feel is frankly perfect for who and what these people are: larger-than-life and despicable. Sarah wants to bleed the gentry dry with a land tax to continue funding an endless war with the French that the movie never troubles to explain the basis for (frankly, it was a hard sell in real life). As she says to the queen in a Very Serious Voice that “The War is not over – it must continue,” it was hard not to think of the War in Afghanistan as it enters its 18th year of uninterrupted bipartisan support. Sarah is a Whig, the Queen is a Tory, and these party identifications hardly matter, since these people never debate the war with anything but patriotic platitudes and generic insults about the cruel French who will surely be crossing the Channel to sodomize the goodwives of of Cornwall or whatever. How do these people sleep at night? I suspect they’ll find a way, until the Queen’s poorly constitution and whimsical rage sends them clattering into exile and disgrace.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Roma (directed by Alfonso Cuarón)
  • Hereditary (directed by Ari Aster)
  • Blindspotting (directed by Carlos López Estrada)
  • Bird Box (directed by Susanne Bier)
  • Pig (directed by Mani Haghighi) (podcast)
  • Annihilation (directed by Alex Garland) (podcast)
  • The Death of Stalin (directed by Armando Iannucci)
  • 22 July (directed by Paul Greengrass) (podcast)
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen) (podcast)
  • You Were Never Really Here (directed by Lynne Ramsay)
  • Disobedience (directed by Sebastián Lelio)
  • Searching (directed by Aneesh Chaganty)

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

Poster for

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

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

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

But why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia” (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.

There are two opening title cards to Baz Luhrmann‘s Australia.

“After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy steamed south, unleashing their fire on Darwin, a city in the Northern Territory of Australia.

‘The Territory’ was a land of crocodiles, cattle barons, and warrior chiefs where adventure and romance was a way of life.

It was also a place where aboriginal children of mixed-race were taken by force from their families and trained for service in white society. These children became known as the Stolen Generations.”

Starting with the Hitchcockian “bomb under the table” before jumping back in time two years was an odd choice. If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t say the mention of impending Imperial Japanese bombers provoked much suspense for me while watching this film, because the first 90 minutes are a rip-roaring western epic about a cattle drive, with the initial flirtations of a period romance, mostly taking place in the middle of nowhere in the Australian Outback. This crawl had entirely left my head by the time the second film (a speed-run of Michael Bay‘s Pearl Harbor) begins, because Australia really is two and a half films crammed into one. It’s Luhrmann’s very own Down Under Lord of the Rings, seemingly with the self-awareness of a director who knew he would probably only get financing for this thing once. So, no need to trim the script – let’s just do it all in a three-hour epic, Gone With the Wind-style. The other opening title card is a warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers that they should exercise caution when watching this film, as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons. Between this and the Japanese bomber warning, it’s pretty clear that the film is promising that people will die on this adventure, but it’s also explicitly announcing its intention to court an audience of Indigenous peoples, as well as to tell a tale on their behalf.

As I write this a decade later, the warning about deceased persons has literally come true for two actors who each made their final appearance in this film. Ray Barrett, an actor with a career spanning five decades who played a cameo role, passed at the age of 82 from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2009. And David Ngoombujarra, who plays Magarri and was barely half Barrett’s age, was found dead in a park in 2011, of unspecified (but non-suspicious) causes. That’s all I know about Ngoombujarra. The internet can tell me a few more things. He had a winning smile. His colleagues claimed he struggled with alcoholism. He was taken from his Aboriginal parents in 1967 under government policy, adopted at 10 months old, and raised by white parents in Western Australia under the name David Bernard Starr. He originally came from the Yamatji people. This film tells me that Aborigines believe that once a person dies, you should no longer speak their name, and demonstrates occasional interest in the differences between Aboriginal tribes (at least in one extremely specific plot-serving way). But I won’t act as if I know something about this man, including anything about his preference one way or the other about his name being used after death. This is a film with pretenses of educating its audience, and I suppose in the case of the Stolen Generations, it did that in a minimal fashion – I had never heard of this policy prior to this film. But the film’s primary vehicle for this lesson is a mixed-race Aboriginal boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who spends nearly the film’s full runtime speaking non-specifically about his experience of not belonging, and by the end, I can’t say I learned anything more about the fictional Aborigine than I did about the real one.

The film starts in media res with Nullah’s voiceover. He learned everything he knows from an elder named King George (David Gulpilil), including to hate and fear white people, whom the elder claims need to be purged from this land. Because of Nullah’s mixed-race parentage, he is understandably worried about being taken away by the government and church – so whenever white people turn up, he makes himself invisible. Initially, he hides underwater (in a billabong – essentially a temporary swamp) from a team driving cattle. Then some vague things happen, Nullah dodges a man getting speared through the chest, then claims his horse, then runs into a derelict cattle ranch to hide in a water tower. Then Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman show up, and…the camera flies around and swoops into the sky. Title. Three weeks earlier. None of that was really necessary.

And then the story actually begins, as Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman), an English aristocrat, packs to travel down under to sell Faraway Downs, a cattle station that she owns with her husband Lord Ashley. She suspects her husband was just using this backwater ranch as an excuse to travel far away and bang other women. I should pause here and note, it’s hilarious to me that even as Hugh Jackman gets to go full Crocodile Dundee in this film, while Australian and frequent accent-performer Nicole Kidman is being forced to play English – and not just English, but essentially Rachel Weisz‘s reluctant librarian adventurer from The Mummy. Lady Ashley is determined (despite her husband’s telegrams to the contrary) to show up in person and force the sale, so Lord Ashley promises to send his trusted man to meet her at the port city of Darwin (Didn’t we hear something about this city earlier?).

When we first meet the trusted man, of course it’s Hugh Jackman, whose name and function is Drover. He’s wearing a cowboy hat, punching a dude in the face, and drinking a beer, and…yes, this film is called Australia. This is before Jackman beefed up for the latter half of his Wolverine years, but he could still throw down in a choreographed brawl with his usual vigor. For next five minutes, while Drover brawls in the background with literally a dozen racist dudes who have a problem with his friendly attitude toward the Aborigines, the story and stakes of the film’s first half are laid out: Carney (Bryan Brown) is the Sausage King of Chicago Beef Baron of Australia, and his only possible competitor is Lady Ashley’s little cattle station, Faraway Downs. As a good monopolist who senses an imminent opportunity for some war profiteering, he doesn’t want to jeopardize his lucrative beef contract with the Aussie Army, so he’s engaging in a few dirty tricks to ensure that not a single beast from Faraway Downs makes it onto “that dock right there” in Darwin. Drover (Jackman) drives cattle on a commission basis (“No one hires me, no one fires me”), and he’s been contracted by Lord Ashley to drive 1,500 head of cattle to that very dock, on the condition that he escort Lady Ashley to the cattle station first. Because he’s a Trusted Man and all that. He wrecks a bit of her luggage (and scatters her underthings) in the brawl, welcomes her to Australia. She is scandalized, and they are off and running on a dune buggy on a soundstage.

I should mention, thanks to the crew at the /Filmcast (who were my early podcasting idols), I’d already heard a bit about the “George Lucas beauty” (flagrant CGI) of this film before I saw it theatrically, and while its intermittently spotty visuals didn’t bother me in ’08, they certainly weren’t lost on me either. Most of this film takes place in the Australian wilderness, and it is almost uniformly gorgeous whenever it’s a wide shot and I’m not thinking too hard about whether it was real or not. The film seems to have seen this coming, because when the gang stops to camp in what appears to be a studio set, an undeniably authentic visual moment ensues:

After the Drover’s shampoo commercial wraps, he and Magarri shock Lady Ashley with a bit of lightly ribald banter before treating her basically decently (this continues in the car, with a misunderstanding over horse breeding), then they arrive on the cattle ranch, which has been gutted, and her husband Lord Ashley (who turned out to be the man we saw speared through the chest in the prologue) lies dead in the parlor. The cattle station’s manager, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), whom we already saw colluding with the ruthless Carney in the exposition scene, spins a yarn about how King George, a “murderous black”, killed Lord Ashley. He also says the windmill-driven water pump doesn’t work, the cattle are all gone, he’s not a murderer, etc., before Nullah demolishes this pile of lies pretty effectively by instantaneously fixing the windmill. Fletcher attacks him and his mother and is promptly fired. He and his men leave, but one drunk fellow, Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), tells the tale. The cattle ranch is facing foreclosure, and Fletcher has been embezzling unbranded cattle for years, siphoning them off into Carney’s land and herd. Oh, and Nullah is totally Fletcher’s unacknowledged son, as if the latter’s command of an Aboriginal language and casual racism and domestic violence didn’t make that clear. Flynn suggests that the only way that Lady Ashley can beat Carney and Fletcher at their own game is to drove the remaining cattle to Darwin. If only she knew someone who could assist…

Drover is outside, herding a gorgeous pack of unbridled horses. Then he stops and stands outside the ranch, and he and Lady Ashley have an intense conversation on…greenscreen? What the hell is going on visually with this movie? There are literally two dudes standing motionless on horseback in the background of Jackman’s shot, and I’m not sure if either of these movie stars is actually in this location, having this conversation. I shouldn’t find this quite so obnoxious, but…I really do. From the Star Wars prequels to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, there’s nothing that will take me out of a film faster than the feeling that the movie is bullshitting me about where the actors actually are. And it’s not as if there aren’t equally good examples of this. Greenscreen is prolific. Avatar, Life of Pi, Game of Thrones, virtually every Marvel film… As well as innumerable other productions where the compositing is so seamless that it’s essentially unnoticeable unless you’re really looking for it. The VFX industry has gotten a lot better at this. But sets haven’t yet become optional even a decade later, and there was a period of time in the mid-2000s where the oeuvre of George Lucas managed to convince some TV and film productions that they were. Famously, he even visited the 2001 shoot in Martin Scorsese‘s full-scale replica set of 1850s Five Points neighborhood for Gangs of New York, and balked at the expense of such a set when CGI buildings are surely cheaper. Perhaps they are (as Rhythm and Hues can attest), but cheaper isn’t always better, and bad compositing can severely date a film, as it does here. From the one-two punch of these shots, what appears to be the reality of this production is that the ranch house at Faraway Downs doesn’t exist (or is a model), but some of the fencing does? So as the pair has a tepid argument about whether or not they have enough experienced riders for the drove, every shot of Kidman is on a soundstage, some of the shots of Jackman are on location, and it’s honestly pretty tiresome to watch. I’ll try to stop commenting on this quite so much, but this uneven fakery hangs over Australia throughout its runtime.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) stands in front of a greenscreen which may or may not be in Australia.

Following a drove-training montage, the police arrive, and Nullah and his mother Daisy (Ursula Yovich) dart into the water tower to hide. The police are ostensibly there to investigate Lord Ashley’s murder, but Fletcher also dropped a dime on his own kid, and they tell Lady Ashley to keep an eye out for him so they can take him away. As the cops wash off at the water pump, its activation somehow begins to fill the upper tank with water even faster (this mechanism makes no sense to me). The ladder breaks loose, and Nullah and his mother are in peril of drowning in the middle of the driest part of the dry season in the Outback. Lady Ashley covers for Nullah, and sends the cops on their way – and Drover runs up to save the pair. But it’s too late for Daisy, who has drowned.

I should mention at this point, as I attempt to comment on the race relations in this film, I feel a bit like John Denver. I can sing with ridiculous superficiality about the stereotypes and iconography of Australia, but I’m not about to pretend I can comment insightfully on the Stolen Generations, except to say that they’re an unambiguous case of institutionalized white supremacy, and I’ve learned in the past decade that such arrangements were more the rule than the exception throughout the age of empires. What’s more, it’s literally what the Trump Administration did (on a smaller scale) on the US-Mexico border last year – stealing children from their parents like a fairy-tale demon, traumatizing them at a tender age, and in many cases, deporting their parents and not tracking them in any meaningful way. Many of them will be adopted out or become wards of the state, never to see their families again, through the banal cruelty of a needless policy motivated by the need to tickle the sensibilities of racist rubes, combined with administrative and bureaucratic ineptitude. It is sickening. And even if Australia struggles to find a more detailed message other than “This was bad,” as I view it a decade later, the film feels like a decent prototype of the sort of cultural commentary that will inevitably emerge in the future to damn our current era’s policies in retrospect. Perhaps it’ll be under a rosy glow of romantic adventure, like this film, or quaint nostalgia, à la Forrest Gump. But one way or another, future generations will come to know some part of the present struggle through an artistic lens.

But let’s talk about Daisy’s death. I tend to think that Australia means well, and perhaps even functions as a piece of lightly educational content about the troubled racial history of the continent. But as a pair of white protagonists trade facile barbs about whether or not any specific detail of their employment of or interaction with Aborigines at Faraway Downs constitutes “exploitation,” it all feels a bit undercut when an Indigenous woman dies in the most pointless way possible to save her son from peril that was, in every sense of the word, unnecessary. Aborigines are present in this film, but by and large, their voices are not. And the child Nullah (who is also joining the drove), seems less like a character and more like an avatar for narration. Another Aborigine, Bandy Legs, screams Daisy’s name and cries as the camera fades upward – her pain as much as part of the scenery as the windmill. And the tale goes on. The Aborigines bury their dead, and the distant King George, who is also (*deep sigh*) in front of a greenscreen, seems distraught.

King George (David Gulpilil) stands separately from the rest of the cast, with little exception, for the entirety of the film.

Drover dispatches Lady Ashley, literally because she’s a woman and all that, to comfort the child. This scene is actually quite marvelous, as the well-meaning aristocrat kneels on a pair of newspapers and gives Nullah a lousy rendition of the story of The Wizard of Oz, eventually singing a randomly-keyed rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, a motif that will return throughout the film. Baz? Let’s talk for a moment. I know your country is literally called Oz, but as evocative far-flung renditions go, that song belongs squarely to Iz Kamakawiwo’ole in Hawaii. Just go with Men at Work next time. Although I must say, watching Kidman pretend like she can’t sing (after Luhrmann already showed off her singing prowess just 7 years earlier) is almost as amusingly undignified as making her speak with an English accent, and she has a giddy old time with it, mixing up verse and chorus and giggling and cheering up the boy in spite of herself. Then Nullah, who only exists to advance the plot, tells her that it’s time to get those no-good, cheeky bulls into that big, bloody metal ship, because the grief scene is over, and it’s time to move some cows!

Flynn has apparently been in rehab during this montage, as he shatters an entirely full bottle of rum before announcing he’s ready to join the party. Magarri, Bandy Legs, and another Aborigine join the crew, and Drover delivers some highly specific admonitions to the woman, the kid, and the drunk, and mostly ignores the three others. And off the herd goes, and…I must say, every wide shot of the cows is pretty stellar. The cows don’t have to do a lot (except briefly die in visually thrilling ways), and they kick up enough dust to cover any visual oddities. When the team crosses the river, there seem to be a few dozen actual cows involved. Back in Darwin, a newsreel tells the tale of war in Europe, Carney maneuvers to get the army beef contract, and Fletcher fumes. Villainy is afoot.

As the herd advances through a canyon, Nullah – who has been delivering voiceover this entire time and saying very little, utters his least substantial line yet. Speaking of Lady Ashley, he intones, “When Mrs. Boss first come to this land, she look, but she not see. Now, she got her eyes open for the first time,” and…wow this is embarrassing, “Some places got spirits. White fellas don’t know. Some places no good to go.” King George, who can teleport, is naked atop another cliff as they pass. Four goons with black hats approach to cause trouble. Nullah randomly tells Flynn that King George is his grandfather, and… the man is visibly shocked. Flynn later asks Nullah to confirm that Lord Ashley was killed by a glass-tipped spear. This seems like it’ll be important later. The sun instantaneously rises, Fletcher and his goons (also in front of a greenscreen, but on horseback) crest the hill, start a fire, and scatter the cows, who stampede toward the cliffs. A pattern ensues as this legitimately awesome action-adventure setpiece plays out: Every wide shot is great, every close-up is flat-out terrible. But these people are acting the hell out of it, and honestly, this is exactly the kind of raucous action setpiece I tuned in for. Flynn gets trampled, and a few cows fall as they drive the herd around the cliff, then Fletcher’s goons set off another miraculously well-placed fire line, and the whole bloody mess is heading straight for Nullah at the cliff’s edge. So…he sings at em. We occasionally cut to King George, who does the same. And lo, their magic quells the stampede. Nullah passes out from the ordeal of using his magic, and nearly takes a tumble off the cliff, and Lady Ashley grabs him just in time. King George, who is not in the same location as any other character, says to no one in particular, “You are brave, my grandson.” All of this is pretty stupid, but in a way I’m used to by this point.

Stop me if you’ve herd this one.

Flynn, who was just trampled by 1,497 cows, lives just long enough to tell Drover about the glass-tipped spear (and a cloistered bottle of booze under the cook wagon), then dies. Drover explains to Lady Ashley what it means: Fletcher used one of the ornamental spears inside the homestead to murder Lord Ashley in an effort to frame King George, not realizing that King George (who hails from a different region) would never carry this type of spear. Of all the points this film makes about white Australians exploiting and misunderstanding the Aborigines, this is perhaps one of the most effective, even if it comes on the heels of some melodic cow-magic. Fletcher uses and abuses an Indigenous family, abandons his child to become a ward of the state, and tries to frame the child’s grandfather for an opportunistic murder and betrayal that he himself perpetrated. And why? Because he knew the Aussie police would roll with it, just as we saw they did. The Murderous Black, King George. Rolls right off the tongue. But he couldn’t get his facts straight, so when anyone bothered to look at them with the most basic amount of Aboriginal knowledge, they saw right through it. More on this later.

Lady Ashley gives Hugh Jackman a sweltering look (yeah, her eyes are intense enough to break his character) and tells him, “We can’t let them win.” “We won’t,” says the Drover. And they high-tail it with the herd in the middle of the night. Without being seen by Fletcher and his men. Somehow. Off-screen. Don’t think about it. The next day, they pour shots from Flynn’s bottle (breaking the Drover’s code or something), and toast his memory. They empty the bottle, and as the extras supply background music, Lady Ashley and Drover have a drunken dance, followed by a drunken kiss. Get it, both of you. Then Nullah interrupts with some inane questions from the tree above, before Bandy Legs ushers him back to the fire. Drover reveals he was married before he went off to war, and his wife died of tuberculosis, because back then, the hospitals wouldn’t treat…blacks. No kids. Lady Ashley, despite being visibly shocked by this, politely intones, “What a shame. I think you would’ve made a great father.” “You?” asks Drover. “No. I can’t,” says Lady Ashley. Her childbearing difficulties will not be mentioned again in the film, but Drover echoes her sentiment that she would’ve made a great mother.

A quick aside. The tone of this scene is all over the place, and its glancing treatment of infertility screams that the script was written by multiple dudes. Giving the brooding protagonist both a wartorn past and a dead wife in place of depth is a Christopher Nolan-worthy cliché. But giving the brooding white protagonist a dead Indigenous wife merits a moment’s consideration as to the film’s overall treatment of such people – a treatment which has unceremoniously disposed of at least two such women by this point as a means of motivating the rest of the cast. This very week on the FilmWonk Podcast, we reviewed the new Western anthology from the Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. And by golly we did our best to comment appropriately on the (seemingly deliberate) cartoonish depiction of Native Americans in a manner that both played into and subverted Western archetypes. And I tend to think we did a decent job of it. But I must admit, when Toronto film critic Adam Nayman convened a panel of Indigenous directors to discuss the film’s depictions of Native Americans, he surely had me pegged when he said this:

“One group we haven’t brought up that is homogenous and white is film critics. That’s maybe one of the reasons why people are more comfortable deconstructing Buster Scruggs in terms of Western tropes than actually talking about the history that it occludes or gets rid of…When you have filmmakers this brilliant, influential and taking up this much oxygen in the discussion – and I know because I just wrote a 90,000-word book on them – how much of this stuff is given a pass because it could be intellectually rationalized? And who are the people rationalizing it? It’s mostly white critics.”

This led me to an editorial by Canadian and Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson (also on the panel). In a discussion of media depictions of Canada’s own troubled racial history, she inadvertently describes Australia as well.

“It became easy to separate ourselves from what happened at those schools. Those black-suited historical figures become ciphers onto which we could project the worst in human nature and condemn it, keeping ourselves wholly separate. We would never do those awful things.

And then there is the portrayal of victims. Victims are often voiceless, helpless and also one-sided characters. Their role is to suffer. This dehumanizes and infantilizes them, taking away their agency and complexity. This is generally how Indigenous people are portrayed even in the most well-intentioned stories created by non-Indigenous people. In fact, and unfortunately, there can be a strong correlation between the well-meaning desire to condemn what happened and lift up the victims and the oversimplification of storytelling into the good/evil dichotomy, which gives us the twin satisfaction of being better people than the terrible villains and feeling sorry for the victims, who become sort of childlike and in need of care.

All Indigenous people aren’t the same, all colonial legacies (even within the always-sunny British Empire) are not the same either. But it’s probably fair to say that the well-meaning simplicity of white directors when it comes to approaching Indigenous stories do achieve a level of homogeneity. In 2008, my approach to this subject matter, to these one-dimensional depictions and dismissals, was essentially to ignore them. Or to naively laud them for their efforts (see late teenage Glenn’s reaction to the movie Crash).

This was a good place for this aside, because the rest of the film (which ends in the next 5 minutes as the cattle arrive at Darwin) is just more of the same. Fletcher’s boys poison the wells, and the Aborigines use their magic to guide the herd across an impassable desert called the Never Never. We flash forward to Darwin, where Carney has seemingly planted a tale in the newspaper of the tragic demise of the entire drove (including Lady Ashley), and the Army Captain Dutton (played as a surprise nice-guy turn by Ben Mendelsohn!) tepidly signs the contract just as the drove arrives. Dutton, who’s no fan of Carney, mentions unprompted that the contract isn’t binding until the beef is actually loaded onto the ships, so…a brief, exciting bit of competitive cow-longshoring ensues, and of course the hero-cows make it onto the ships to be heroically slaughtered. Triumph! Happiness. Nullah, who has apparently forgotten the legal peril that he’s in along with the film, drives the last cheeky bull onto the big, bloody metal ship in full view of his father who tried to get him arrested not three days earlier, and…everyone gets drunk. Nullah summarizes, “So everybody get what they want! Everybody happy. Mrs. Boss is gonna sell Faraway Downs and go back England. Everybody happy except for me. Because I not white fella, not black fella either – me belong no one.”

Sigh. The movie is over! Dream a little dream of the credits rolling, because the second movie will begin presently.

Lady Ashley descends a staircase with a loving gaze upon Drover, and announces her intention to stay down under and run Faraway Downs. She offers Drover a job, and…he balks. And also totally misses that she’s asking him out to a celebratory ball with the local gentry – which, once he understands, says he’s “as good as black to them” and refuses. “That’s the way it is,” he says. “Just because that’s the way it is, doesn’t mean it’s the way it should be.” It may be easy to lose in my criticism of the film’s script that I really do adore these two together on-screen. The Drover will repeat this sentiment with bitter sadness later in the film, and these Jackman and Kidman do some outstanding work with what they’re given here. We cut back to the Faraway Downs crew at their camp outside of Darwin, and Bandy Legs is plotting to take Nullah to go see The Wizard of Oz in Darwin. After painting his face with ash so he looks like he’s the child of two black parents, and thus will merely be treated badly, but not stolen away to Mission Island. This is…colossally fucked up, but it’s actually one of the few bits of racial politics where the Aborigines are shown to make a decision for themselves, which really just makes me disappointed that it does nothing to advance the plot.

Back at the ball, Lady Ashley (going solo) meets the friendly Captain Dutton, and a pair of rich old women grouse about her husband barely being cold in the ground when she’s taking up with another man. And I have to say, even though they’ve misread this specific situation, they kinda have a point. Lady Ashley followed her husband down to Australia under the assumption he was traveling to cheat on her, and the film presents no evidence that this was ever anything more than her own insecurities. When she finds out that her husband was murdered by his business partner (after previously believing he was murdered by a local Aboriginal elder), she had already started smooching with the Drover not three days later. It’s a scandal and it kinda should be. Anyway, it turns out Lady Ashley just wants to inquire with the good captain about the legality of adopting Nullah in order to protect him (not sure what an Army captain would have to do with this, but okay). There’s some fine juxtaposition in the staging of this scene, because as a conversation about racist nonsense proceeds (underneath some randomly placed Chinese lanterns), Lady Ashley is literally being auctioned off (for a dance) to benefit the very same racist childrens’ missions that she’s trying to keep Nullah away from. An unspecified Old White Dude pipes up with some racist nonsense about how adopting Nullah is quite out of the question because [blah blah blah Aborigines aren’t people, it’s all awful and period-authentic and I won’t recap it in detail here]. Lady Ashley correctly points out that this is nonsense, and perhaps we should ask their fathers, since…after all, they’re in this room. Carney breaks the tension by bidding 500 quid for the lady’s hand, and they proceed with a tense dance. She accuses Fletcher of murdering her husband, which…Carney seems genuinely surprised by. And then he offers once again to buy her property, even going so far as to offer the continued residency and protection of the workers and kids into the contract. She’s on the verge of taking his offer, when a clean-shaven Hugh Jackman shows up for a Foxtrot. She tells Carney the ranch is not for sale, and romance ensues.

The Drover (Hugh Jackman) only shaves with a live crocodile.

Throwing a fancy ball really is where Luhrmann (and production designer Catherine Martin, who also worked on Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby) excel, and this one happening entirely outdoors, in period garb, on a waterfront no less, really is a sight to behold. And then a rainstorm erupts, the couple kisses, the music swells, and party hoots and hollers. Carney, who it turns out really was just a ruthless tycoon and not an accessory to murder, tells Fletcher he’s done with him (and a prior plan to marry his daughter Cath Carney is quite out of the question). Nullah, over at the movie theater, sits in the rain continuing to watch The Wizard of Oz, and, it kinda seems like this would be a convenient time for his ashen blackface to wash off and create some logically-consistent peril, but the movie has no time for that, because it’s time for the official couple to get busy. And we’re talkin hardcore “Rated PG-13 for some Sensuality”-careful-sheet-placement sex in a colossal four-poster behind an open screen-door. Getting it all the way on (in a single position with zero motion). And, yes, it’s all very sweet.

Montage. Nullah’s voiceover continues a bit less obnoxiously than before as Faraway Downs blooms in the rain. The workers work, the children play, and it’s strongly implied that Lady Ashley is bribing a cop (or perhaps just serving him tea) to turn a blind eye to Nullah’s presence on the ranch. There are many, many magic-hour kisses in front of various pristine vistas, and it’s all quite lovely. During the dry season, Drover droves – but he always comes back during the wet season.

Tee hee.

Anyway, Fletcher murders Carney with a rifle-butt into a crocodile, marries his daughter Cath (her father apparently didn’t bother to warn her about Fletcher being a murderer and stuff). Two years have passed, and Japan enters the war. Fletcher arrives at Faraway Downs to be a dick some more, threatens Lady Ashley, Nullah, and the ranch. Lady Ashley threatens to tell Fletcher’s new beef heiress wife that Nullah is Fletcher’s son, and he…essentially confesses to murdering Lady Ashley’s husband and threatens to do the same to her. Then he says his new catchphrase, “Pride’s not power!” before smirking away. Lady Ashley admonishes Bandy Legs not to tell the Drover about the conversation. Out in the yard, the Drover performs some recreational horse chores, and Nullah spews the following bits of random, plot-motivating nonsense through the fence:

“You a man, Drover? Sometimes man got to get away from woman. That’s why you go droving. If you don’t go droving, you not a man. King George tell me I gotta go walkabout. If I a man, I gotta go walkabout. Learn’em be a man.”

I have no idea what this child is talking about, but I think he needs to shut up. Captain Dutton comes back to offer a big Army drove for the next 6 months, and Drover (who has internalized Nullah’s speech with shocking haste) immediately decides to accept it. Nullah disappears on walkabout with King George. Lady Ashley and Drover argue about whether or not to go after him, with the Drover denying that Nullah is his responsibility, and expressing certainty that it’ll be impossible to find him. The Drover is making sense here – they can’t keep Nullah captive if he wants to leave – but it’s fairly amusing to see the Drover explain that it’s impossible to track Nullah down, considering the police find and arrest him along with King George not two minutes later. The argument reaches an impasse, and Drover says he’s off to the drove and will be back in 6 months. Lady Ashley issues an ultimatum. Either the Drover stays with her at the ranch, or…she doesn’t want him to return. Bye-bye, Drover.

A series of elaborate vfx shots of the now-packed Darwin harbor ensue. It’s on a war footing, littered with civilian and naval vessels and personnel, and everyone prepares to evacuate to the South. Everyone except…the mixed-race children being whisked off to Mission Island, and the Catholic clergy in charge of them. These scenes (shot in a real coastal town in Queensland, heavily enhanced with CGI) look dated, but they’re good. Nullah is taken away to Mission Island as Lady Ashley protests ten feet away behind a fence – there are literally thousands of people visible in these shots, but this town really is quite tiny. Cath Fletcher encourages her husband to do something to help Lady Ashley (and seems vaguely progressive compared to her peers). He promptly heads down to the dock to join Lady Ashley, mocks the survival prospects of Nullah (his son) on Mission Island, which has a radio tower and will thus be an attractive target for the Imperial Japanese. He orders Lady Ashley to take a job with his wife at Army HQ, and he’ll allow her to stay close, provided she signs the contract. He repeats his dumb catchphrase a few more times as he walks away. He has about two months to live.

They at least seem to be in a real place together this time.

In the Outback, Magarri – now revealed to be the Drover’s brother-in-law – challenges him on why he left Lady Ashley behind. Magarri accuses him of being afraid of getting his heart broken again like when his sister died, and says that the Drover probably never even told Lady Ashley that he loves her. Just as with Nullah, the Drover internalizes this speech with alarming haste, and the two brothers high-tail it back to Darwin. Two months have somehow passed without Lady Ashley selling the ranch to Fletcher, and he finally offers to reunite her with Nullah on Mission Island if she signs the contract. Again, it is entirely unclear to me how he has this power, but apparently beef barons own the north, and that’s just the way it is. Yet another high-stakes contract-signing gets interrupted at the last second, as an armada of Imperial Japanese bombers arrives. A handful of them peel off to strafe and bomb Mission Island, and the rest head squarely into Darwin. A red-headed woman stands before an open window and stares directly at the bombers’ approach, and an explosion destroys the wall, killing her. A bomb explodes next to King George’s cell, releasing him. He stands perfectly safe in the open like the wizard that he is, watching the bombs explode around him, and the whole of Darwin town, ships and buildings alike, are bombed to their foundations. The Drover shows up in the aftermath, and believes Lady Ashley is dead. She’s not though. It was Cath. We learn this in approximately 90 seconds. This sequence really is a visual feast, but it has zero tension.

The heartbroken Drover arrives at the only bar in Darwin (which is still standing), and demands that his brother Magarri be allowed into the segregated bar for a [PG-13] “fucking drink!”. Ivan the (Racist and Sexist) Bartender refuses, then reluctantly agrees. This is good. Magarri deserves one last drink, because he’ll be dead by the end of this paragraph. Ivan explains that Mission Island was indeed hit first, and Nullah and the rest of the children are surely in God’s hands now. Drover and Magarri promptly hijack a boat and head out to the island, where they find dozens of children alive. This seems…more cheery than it ought to be, given the amount of strafing we saw in that attack. But Drover quickly finds Nullah, tells him that they can’t say Lady Ashley’s name anymore, and warm hugs are had by all, before Imperial Japanese soldiers approach through the jungle. Drover and the kids hide under the dock and make their way to the end of the peer, and Magarri helpfully offers to stay behind and die. What the fuck, movie? Remember earlier in the film when Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman spoke of exploitation? This, right here, is exploitation. I mean, good lord, Magarri (whose name I’m about to no longer be able to say) might as well change his name to Character Shield for his remaining seconds as he buys the escaping kids no time, and dies for nothing. He hides bravely behind a pier, and engages a dozen soldiers with a bolt-action rifle as the kids float to safety. The gun jams after two shots, and he runs and dies pointlessly.

Goodbye, [ ], we hardly knew ye.
And that’s a wrap, David. Farewell, sir.

The boat makes its way back into the harbor, and King George makes literally his first tangible contribution to the plot by standing atop a Carney silo and singing toward the harbor so the boat can find its way back through the fog. Nullah plays “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on his harmonica, the other children join in, and through the magic of music, everyone stops and is reunited – Drover, Lady Ashley, Nullah, and the rest of the children. This moment is very sweet, and it’s amazing what a moment of musical catharsis – even one as hamfistedly executed as this – can bring. The concern for Lady Ashley’s and Nullah’s purported deaths lasted barely a few minutes in movie time, but this family credibly sold its anguish (even if they got over the death of [ ] pretty much instantaneously). A dumb sequence ensues where Fletcher blames Lady Ashley and Nullah for his wife’s demise, and proceeds to hunt them with a rifle. King George makes his second tangible contribution to the plot by spearing the fuck out of him from a hundred yards with a pipe from the water tower. King George also speaks the only line that he has spoken so far to another character, “He’s my grandson, and he’s your son.” Not bad, King George, I guess.

<——Just pretend this caption is an improvised spear ——<

The couple shares a merry kiss, the family returns to Faraway Downs, and Nullah gives his most nonsensical voiceover yet: “One thing I know. Why we tell story is the most important of all. That’s how you keep them people belong you…always.” In due course, King George shows up (a hundred yards away, in front of a greenscreen, as is his way). Nullah strips off his shirt and heads out on walkabout with his grandfather, who whispers a few more lines in Lady Ashley’s direction: “You have been on a journey, now we are heading home. To my country. To our country.” Then he bares his ass to the camera and walks away.

Another caption:

“The government officially abandoned the assimilation policy for Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory in 1973. In 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia offered a formal apology to the members of the Stolen Generations.”

Fin. Credits.

This movie is thin. Thin as tomato bisque. But I have to admit, I can still see some of its appeal. Americans are spoiled for choice when it comes to mythologized narratives of our history, but one that still occasionally entertains me is the 2000 Roland Emmerich film The Patriot. That film is harder to watch now that Mel Gibson has also shown his ass to the camera and walked away (mostly), but it’s one I’ve always watched with a pretty hefty grain of salt. An action hero leads a group of guerillas with muskets who win the American Revolution because unlike those stupid evil war-crimey Redcoats, these guys were the first paramilitary force in history to think of the brilliant tactic of shooting from behind cover. Apart from the preposterous action, the racial politics of that film were also a mess, with Gibson playing a fictionalized version of a slave-holding plantation owner, with the slaves conveniently transposed onto paid servants in Colonial South Carolina in 1776. Sure. I guess my point is: a decade ago, and a number of times since, I’ve spoken of Australia as a cinematic feast (a phrase I may have also borrowed from the /Filmcast). Now, I suppose I’d call it more of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Not good for you, exactly, but it’ll fill you up. Judging Luhrmann’s undeniably loving tribute to his homeland in the same way as Emmerich’s blatant historical revisionism almost makes me give it a pass. Almost. But when it comes to laying out the details of painful chapters of institutional racism, we owe it to the future to do better. And to expand the pool of stories and storytellers to make sure those stories can be told properly.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10

Phyllida Lloyd’s “Mamma Mia!” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for Mamma Mia

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

I was wandering through the mall with my father on a weekday afternoon at the ripe old age of 23, and he suggested we should pop over to the local multiplex to watch Mamma Mia!. He and I weren’t mall people then, and are even less so now, and my mother had been a far more common cinema partner (the last father-son movie outing had been the second Lord of the Rings film six years earlier), so I cannot overemphasize what an odd suggestion this was. Odder still was this particular film: A jukebox musical featuring the music of 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA, a band whose music I vaguely enjoyed, but was scarcely familiar with beyond “Dancing Queen“. This was before the Shazam app existed, and ABBA sat firmly in the vague pop culture place of, “Oh, yeah – I guess I have heard that song.” Even less in my public consciousness was Amanda Seyfried, who plays the lead in this film, and whom I knew at the time exclusively as the dumbest of the Mean Girls. But apart from Moulin Rouge!, another exclamatory jukebox musical that I adored then and now, I found the disjointed exhibition format of this film to be utterly vexing. Let me explain, by way of a brief anecdote. A couple of years earlier, in 2006, I flew to upstate New York to visit some friends at Wells College, in the tiny town of Aurora, outside of Syracuse. Wells had been an exclusively women’s college for 136 years, until allowing a handful of men into the mix and officially becoming co-ed the previous year. As such, I was permitted to spend the weekend in my friends’ dorm (I recall some common-area couch-surfing was involved). The day I arrived, they gleefully informed me of the first event on my itinerary: I would accompany them, twenty minutes hence, to a meeting of the Campus Pirate Club, where we would watch all 129 minutes of the 2005 Digital Playground film, Pirates. In case you’re not familiar with that studio’s oeuvre, what I’m referring to here is a feature-length pornographic film – one of the most expensive ever made – that I watched in a common room with no less than 15 undergrad women (and I think 1 other man), with the express intention of discussing it through a feminist lens when the movie was over. This being the only occasion in which I had done this extremely specific thing, I came to the quick realization that there’s not a lot of flow to the storyline of such a film. Whenever the adult stars began to do their business, two things would occur: the crowd in my viewing parlor would start to mercilessly mock and riff on what they were seeing, and I would reach for the Stephen King novella collection that I had started on the plane, tuning the movie out. This is a slightly obscene comparison, and I won’t slander Mamma Mia! by suggesting that I thought of it in these exact terms when I first saw it. But looking back, I can see why I’m mentally grouping these experiences together. In Mamma Mia!, as each thinly-justified pop song veered into a boring digression before my eyes, the story ground to a halt, and the characters and plot contorted themselves into whatever shape the performance of the minute required of them. And I knew, with both films, that now would indeed be a safe time to leave the room.

But it was better this time. A lot better. Perhaps it’s my later familiarity with ABBA talking, or my continuing interest in Seyfried’s acting chops, but this movie sparked joy in me this time around that was mostly absent on my first viewing. And while it still has sufficient excess (and ambiguous seamen) to merit the comparison, this will be the last Pirates joke I make about it. Now on with the review.

We open on Sophie (Seyfried), a 20-year-old bride-to-be on a rowboat in the moonlight, preparing a trio of letters, and singing “I Have a Dream“, used quite a bit more happily than where I’ve seen it since. She is on a Greek island called Kalokairi, and informs her trio of bridesmaids that she’s been sneakily reading her mom’s diary from the year that she was pregnant. It turns out that Donna (Meryl Streep) had a busy summer that year, taking a trio of men in turns to this particular island, where she danced with each of them on the beach, and then, “[dot dot dot]”. Within those dots lies the plot, because Sophie has been raised by Donna as a single mother, and has no idea who her father is. Since she has correctly (and with an abundance of giggles) inferred the meaning of this euphemistic punctuation, she gleefully reveals that she has sent letters to each of the three men, inviting them each to the wedding on her mother’s behalf.

And Sophie’s three potential padres are:

  • Sam (Pierce Brosnan), an Irish-American architect.
  • Harry (Colin Firth), a British banker.
  • Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), a fisherman and travel writer.

The dads arrive on the Greek mainland and happen upon each other, quickly deducing that they’re all heading to the same wedding, and they each hitch a ride on Bill’s boat. Meanwhile, Donna is joined on the island by her two childhood friends:

  • Tanya, a wealthy thrice-divorcee (Juilliard-trained Christine Baranski, the film’s best singer by a significant margin)
  • Rosie (Julie Walters), accomplished chef, bestselling cookbook author, and confirmed bachelorette.

Let me tell you what I was grappling with as these two obviously parallel bands of older characters were introduced in obvious and coincidental ways to be obviously and coincidentally matched up by the film’s end. I’ve come to realize over the past decade (and with the 2012 Tom Hooper Les Misérables in particular) that there are narrative tricks and shortcuts that I am prepared to forgive from the musical genre that I will not tolerate from any other: love at first sight, unexplained “death by tragedy”, or the correct number and orientation of characters to get tidily paired off or kill each other by the story’s end. It’s not like the musical genre pioneered these tropes (they were common in Shakespeare as well), but they did teach me that something I would regard as a detriment in any other genre – characters acting “how the script needs them to act” from moment to moment – is an asset when it’s needed to kick off a jaunty song and dance. But therein lies the conundrum with a jukebox musical: when the songs are as thinly justified as “Money, Money, Money” was in this scene, they test my predisposition to view them charitably, nearly to destruction. The subtext of the scene and song is that Donna has been a single mom running a broken-down hotel, and hasn’t had a day off in 15 years, and she also has mixed feelings about her daughter Sophie getting married and potentially leaving the island – and herself – behind. I’m calling out this scene for a few reasons. First, because this was a particularly egregious example of the song justifying the scene, and not vice versa. Second, because this struggle, while ably played by both Streep and Seyfried, felt perfunctory and was poorly justified in the script. And third, because I wasn’t entirely correct in my dismissive assumptions about how the characters would all get paired off romantically by the end. Mamma Mia! isn’t exactly full of surprises, but it managed a red herring or two, and the first of them is set up right here. More on this later.

Apart from the singsong trickery, all of the old-friends interactions between Donna, Tanya, and Rosie – known collectively by their former music group moniker, The Dynamos – are just delightful. Their every interaction is a flurry of contradictions: Donna is in her home, dealing with work and ambivalence about her daughter’s future, but her friends are here to enjoy a vacation in paradise. The three of them are getting on in years, but they’ve known each other since they were teenagers, and fully regress to youthful demeanor in each other’s presence, dunking on and bantering with each other, with the added mix of being able to drink alcohol and, on at least one occasion, pop pills. Donna – who is about to find out that the dads have arrived – revels in the potential joys of revisiting her old flames, but also throws in a few motherly digressions – perhaps from her own intervening years, perhaps echoed from her deeply Catholic mother – literally calling herself a “stupid, reckless little slut” at one point. While Money, Money, Money didn’t work spontaneously, many of their other digressions worked well – “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen” come in rapid succession, just as much out of nowhere – but all of the prior scenes between these three powerhouse actresses sell these moments well. When it comes down to it, these three work brilliantly as friends, and while Baranski is clearly the most experienced singer of the three, Streep and Walters are more than adequate songbirds for this material. Streep manages to sell her signature number (“Mamma Mia!“) brilliantly, as she joyously romps around a rooftop peeping on the dads, who are cloistered in the goat-house attic.

Goat-house attic? Let’s back up. So much of this film’s setup relies on misunderstandings and secrets and lies stacked on top of outright lies – this is comic melodrama bordering on farce, but it’s wicked fun. Sophie intercepts the dads on the dock, and promptly stashes them in the attic of a building that we only ever hear referred to as the goat-house. She confesses that she sent the invitations, and Donna has no idea that the three men are there. After some brief panic and bonding, they mysteriously agree to go along with this plan, and literally ten seconds pass before Donna spots them, seeing them in flashbacks as they appeared when she knew them. And, if I might put my thumb on the scale, Brosnan is the clear winner, and I can only hope that if a needless origin sequel to this film is released today, that these exact hairstyles are retained.

Mamma Mia! flashback triptych

So – Donna falls into the attic and somehow believes that these men all arrived at the same time as a mere coincidence (with some vague blame placed on the goddess Aphrodite, whose fountain might just be on this very island!), and demands that they take off immediately before Sophie sees them. Her willful ignorance here is…a bit much, but all of these men clearly still have some feeling for her, and it plays well. The dads flee to Bill’s boat, and Sophie swims out to prevent them from leaving.

And this is the moment. Colin Firth starts “Our Last Summer“, but his sweet, boring vocals are quickly displaced by those of the deservedly notorious Pierce Brosnan. And what can I say here? He really is quite a mediocre singer – the only comparably bad vocals that come to mind were those of Russell Crowe‘s Javert in the aforementioned Les Mis – and there’s not much more to say about it without being unkind. Sam is not merely singing badly, but outside of his vocal range as well, and it’s almost bad enough to distract from the well-executed montage that occurs here, which is Sophie bonding with all three of her prospective dads – Sam makes a sketch of her, the group jumps off a seaside cliff, they share a bonfire on the beach… This whole dynamic, which continues with Sophie as the film goes on, is very nice. These men aren’t noticeably competing with each other, and – a few scenes later when they realize what Sophie’s after, are interested in the truth about Sophie’s parentage, but they still aren’t interested in fighting each other over it. To put it in reality TV terms, these people did come here to make friends, and they seem to largely succeed.

If I were to devote an entire paragraph to each song, this would be quite a long review, so I’ll gloss over the next few: Sophie’s fiancé Sky (Dominic Cooper) shows up before his stag party for a little pre-marital [dot dot dot] with Sophie on the beach, and they sing a lusty duet of “Lay All Your Love on Me” before literally twenty men show up to haul him off, flex their muscles, and then leap from the dock, before tearing off on jetskis. I guess Sky’s a popular fellow! I should mention here, I enjoyed this moment a bit more this time around, because 23-year-old Glenn had never heard the term “stag party” (British slang for a bachelor party), and had no idea who this phalanx of dudes were, or why they had abducted the groom. Huzzah for British TV!

Back at the bachelorette party (“hen party!” – silly Brits), Donna and the Dynamos jump on stage in all their fabulous, sequinned glory, and begin an awkward a cappella performance of “Super Trouper“, before hitting the boombox and suddenly getting good again. This was a fine little flourish of musical storytelling to quickly remind the audience that this is the group’s first public performance in a while, before hitting us with the deft choreography and pristine vocals that we expect of the genre. Bravo.

I’ll only make one other note here, which is the one I wrote during the rewatch: “What the hell is a Super Trouper?“. The answer…will disappoint you. Never look it up. The dads show up to watch, but are quickly shown the door by Rosie, who reminds them no men are allowed at a hen party. But the ladies (all in their early 20s) disagree, and drag all three of these…45 through 57-year-old men…back into the party for some body shots (“Gimme Gimme Gimme“)? Yeah, I’m not pulling a screenshot for that. You’ll just have to imagine it. Nonetheless, a few important things happen in this scene. The Dynamos hatch a plot to get the dads plastered tonight and…take them fishing in the morning? Possibly to murder or sleep with them? It’s all a bit vague and innuendo-laden (Baranski’s lusty delivery of “Well now that takes me back” is worth the price of admission), and meanwhile, each of the dads has a private chat with Sophie, and they each deduce why she has brought them there: to find her father among them.

Now let me say some kind words about all of these actors: This scene contains some of the only purely character-driven drama in the film. Seyfried is outstanding, and the dawning realization on each man’s face as they learn that Sophie is fatherless and of an age to be their child, really sells this film’s melodrama in a way that transcends all of its lyrical silliness. Brosnan is as good an actor as he is bad a singe – KIND WORDS, I said – okay. Brosnan is good. Firth’s eyes widen, but his real reaction comes later. And the upshot of this scene is that Bill has the most convincing paternal claim: his aunt left Donna some money to buy the hotel – money that Bill always knew had gone to someone in his family. And now he knows who that someone is: his daughter. Skarsgård owns the terror on Bill’s face as he high-tails it out of the party, with Sophie following him down to the moonlit rocks, demanding he tell her the truth. “Are you my father?” He is. Or at least he thinks he is. Speaking outside the logic of the film, I think the script’s actual answer is that Bill is the father, even if, by intention, it’s never definitively confirmed. Sophie asks Bill to keep it a secret until the wedding, and walk her down the aisle.

And then it gets weird and intense. The party gets invaded by Sky and the mask-clad dude brigade, who literally repel in, and a stellar dance number ensues to the tune of “Voulez-Vous“. This is actually the third or fourth of these big chorus numbers with dozens of featured extras, and while I didn’t call them out in previous scenes, they’re all pretty stellar. And then Sam and Harry come up in turn to identify themselves as Sophie’s father and volun-tell her that they’re walking her down the aisle. The cast and chorus swirl around Sophie, she realizes she’s in over her head, and promptly passes out.

Take a look at that sailboat. Just look at it. This film has already hit its dramatic and musical peak, we somehow still have 50 minutes remaining. The sun rises on a new day, and instead of the film jumping directly to the wedding as it should, the lobby lights blink warmly on and off, and I’m reminded that this is as close to a real-world musical theatre experience as I’ve ever had at the cinema. Mamma Mia! is directed by English stage veteran Phyllida Lloyd, who premiered the original West End production in 1999, and the film showboats extravagantly at this point, meandering as if its curtain is rising to an audience that’s paid a hundred quid per ticket to be here (half-price for students and same-days), and have all just spent 15 minutes in the lobby pounding liquor, debating exactly which costume and song they liked the best, plotting where they’ll go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over, and they simply won’t tolerate anything less than another hour of libretto and a dozen more fully-produced songs. And finally this film’s overwhelming indulgence starts to makes sense to me. The second act of this film is much more of a hoot than I remembered, but I stand by my original assessment: most of it is unnecessary.

After some brief “Previously on Mamma Mia!” banter between the respective groups, a bizarre scene ensues between Bill and Harry on the boat. Harry tells Bill that he realized something incredible and self-defining for the first time last night, and here is where I admit a minor personal failing: on my first viewing, I completely failed to pick up on the fact that Harry was gay – or at least mostly gay – until he spells it out at the end of the film. I thought this scene was just a cheeky misunderstanding that the movie was leaning into, because using a gay or presumed-to-be-gay character as a punchline was par for the course in the 90s and 00s. But I realize now that I just saw what I expected to see here, and in so doing, I did the film a disservice. This scene is as clear as mud, but it’s also cleverer than I ever gave it credit for. Bill thinks Harry is talking about being secretly gay, while Harry is actually talking about finding out Sophie is his daughter. But Harry is also secretly gay, and Bill, a worldly gentleman, is baffled that Harry didn’t know this about himself already. Bill has just gotten out of the shower and is wearing nothing but a towel in this scene, and again I’ll say: I genuinely believe now that him being alone and naked with a closeted gay man is not intended as the punchline here, except for the scene’s capacity to toy with the audience’s assumptions. Bill is actually remarkably chill about it, encouraging Harry to tell his truth out loud, and Harry, who has also mysteriously agreed to keep Sophie’s parentage a secret (despite being the only dad of the three who made no such promise at the party last night), steadfastly refuses, saying that “all will be revealed tonight”. Sigh. Next, Bill tells Harry that he also realized something last night, and Harry thinks he’s talking about hitting on Rosie. Their discussion quickly veers apart, and Rosie pops in at the open hatch above before Bill (or the audience) can really understand what the hell just happened, and the scene abruptly ends with some butt jokes. This doesn’t work so well – as after two recent viewings of the party scene, I saw no spark between Bill and Rosie. But as I noted above, they are one of the more predictable romantic pairings in the film, so it comes as no shock when they get a cat-and-mouse romantic duet at the end of the film.

Donna and Sophie meet in the courtyard to have a fight over whether or not the wedding will be canceled (which Donna offers quite out of nowhere), and…I just realized we’re 62 minutes into this film and this is the first time that this pair – mother and daughter, and the two main characters in this film – have had a conversation. This scene is even more baffling than the one that it follows, and Sophie ends it on a genuinely hurtful note: that she doesn’t want her children growing up not knowing who their father is, because “it’s crap”. Streep plays this moment with muted devastation, letting Donna feel it for just long enough before clattering on with wedding preparation. But she’s about to be even sadder, because it’s Pierce Brosnan-solo time. Of the three dads, Sam is the most clearly still in love with Donna, and he declares it here with an awkward monologue about bagpipes, followed by a bagpipe-worthy rendition of “SOS“. But let’s talk about what happened in the middle there. Sam implores Donna to let Sophie go, she’s a bright kid, she wants to see the world, etc. Sam’s knowing pretension about matters he rightfully should know nothing about should probably bother me more, but it honestly doesn’t – see above, re: forgiving this sort of thing from the musical genre. Sam is the love interest, Donna loves him right back in song, and lo, they are a couple, and he can tell it to Donna like the script says it is. This is fine, and Streep and Brosnan really do sell it, even if the latter’s singing is unforgivably bad. Speaking of unforgivably bad, Donna and Sophie’s mother-daughter dynamic is explored in one more montage before the film is over (“Slipping Through my Fingers“), which I will not be discussing any further. It’s all very pretty, but it still doesn’t illuminate this underexplored relationship one bit, or make Sophie’s quixotic decision at the film’s end make any more sense to me. These actors work. This relationship does not.

And now it’s Christine Baranski‘s time to shine. If my knowledge of Seyfried was limited in 2008, my knowledge of Baranski was even more so – The Good Wife was more than a year away, and I knew her solely from a guest appearance as a parody-Dr. Laura on Frasier. Tanya emerges from a jetski after landing a sick burn on Harry, and it’s revealed that she hooked up with the bartender (and Sky’s best man), Pepper (Phillip Michael), last night. Pepper puts on his charm in the hopes of a second round, and Tanya busts out a saucy mockery of May-December romance, in the form of a house-demolishing solo of “Does Your Mother Know?“. Baranski is absolutely in command here. Her dancing is flawless, her boy-toy dismissal is blistering, and this is as thorough a demonstration of Tanya’s dynamic with her pair of friends as the film has time for. She is on vacation, and in this place, she feels young, and can fully regress. She’s still got it, and she knows it and acts like it. “Girls,” she intones, “We done good.” Okay, Brosnan is forgiven unless he sings two more songs, and I take back everything I said about the second act. I can’t imagine this film without this joyous diversion.

Some other stuff happens. It doesn’t matter, so I’m not going to talk about it. Donna and Sophie have the montage I mentioned above, and Sophie asks her mother to be the one who gives her away. They cry. And then it’s sundown, the wedding party assembles, and Sophie gets hoisted side-saddle onto a freaking donkey like she’s Jesus Christ, and the gang parades their way toward a terrifying, tide-battered rock with a chapel perched precariously at the top. Sophie knows they’re about to blow up the sitcom misunderstanding that she and her mother have been inflating over the course of the film, so her panic should be palpable. But honestly, if I were her, I’d mostly be experiencing pangs of height-induced vertigo at this moment. The party shuffles off, and Sam intercepts Donna. He makes romantic overtures (and paternal ones as well), and Donna declares that she will be giving Sophie away at the wedding. Then she serenades him before the glowing sea (“The Winner Takes It All“), and he stands stoicly. Brosnan seems well-prepared, standing stoicly and only occasionally grabbing his own neck for support…I guess he’s studied his Garfunkel and Oates. Meryl Streep is a star. Her singing is fine, but her acting is stellar, and she makes every beat of this angsty romance and lyrical irony flow perfectly. Every twinge, every emotion, every little chuckle… You can trust Streep. She always knows what she’s doing. Even if we’ll have to hear Sam sing about it a couple more times, these two will be together if Donna declares it. And this rock (a real place with a real chapel!) is really quite stunning. I understated its fairytale beauty above, even if it genuinely looks like every actor ascending it is in mortal peril.

Donna reaches the chapel during magic hour, and the wedding kicks off. All three dads stand up, Donna and Sophie each realize what the other has done, and sweet, sweet confessions ensue. Sam reveals that he went home to his fiancée (which we knew), told her exactly what had happened, called off his wedding, and returned to the island to be with Donna – but she was off with one of the others by this point. So he went home to his ex-fiancée Lorraine, who “called [him] an idiot and married [him] to prove it”. He is an idiot, in that way that only romantic characters can be (didn’t Gosling and McAdams pull this same “just missed ya” routine in The Notebook?). Harry stands up to tell the whole church that he’s been gay this whole time (and nods to a male PYT that he apparently had a fling with at the stag party), but he’s still thrilled to have “a third of Sophie”, as she’s more of a child than he ever expected to have (I didn’t mention this above, but he cornered Donna and offered to pay for the wedding, as Tanya had bitingly suggested). Sam and Bill say similar things: they’re all happy to be Sophie’s 1/3-father. It’s all very nice.

And then Sophie goes insane. No, really, I have no explanation for what happens next. So I’ll simply transcribe it.

Sophie: You know, I have no clue which one of you is my dad, but I don’t mind! Now, I know what I really want. Sky, let’s just not get married yet.
*crowd gasps*
Sky: What?!
Sophie: You never wanted this anyway. I know that! Let’s just get off this island…and just see the world. Okay? Alright?
Sky (thunderstruck): I love you.
Priest: Donna, do I take it the wedding is canceled?
Donna (and the audience): I’m not entirely sure what’s happening right now.
Sam: Hang on. Why waste a good wedding? How about it, Sheridan? You’re going to need someone to boss around on this island of yours.
Donna: Are you nuts? I am not a bigamist!
Sam: Neither am I. I’m a divorced man who’s loved you for 21 years, and ever since the day I set foot on this island, I’ve been trying to tell you how much I love you. Come on, Donna! It’s only the rest of your life!

And then Sam sings again (“I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do“) and OH GOD JUST MARRY HIM SO HE’LL SHUT UP.

She does. He doesn’t. (“When All Is Said and Done“)
Bill and Rosie lament being spares, and have their extremely bizarre rooftop courtship (“Take a Chance on Me“). The courtyard explodes, Aphrodite’s fountain bursts, and another chorus of “Mamma Mia!” (now performed by ABBA) plays over the ensuing dance orgy, which fades out, and we see a day-for-night shot of Sophie reprising “I Have a Dream“. Credits! The Dynamos rise out of the water (in another stunning set of glittery costumes) to sing “Dancing Queen” a second time. They laugh maniacally, Meryl screams like a rockstar and asks if we want another one. We do. They sing “Waterloo“. That was 7 songs in under 10 minutes. Did I enjoy it? Yes. But this is the Return of the King ending on bath salts.

What is allegedly this film’s core conflict – between Sophie and Donna over whether or not she will get married, leave the island, or both, is almost a total miss. But everything within each group – the Dynamos, the dads, Sophie’s interactions with the latter, landed well, and the acting was dynamite, even if the singing had a clear weak link in the chain. In the end, I found revisiting this film, writing this review, and if I may say so, every moment of Seyfried’s joy in being the prime mover of this plot, to be utter delights. I don’t regret the comparison I made in the opening paragraph, as it’s fair to say that jukebox musicals are thoroughly on the indulgent side of the genre. But I would no longer place this film and Moulin Rouge! in separate categories. Moulin Rouge! may have been more elaborate, but each film was gorgeous, melodramatic, and self-indulgent in its own way, and I would say I enjoy each of them equally at this point. Mamma Mia! hooked me and didn’t let go. On a work night, I stayed awake until 1AM finishing up this review, because I just couldn’t bring myself to retrieve screenshots with maximal efficiency, and found myself essentially rewatching every musical number for a second time within a week. And with this week’s [still-unnecessary] sequel being compared, perhaps seriously, to The Godfather: Part II – I’ll concede that I may need to check this one out. Apparently Brosnan’s “SOS” has even improved. I’ll believe it when I hear it.

(“Thank You For the Music“)

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Joe and Anthony Russo’s “Avengers: Infinity War” – The needs of the many.

The problem at the heart of Avengers: Infinity War is a particular moment with Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), two of the Guardians of the Galaxy. These two comic-relief characters get…cubed. Disassembled, initially like action figures, and then into a pile of bloodless cold cuts. Marvel’s biggest, baddest baddie, Thanos (Josh Brolin), the mastermind behind the Chitauri invasion in the first Avengers film, has gotten his hands on a brand new Infinity Stone (one of six that he needs to slaughter half the life in the universe). When these two heroes rush in to attack him, he…kills them, with a mere flick of his gauntleted wrist. That’s a spoiler, right? It seems like it ought to be. It’s two major characters, one of which we care about (sorry, Mantis), suddenly ceasing to be. No fuss, no ceremony – for them, just like flicking off a lightswitch. And that’s war. War isn’t concerned with narrative tidiness, box office figures, a character’s popularity or franchise plans, or films that are already in production. It isn’t concerned with speeches or badass moments or whether a particular death is convenient or well-timed. But in this war, these two people are alive again before the scene is over, for reasons that aren’t at all clear or necessary. And this needless reversal hangs over the rest of the film. The problem with Infinity War isn’t that the stakes aren’t high, well-conceived, or involving characters whose fates we prize. The problem with Infinity War is that it’s unclear how much the ending – or any of these deaths – actually matter.

But the Russo Brothers (along with their screenwriting partners Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) definitely still know how to tell a sprawling ensemble superhero story. The team behind the last two Captain America films are back, and they manage to connect and weave a stunning number of narrative threads. I can only assume a maniacal yarn-board was involved with all the different tasks and intersecting paths that each group needed to follow over the course of the film. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and the Asgardian refugees who fled Ragnarok, the Guardians of the Galaxy soaring through space on no specific trajectory, the newly fractured Avengers back on Earth – with factions led by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) – and all the new additions, including Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Vision (Paul Bettany), his girlfriend Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Sir Not Appearing in this Film ([multiple]). On the other side are Thanos and his minions, the most memorable of which are Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Ebony Maw, with the terrifying telekinesis powers, and Carrie Coon, whose chilling character voice and looming mo-cap performance as Proxima Midnight nearly redeems some otherwise shaky CGI. Thanos himself is a compelling enough villain, owing more to Brolin’s performance than the complexity or interest of his plan. The space-demon’s motivation is almost laughably simple – the universe has finite resources, life has infinite needs, and Thanos is the self-appointed game warden. In order for the universe to thrive, he must remove half of all living things.

This film’s action is unrelenting, and generally well-staged. One particularly epic battle takes place in Marvel’s newest elaborate sandbox, the nation of Wakanda, which is not just the Kingdom of T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) but it has the distinction of being the most high-tech and defensible place this side of the Avengers compound to resist Thanos’ onslaught. The ensuing battle feels like high-tech Lord of the Rings, and it all takes place in daylight, with a clear sense of where it’s all happening, and how the tides of the battle are advancing with the addition of each hero. We know where everyone is, what they’re trying to accomplish, and what’s at stake if they fail. Given that this is two literal armies clashing, it doesn’t feel like quite the same sort of team superhero battle as the one above New York, but it does feel like a natural progression. At the same time, Thanos and his “children” are powerful enough that no individual Avenger (Hulk included) seems to be able to take them down solo – so this film is positively riddled with the sorts of superpowered team-ups that made both The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War such a visual feast. This didn’t feel like fan-service – it felt like a fight for survival. And when Thanos has the power to rip a damn moon out of the sky, tear it to pieces with tidal forces, and send a trillion tons of boulders raining down onto a planet where multiple heroes stand against him, it is a fight for survival. Even as the stakes get more and more bizarre (there’s a significant chunk of time where multiple heroes are trying to restrain Thanos’ hand from closing) it still led to some of the best clashes and visuals in the MCU.

Beyond the large-scale battles, the film does indulge in a bit of mistaken-identity superhero-on-superhero dueling, but this is kinda to be expected. It’s all the same snappy one-liners and quips we’ve seen before, as the various grand-egoed members of the MCU get to know each other for the first time. But with the exception of one extremely annoying moment involving Drax and a bag of space-nuts, the film eases up significantly on the bathos of the previous films, which – compared to an equally high-stakes, but ultimately much sillier, film like Thor: Ragnarok, is a welcome improvement. When Asgard, full of a bunch of nameless and faceless people we don’t care about, is threatened with destruction, it’s okay if we spend 40 minutes joking around with orgyist Jeff Goldblum and violent drunk Tessa Thompson in the garbage heap at the end of the universe. But if you laugh in the face of a dude who not only wants to slaughter trillions of sentient beings, but is gathering the magical means to make it happen, you kinda deserve your fate. At one point, Thor has a genuinely tense monologue in which he reflects on his long-term survival (we even get an exact age for him!). Hemsworth nails the moment, and it’s nice to see that this demigod has dropped the bombast and embraced the tragedy. He gets how important this is, and he’s acting accordingly.

The script is also full of some solid thematic and narrative parallels – characters demanding (and refusing) similar sacrifices of each other, and changing their minds or having their choices suddenly reversed due to external factors. There’s not a lot I can say here without spoiling key moments, but suffice to say, the script plays a bit like a novel, wherein all of these heroes are dealing with the fundamental question of what it means to be a hero, and what it means to sacrifice one’s own life, or the life of a loved one, in the face of destruction this thorough and total. In short, they grapple with the needs of the many, even as the sole champions who stand a chance of protecting them. All of the good guys seem to err on the side of not trading lives, and the film seems content to let them wallow in this position even when it’s the most dangerous option available. And that’s where a lot of the film’s tension comes from. There are several moments where it seems as if Thanos’ plan could be derailed if only these heroes would act a bit less like…heroes. A few of them seem to get it. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is evoking his best Doctor Who as he assures the audience that this is all part of the endgame. And you should trust that dude. He’s essentially a Time Lord at this point.

This is no secret war. There’s no S.H.I.E.L.D. hunkering down behind the scenes to wipe memories and clean up artifacts. Everyone’s fate is laid bare in the face of a hyperrationalist butcher who’s just waiting for the chance to snap his fingers and lay waste to the universe at random. The film has the good sense to treat this threat as genuinely terrifying. And yet, I can’t help but notice the offscreen ways in which it undermined its own tension. Remember the Nova Corps on Xandar, who – after a rough-and-tumble space battle with Ronan the Accuser – ended up in possession of the Power Stone at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy? Sorry, in a single throwaway line, the Maw tells us that Thanos “decimated” Xandar (apparently one-in-ten was enough for him there – *pedantic twirl*), presumably because no one was around to prevent the stone’s theft with an epic dance battle this time. And Thor? Saving a bunch of his own people from Ragnarok? Not for long. Just as Ripley spends all of Aliens saving Newt, only to have her die before the opening credits of the next film, Thor: Ragnarok will probably remain a better film if you just pretend this one doesn’t exist. But with all of these off-screen reversals of previous films in mind (despite Marvel’s likely-futile efforts to keep Phase 4 of the MCU a secret until next year), it’s hard not to think that this ending could be undone with a single line of dialogue, or flick of the magic wrist.

But who knows. Dour cliffhangers are hard to pull off, but my reaction to them has generally been positive. In the case of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (to which I suspect this film may invite comparison), I said the film has sufficient thematic depth to stand on its own even if the Abramsverse retreats from it in some future installment (and Abrams at least had the good sense to leave the Planet Vulcan spaghettified). Ditto Empire Strikes Back, obviously. Hell, I even enjoyed the second Pirates of the Caribbean film despite its explicitly-stated intention to reverse the on-screen death of Captain Jack Sparrow, which had occurred not five minutes earlier. I won’t pretend my reaction to this sort of ending is rational or consistent, but I will say that this one bummed me out (and literally haunted my dreams) in a way that felt like a deliberate choice. And if the Russo Bros and their corporate overlords allow some or all of the consequences of this film to hold steady, I expect I’ll have greater respect for what they’ve accomplished here. But I really can’t evaluate this film on that basis. For what it is, even renouncing all outside knowledge, Avengers: Infinity War is ambitious, narratively complex, and generally delivers on its promises.

But it is a true sequel, insofar as it has little time to add emotional depth to any of its characters. Like a late Harry Potter film, it trusts its audience to care just enough about its characters going in, since it has precious little time to hand out moments of humanity: Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) hanging up on a holographic General Ross (William Hurt), who’s giving him feckless grief over the now thoroughly-irrelevant Sokovia Accords. Wanda and Vision trying their best at a May/December, MagicLady/Cyborg romance, including a Scottish hideaway together, which is sweeter than it has any right to be. Bruce Banner reuniting with Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), and the two scarcely sharing a word past “Hi, Nat”, but a look that suggests there’s more to say if they ever get the time. And Bruce himself finally finding time to deal with the consequences of his two-year Hulkatus between Ultron and Ragnarok, which works surprisingly well. Everyone fights – even the ones who don’t get much else to do. There’s a lot here, and while I feel a bit troubled and indignant in advance about the ending, I’m not sure how fair that really is. Over in DC-land (where Wonder Woman is the only thing they haven’t f’d up since Christopher Nolan stopped directing), Justice League strove – mostly unsuccessfully – for this kind of depth, and that film failed because it made almost none of the competent preparation necessary to earn those moments. If nothing else, the MCU has earned this. And for now, I think I can give them the benefit of the doubt. Then again, I regretted my 8/10 Ultron review within a couple months, so we’ll see what happens.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10