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

Poster for "Source Code"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still from "Source Code"

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

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

Still from "Source Code"

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Brad Furman’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” (2011) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

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

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

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

Still from "The Lincoln Lawyer"

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

2020 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2020)

#11: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Poster for "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm"
Directed by Jason Woliner, written by Sacha Baron Cohen and literally seven other people.

As ever, the #11 slot goes to a film that I enjoyed but have serious reservations about. I daresay Lindsay Ellis spelled these out better than I can: the character Borat works better in 2020 because America is uglier and more disturbing than it was when the first film was released. That’s a hard statement to defend as an American, given that we’ve been continuously at war since before that time, and the most popular TV shows in 2006 were all about explaining to the American public that Torture Works, Actually (it doesn’t). But what’s different now is that America doesn’t even bother to hide its ugliness – of the racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, or transphobic variety, anymore. Our Republican politicians – useless, preening, bloodthirsty, plutocratic, unpatriotic, social-media-influencer scum that they are – openly suborn violence and try to overturn elections because they failed on this occasion to suppress as many legal votes as they would have liked. Each deplorable faction finds its bigoted beliefs emboldened as they are repeated in front of the press, the public, and in the halls of power. So when comedian Sacha Baron Cohen dons his Borat garb and tries to get people to agree with the horrible things he’s saying, even working at a disadvantage of a much more recognizable public persona, he has a significant advantage insofar as the people he spoke to were far more willing to engage with him, as if they were just waiting for someone who wanted to smile and agree with them. This is also the first piece of popular culture that engaged in any serious way with the COVID-19 pandemic, and it even touched upon my home in the Pacific Northwest by showing up to an event headlined by 2020 Republican gubernatorial nominee Loren Culp, a notably pro-virus dingbat and former police chief of a one-man, one-dog department in a one-horse town that fired him as soon as the election was over. I wouldn’t normally be punching down at him, but I’m doing so here because he spent the intervening months in an infuriating and sad impression of Donald Trump, continuing to fundraise and lie about the fairness of an election that in his case, he lost by double digits. Culp does not appear in the film’s footage from the rally, but his signs do, and many of his biggest, loudest, most racist supporters are there. A couple of them flash “Heil Hitler” salutes. I found that deeply unsettling, not because I didn’t know the Proud Boys were right in my backyard, but because I hadn’t seen them…acting quite so proudly before. Cohen didn’t have to push that hard to bring that nastiness out, because it was right there, standing by.

This film also had something the original didn’t bother to establish: an emotional core. In this case, it’s Borat’s relationship with his daughter Tutar, played by Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova. This is a remarkable performance and piece of casting, because not only did Bakalova need to perform some brilliant improvisational acting (and frankly, grifting) while speaking English as a foreign language, but she also needed to have a convincing family dynamic with Cohen while the two of them were each speaking different, mutually incomprehensible languages (Bulgarian and Hebrew respectively). It feels deeply bizarre watching these scenes, which I know to be heavily scripted and staged, but which nonetheless have genuinely affecting moments in-between all of the carefully hidden-camera-staged documentary footage. Also affecting are the scenes with babysitter Jeanise Jones and Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans (who passed away before the film was released), both of whom appear to have been misled about the reality of what they were participating in. These are unsettling examples of good people being shown ugly, fictitious things in order to elicit their warmth, grace, and humanity. I have legitimately mixed feelings about this (as did the people involved, some of who sued after the film premiered, and some of which have been kinda made right since?). However unsettling they may be, these scenes feel palliative for some of the ugliness on display throughout the rest of the film. Like the man said: Look for the helpers. And in a film that operates on such a bent plane of reality, the helpers are only going to show up if they believe their help is really needed. In the end, this film has already joined the first Borat in the club of movies that I find fitting for the times, laugh at in alternately sincere and mirthless ways, and definitely never want to watch again. I’m inclined to agree with Ellis’ video that we should aspire to be a society that doesn’t need champions like Cohen, however thoughtful they may seem during a press tour. But it’s still hard to look at this film as anything less than a public service, even if its exposure of that amoral fuckwit Rudy Giuliani, who has debased himself a thousand times worse every moment since this film premiered, turned out to be unnecessary.

Available on Amazon Prime here.

#10: The Platform (El Hoyo)

Still from "The Platform"

Directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, written by David Desola and Pedro Rivero

As concrete-cased metaphors for the excesses and deprivations of unregulated capitalism and inequality go, this one really hits the spot. The Platform takes place in a “Vertical Self-Management Center” featuring residents (two per level) who are fed once per day via a concrete tabletop that begins at the uppermost level, laden with a banquet worthy of the palace at Versailles. Each level is given one minute to eat as much food as they can, before the platform descends past them to the next level down. And so on. If they attempt to take leftovers in order to eat past that initial minute, something bad happens, let’s say. In fact, “something bad happens” is the most reliable outcome from such a scenario, precisely designed for an outcome that will chew through human lives like a stump grinder, and doesn’t particularly care. In addition to a non-zero amount of murder, rape, and cannibalism, this scenario spawns a number of memorable characters – all named, oddly, for places in Indonesia, despite all of the principal actors and filmmakers being Spanish – each of whom has a different idea about how best to participate in or reform the system. Some are just trying to stay alive. Some are trying to seize an advantage over others at any cost. Some just want revenge for their horrific circumstances. And some want to spark a revolution, if only they can find the perfect Panna Cotta.

And folks, as my prior fandom for the 2015 “vote which of the people in the room dies!” allegorical thriller Circle should make plain, I gobbled this film up even before the pandemic made it clear that my expectations of my fellow humans should be calibrated nice and low when it comes to collective action to improve our situation. Consider this fair warning: The Platform is not only a deeply disturbing and misanthropic film, but it is also unapologetically didactic and doesn’t even pretend to explain how this scenario came about organically, or what purpose it is meant to serve – some of the residents seem to be serving prison terms, others are repaying debts, and one man is apparently there for a bachelor’s degree? One particularly entertaining monologue from the character Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) discusses a self-sharpening knife that he bought from a late-night infomercial, and was permitted to bring inside. Another character, Goreng (Iván Massagué), brought along a copy of Don Quixote. Don’t think too hard or too long about it. Just keep hustling and scrounging and eating to survive, because this is a system that is capricious and random with its cruelty, and it’ll can pelt you down to a lower level so fast it’ll make your head spin.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #168 – “The Lovebirds” (dir. Michael Showalter), “The Platform” (dir. Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia).

Available on Netflix here.

#9: Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Poster for "Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey"
Written and directed by David E. Talbert, with score by John Debney, and songs by Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, Michael Diskint, Jean-Yves Ducornet, John Legend, Krysta Youngs, and Julia Ross.

It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for black kids to see versions of themselves in a Christmas movie, but Jingle Jangle does a lot more than tick a few long-overdue demographic boxes: It is an instant classic holiday film, which was watched in my house more than once before Christmas (largely at my behest – the kids wanted to watch Elf again), and an outstanding original musical with multiple catchy, memorable songs. The stand-outs are definitely Anika Noni Rose, an experienced Disney princess and songbird who blows every other adult performer out of the water, and newcomer Madalen Mills, who is an absolute treasure as young Journey Jangle, the precocious granddaughter of a failed and dejected creator of wonders, Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker). Mills starts off what will hopefully be a promising singing and acting career with a bang, leading one of the film’s most memorable songs, as well as carrying the easy charisma that a holiday feel-good adventure story – which inexplicably involves a high-speed race through an exploding factory tunnel – requires. Most of that energy is directed at her grandfather, whom she is meeting for the first time, running a failed pawn shop after his visionary toy designs were stolen by his junior associate, Gustafson (Keegan Michael-Key, whose I’m-so-awesome intro song is a fine rendition of Harold Hill from The Music Man).

Whitaker is a fine singer (even if he’s often outmatched), but he mostly impressed me with the level of aloof whimsy he managed to bring to this character – energy that I didn’t think the actor was capable of bringing, as he has backed himself pretty well into a corner of severity for his entire career. He ends up channeling some kind of sweet spot between the secretive silence of Ben Kingsley in Hugo, and a sprinkle each of Willy Wonka (Wilder, not Depp) and Tony Stark. I mention Stark not only because of the cascade of familiar sparks and hammer-strike tinkering that make an appearance in “Make It Work Again“, but because Stark’s wraparound holographic Iron Man visuals appear repeatedly in this film as an on-screen representation of the characters’ creativity and passion. The math – whose equations literally float in the air around them and are manipulated by hand – is all fuzzy and whimsical, but the magic is all literal and real. And if you take the third derivative of awesome and pepper in some happy thoughts and serendipity, you can literally conquer gravity and float to the ceiling of your workshop. And we know young Journey has that same spark of creativity as her grandfather, because the visuals of the film convey to us that only certain people can see and do these incredible things.

The dancing, the costumes, the sets – all of it is a feast, and all of it is worth a look with the entire family. My gripes with the film were mild – Ricky Martin shows up as a sentient doll whose motivations are as ill-explained as they are ineptly executed, to sing a meandering monologue that barely qualifies as a song. But he’s little more than a chattering devil on Gustafson’s shoulder, and is easily ignored. The final act is also slightly muddled, carrying on a 30-minute denouement following the action climax that probably could’ve been tightened up. But it also contains one of the film’s best songs, and several of its best costumes and dance numbers, which is really all you need for a musical, no matter what the pace of the film is doing. Jingle Jangle was an unabashed delight, and is one of a few on this list that I expect I’ll be watching again.

Available on Netflix here.

#8: Bad Education

Poster for "Bad Education"
Directed by Cory Finley, written by Mike Makowsky, based on an article by Robert Kolker.

Small-scale corruption stories are my catnip, and this story, of what turns out to be the largest public school embezzlement in American history, is absolutely captivating. I’ll refrain from any plot details here, as watching each of the details of this scandal fall into place is a great deal of the film’s appeal, but on a basic level, I loved this film for showcasing the importance of local journalism – in this case, with a bit of irony, as the journalists who begin to unravel this plot are composited into the character of high school newspaper reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan, of Blockers fame), whose operation is directly funded by the corrupt school district budget she is investigating, and whose journalistic integrity is alternately encouraged and threatened by every educator in her life who is eventually implicated in the scandal. Viswanathan, who was 23 during filming, walks a careful line of “tenacious first-time participant in the corrupt adult world” and “intimidated child” rather well.

Rachel begins her investigation by asking the simplest of questions: why is the school’s roof leaking? And more precisely, why is the school’s roof leaking when we apparently have millions of dollars to spend on a lavish new skybridge? I adored this for its simplicity. Because that is often how corruption is found out: regular people asking regular questions which should have regular answers. And if it takes someone longer than a sentence to answer those questions, you can be pretty sure the answer is something you’re not going to like. And when that something is the vicious cycle between unequal local school funding and the local real estate market, it’s an answer that you’ll eventually realize you knew all along.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #167 – “Bad Education” (dir. Cory Finley), “Gunpowder Heart” (dir. Camila Urrutia), “NT Live: Frankenstein” (dir. Danny Boyle)

Available on HBO Max here.

#7: First Cow

Still from "First Cow"
Directed by Kelly Reichardt, screenplay by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, based on the novel “The Half Life” by Raymond.

In the 1820 Oregon Territory (at a fictitious fort on the Willamette River near modern-day Portland), Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) strike up a friendship through the most random and brutal frontier circumstances: King-Lu is hiding from a group of Russian fur trappers, on the run for killing one of them (in self-defense, he says – but we only have his word on it). And Cookie, who is camping with another trapping crew, offers him his tent to hide and rest for the night. The next morning, they go their separate ways, but they meet once again at the fort and King-Lu offers to return the favor, giving Cookie a place to stay while they figure out their next move, which turns out to be a nice warm friendship on the frontier, followed by what seems like it should be a harmless plot involving the first dairy cow in the region (Evie the Cow), owned by the company boss Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a right honourable gentleman in the finest English tradition who just wants some milk in his tea.

First Cow is a film of contradictions. It is quaint, but worldly. It is limited in its scope, but allegorical. It is nasty and violent, but also imbued with a persistent sense of warmth and peace. It is a throwback to a little-explored period in the Old West, but plants one foot firmly in the modern day, opening on a scene with a woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog, who happens upon a pair of ancient skeletons along the river as a modern metal container ship floats by. The message of this ship broke through to me loud and clear late in the film: this region has been conquered. There is scant presence of the local Natives, including Totillicum (Gary Farmer) and Chief Factor’s unnamed wife and translator (Lily Gladstone), who seem present solely as witnesses to the fact that civilization existed here before the white people came to try and recreate their own, and to remind them that their struggles to recreate the tastes of London and Boston could have been better spent if they’d simply taken the time to listen, learn, and share. But they came with a rapacious desire to make their fortunes and extract resources – initially beaver pelts to serve the Paris fashion scene, and eventually timber and ore, as they tried all the while to recreate the lives they had left behind.

Cookie and King-Lu’s friendship (and their low-stakes caper) is a small story to focus on, but it’s also a very sweet one, and the more we linger on their warm connection and sharing of their lives together amid an uncertain future, it feels more and more important and resonant as the film goes on. Following the Pompeiian* image of a pair of unknown skeletons resting peacefully by the river, it is an image that conjures up both hope and despair. Because the violence of this film, both individualized and structural, didn’t have to be this way – it’s simply the way it was. And we must remember that we make our homes, amid the escapist tunes of not one, but two bucolic, cottagecore Taylor Swift albums this year, upon the bones of history. Most stories like this one are lost forever. First Cow is a work of fiction, but it is a plausible story. And it inexorably conjures up the idea that there must have been many others like it, whose names and faces will never be known.

* Props to co-host Erika for conjuring up this image on the podcast

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #178 – “Promising Young Woman” (dir. Emerald Fennell), “First Cow” (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

Available on Showtime here.

#6: Sound of Metal

Poster for "Sound of Metal"
Directed by Darius Marder, written by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder

Riz Ahmed deserves every ounce of the praise he’s getting as Ruben Stone, a heavy metal drummer who has to deal with the massive upset to his life that is sudden onset deafness. His career, relationship, and sobriety – he is an addict, a few years sober – are all suddenly at risk, and he knows it. His girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke), with whom he shares a few quiet moments of roadtrip domesticity in their band’s RV before his hearing begins to intermittently drop off, is able to get Ruben into a program run by Joe (Paul Raci), an accomplished ASL interpreter, lip-reader, and social worker who lost his hearing as an adult due to a war injury in Vietnam.

Ruben is in a difficult situation, and his guilt leads him to rash and occasionally self-destructive impulses that pre-date – and are likely a partially contributing factor to – his deafness. He is also in a romantic relationship that is highly intertwined with a theatrical pursuit (heavy metal is nothing if not a great big show), and coexists with every vice that he is now looking to avoid, from opiates to dangerously loud noises. This film takes place in Ruben’s moment of crisis, which is both the stuff of serious drama and a story that is inherently difficult to tell. The film offers dual avenues into Ruben’s mind, and the first is its borderline experimental sound design. 2020 was a year of streaming by necessity, and this film was picked up by Amazon Studios before anyone knew there would be a viral pandemic. And yet, this film feels precisely as if it was made to be watched in this way, subtitles and headphones on, trying our best (along with Ruben) to follow what’s happening as the sound distorts and drops out for character and the audience alike. The second avenue is, of course, Riz Ahmed’s stellar performance. Ahmed is an accomplished British actor who managed to break out of the post-9/11 conflicted-terrorist pigeonhole that he found himself thrust into and did some amazing work in (Four Lions is a masterpiece). He is also a rapper and MC of some renown, and he manages an American accent here that seems to be channeling Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad, which feels exactly right for a character accustomed to others’ low expectations, who is suddenly forced to deal with a situation that absolutely no one can get him out of. He rages, he flails, he writes down his emotions (and occasionally speaks them aloud) at Joe’s direction, but we mostly just have to guess at how he’s feeling as we watch Ruben’s face, straining, but never cracking, as he beats furiously on drums that he will never be able to perceive the same way again. He’s not quite drawing Whiplash-level bloodshed, but he’s clearly at war with himself in a similar way.

Joe speaks at greater length than Ruben ever does, as he is decades into his hearing loss and clearly at some manageable level of peace with himself. Raci – a hearing actor who grew up with Deaf parents – plays Joe as an aspirational figure, but not as any sort of simplistic mentor archetype. He sincerely wants to help Ruben, but he is also clearly a veteran of many unsuccessful attempts to help people like him. He is prepared to fail, but he will give everything of himself to try and help Ruben succeed. And watching this relationship develop is a great deal of the film’s appeal.

The target audience for this film is clearly the hearing community, for whom this serves as a primer on the both the medical options as well as the cultural, practical, and social resources available within the Deaf community. I’m choosing my words carefully here, because as a friend and family member to multiple individuals with disabilities, I know these issues are fraught, individualized, and there are differences of opinion even within their respective communities about how people with disabilities should live their lives. This film has a few specific things to say about cochlear implants, a device available to some people with hearing loss which can help them understand speech, but doesn’t offer any easy answers about whether these implants are the right choice, and makes it clear that there are those within the Deaf community that have fairly strong opinions about them.

Available on Amazon Prime here.

#5: Lingua Franca

Still from "Lingua Franca"

Written, directed by, and starring Isabel Sandoval

This is Isabel Sandoval’s fourth feature, but her first with this name, since transitioning. I didn’t think long on how to write those details, except that “debut feature” didn’t seem right (as the technical aspects of this film are clearly a product of experience and skill), and the film is similarly matter-of-fact about issues of sex and gender, as well as race. It was this mishmash of identities that I understood to be one possible meaning of the title, Lingua Franca. These categories exist as a common language and set of assumptions, and they are bolstered by a set of legal and cultural frameworks that some people bear a disproportionately high burden for, because they don’t fit precisely within an expected mold. So it is for Olivia, a trans Filipina woman who is in the United States without legal status, and is in the process of arranging – on a fee-for-service basis – a green card marriage with an American man. Olivia’s passport still bears the name and sex she was assigned at birth, and it is somewhat of a political irony that the United States’ legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 made this situation a bit legally easier to manage than it might have been otherwise – or at least than it would have been back home, as we learn that trans people face many similar hurdles in the Phillippines to the United States, including the lack of a national legal process to change their gender on their identity papers. Olivia works as a caregiver for an elderly Russian woman, Olga (Lynn Cohen, in one of her very last features before she passed last year), whose black-sheep grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) has just been given a last-chance job at the family’s butcher shop, on the condition that he help out with Olga’s care as well. So Alex is now an interloper for the job that Olivia is being paid to do. He quickly takes a shine to her, and the feeling seems to be mutual. And then the lingua franca takes on an additional meaning: love is a language that we all speak in one way or another, and yet it is quickly clear what potential peril Olivia is in, as a man who clearly does not know the totality of her circumstances and background, and may or may not react negatively to learning about them, is suddenly thrust into her path. She has to decide how much she wants to engage with their slowly burgeoning romance, when she has, frankly, more important things to worry about.

That’s really what made this film immediately work for me: it felt less like, as Sandoval put it in an interview, “Trans 101” – it felt instead like meeting any trans person I’ve ever met, or, for that matter, any cis person I’ve ever met. She’s there, she’s living her life, and the details about that life come out organically as she feels like sharing them. Or they don’t, if she doesn’t. Her romance with Alex is initially presented as a sort of best-case scenario for a romance that could go wrong in any number of ways, including deportation. And as we get to know Olivia, so we learn the fundamental truth that even if every aspect of her identity and circumstances are not readily apparent, and will not be shared until such time as she feels like sharing them, they are a part of her in every moment, as is the peril (both to her physical safety and her life in the United States) that comes along with them. Alex has plenty of opportunities to step on his toes while navigating that, lovable fuck-up that he is, and it is very much a source of the film’s tension which of these competing tendencies will win the day. Because Sandoval plays Olivia as her own precious creation: a self-possessed woman who is not to be trifled with, because such trifling runs a very real risk of destroying her life.

This film is unavoidably fraught with moral complexity, but it is also just a sweet and well-told romance, and ultimately one that deserves greater attention than it has gotten. Because whether Sandoval wanted Lingua Franca to be Trans 101 or not, surveys have shown that exposure to trans people leads to increased tolerance of their existence, and that tolerance literally saves lives. And seeing and engaging with a thoughtful romance starring a trans woman of color will, whether it rightfully bears that burden or not, save lives.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #174 – “Mulan” (dir. Niki Caro), “Lingua Franca” (dir. Isabel Sandoval), “Up on the Glass” (dir. Kevin Del Principe)

Available on Netflix here.

#4: Wolfwalkers

Still from "Wolfwalkers"

Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, written by Will Collins

I’ll start with a humblebrag. When I tweeted my sentiment that Wolfwalkers, which I saw near the end of last year on AppleTV+, is “cool as fuck”, the tweet’s first two likes were from Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, the two directors and principal artists at Cartoon Saloon who made this film happen (along with a vast crew that worked on it over seven years). I’m trying not to overread these gentlemen noticing my interest in their lovely film, but my impression is that AppleTV+ is on the smaller end of streaming audiences, and the idea of a film with such a gorgeous and unique animated vision being a buried, little-seen launch title feels a bit sad to me. Because Wolfwalkers IS cool as fuck, and it’s an effort that deserves a wider audience.

The year is 1650, and Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) is an adventurous English girl, daughter of Bill (Sean Bean), a hunter who aims to trap and kill every wolf in the woods surrounding Kilkenny, Ireland, with the ostensible purpose of protecting the people, but with the usual human justifications (livestock, expansion, a general desire not to coexist with nature). Wolves have a prized position in Irish folklore and culture, and this film uses that folklore to cast a narrative lens onto a series of real events and laws that were enacted during Oliver Cromwell‘s conquest of Ireland, which culminated in the complete extermination of all wolves in Ireland. In Wolfwalkers, the focus is on a single Irish village, and its domination by an English noble known only as the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) – a clear stand-in for Cromwell – who enforces a harsh outsider’s set of rules upon the Irish people and their ways of living. This familiar story quickly merges with contemporaneous legends of werewolves, skinchangers, and other complex hybrids or relationships between humans and wolves, as Robyn meets a friend, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a girl who lives in the woods, seemingly in charge of a wolf pack, and her mother Moll (Marie Doyle Kennedy), who sits in an endless and initially unexplained slumber. Mebh is an absolutely wild thing. She adores her life, which she spends half as a girl and half as a wolf, but she is also naive about what a serious threat her pack faces from the English hunters. The relationship that develops between Robyn and Mebh is both tender and complex, with Robyn (and to a lesser extent, Bill) torn between their duties to the Lord Protector and the town, and their burgeoning relationships with the people (and people-adjacent skinchangers) right before them. The two obvious and facile comparisons are Avatar and Brave (for anyone foolhardy enough to say that Scottish folklore is interchangeable with Irish), but the 2002 Christophe Gans film Brotherhood of the Wolf came to mind as well, for the seamless way that screenwriter Will Collins put a freeform lens onto some complex real-world history and politics, mixing in contemporaneous folklore, and merging both threads for the particular story and audience he wanted to pursue. Brotherhood is very much not for children, but it operates on a similar narrative wavelength.

Combine all of that with an absolutely unique and dazzling animated vision of the Irish countryside, and Wolfwalkers is comparable to the likes of Studio Ghibli, not for visual similarity to that studio’s work, but for specificity: the look and feel of a Cartoon Saloon film is consistent and unique, with a mix of what seem to be water colors and layered two-dimensional planes (almost like the sorts of gorgeous carved and painted wooden panels you might find in medieval churches), but with some surprising depths to it – including a number of exhilarating sequences in which we see the world through the senses of wolves running through it, following scent and heat trails. This is a glorious assault on human senses that could only have worked in an animated medium, and the sort of experiment in form that I always enjoy seeing.

…which is why it’s cool as fuck.

Available on AppleTV+ here.

#3: The Vast of Night

Poster for "The Vast of Night"
Directed by Andrew Patterson (in his feature debut), written by Patterson (credited as James Montague) and Craig W. Singer.

We begin The Vast of Night wandering around the tiny (fictitious) ’50s town of Cayuga, New Mexico with a couple of crazy kids, AM radio DJ Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) and switchboard operator and amateur tape-recorder Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), who slowly become enveloped in a mystery. This happened to be one of the first theatrical films that I watched in quarantine, and the film’s long opening shot through the town’s great big Friday night to-do, the high school basketball game, certainly made for some vicarious enjoyment of the mere idea of doing things with other people again. But I’ve watched this movie twice since, and not only do its crisp 91 minutes fly by, but I had an ear-to-ear grin on my face the whole time, largely because of the film’s elaborate single-shot walk-and-talks and the unrelenting charm of these actors and this town, both individually and with one other.

Everett and Fay are instantly charming and disarming, and they settle into a naturalistic patter with the entire town that is rife with ’50s slang and instantly makes the town feel lived-in and full of people who’ve known each other their whole lives. This isn’t the same genre or ambiance as Rian Johnson‘s Brick, but it demonstrates many of the same skills. Patter is hard. What’s also hard, I assume, is operating 60-year-old radio and telephony equipment, but McCormick and Horowitz not only carry two extremely long scenes doing exactly that, and they clearly put the time in to make it look as if they’d done it a thousand times. Bravo. There is so much lazy object work in much more expensive films than this, and these scenes were as engrossing for the burgeoning mystery unfolding one phone call at a time, as for the work the actors and production designers clearly put into making those calls and moments feel authentic. I say again: Bravo. Fay’s scene at the switchboard is easily 9 minutes long, and spends that time both building tension and establishing the details of the film’s central mystery, involving a mysterious auditory signal “bouncing around the valley tonight”. The signal hits phone lines and radio waves alike, and Everett puts out the word over the airwaves that they’re looking for more information about it. And information is what they get. To prepare the way, this scene is followed with a cross-town ground-level camera saga (which apparently involved a go-kart, a technique that DP Miguel Littin-Menz claims was inspired by Lawrence of Arabia), which plays beneath a howling wind and scant central street lights as the musical score builds. The camera takes on the feel of a predator stalking this sleepy burg while its people are all packed away in a warm gymnasium, where the camera briefly slows down and the colors get warm as we watch the game go on, the ball bounces, the commentators talk, and the town cheers, all without a clue what might be waiting for them outside. Then…out the camera goes, passing through a window at the top of the bleachers and resuming the chase.

Slow-burn tension is the name of the game, and this sequence is about as close as the film comes to real menace and horror, of the Twilight Zone sort. Or, literally, Paradox Theatre, which the film uses as a fictitious TV-show framing device. It was kind of a hat on a hat at that point, but I didn’t mind. As the auditory mystery unfolds and the town starts to wonder if the swirling skies are watching them back, I never doubted for a minute that these two are perhaps the only ones in town who can solve the mystery in time to save their town from whatever danger may be afoot just offscreen. The resulting vibe really only exists in podcast form these days, but used to come crackling over the airwaves while driving down the highway at 2AM, nary a light in sight, with the pleasant voice of the late, great Art Bell playing over your car stereo, wishing you a safe drive home, but telling you to watch out – because you never know what’s out there.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #169 – “The Vast of Night” (dir. Andrew Patterson), “Holy Motors” (dir. Leos Carax)

Available on Amazon Prime here.

#2: Palm Springs

Poster for "Palm Springs"

Directed by Max Barbakow (in his feature debut, written by Andy Siara.

“It’s one of those infinite time-loop situations you might’ve heard about.”
“I might’ve heard about?”

Nearly three decades on from Groundhog Day, we were due for another existentially daunting romantic comedy, and it was surely to this film’s advantage that it happened to come out in a year in which every day was the same and nothing mattered, except for those choices which might lead to dying alone in the ICU. Palm Springs, which dropped on Hulu on the closest thing to a summer blockbuster weekend that we were able to have this year (releasing concurrently with superhero drama The Old Guard and the fx-fueled Tom Hanks historical epic, Greyhound). I watched all three films, but this is the one I enjoyed the most by far, and the reason had as much to do with the film’s accidental fitness for pandemic viewing as it did with its effectiveness as an uproariously, darkly hilarious romance. By the time we meet Nyles (Andy Samberg) he has already spent the last [very long time, perhaps centuries] as an ancillary participant in a wedding where his cheating girlfriend is one of the bridesmaids. This is one of many fascinating dynamics created by Nyles’ status as an old soul at the start of the film (and one of several ways in which it accidentally resembled The Old Guard) – he adopts a Puckish persona, aloof, impressive to others but only when he feels the need to be, and never getting riled up about the same sorts of things as we mere mortals. Not only has he had a chance to get to know everything that there is to know about this time and place, but he has also grown beyond the things that we care about: love, money, sex, and death – which are just not as important when you’re an untouchable Time Lord, and also operate on completely different moral planes. This is a fascinating performance from Samberg because as he cracks jokes with Sarah (Cristin Milioti), who is new to this particular existential sinkhole, I really got the sense that he was emerging from an alcoholic malaise that he hadn’t felt any particular need to come out of for years (or maybe longer). For this particular immortal, with nothing new to contemplate, the most attractive characteristic of Sarah (the sister of the bride, whom he knows a great deal about already) is that she’s new, and is thus unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Milioti, meanwhile, plays Sarah as a woman put-upon at the start by both her own past behavior and others’ judgments (“They all see me as a liability who fucks around and drinks too much…because I fuck around and drink too much”), as well as the knowledge that she’ll never escape a day that she simply can’t feel as aloof about as Nyles. This is both their fundamental attraction and their fundamental disagreement: She sees the appeal of his gleeful nihilism in the situation that they’re both stuck in, and even embraces it for a while. The couple has plenty of time to get accustomed to each other’s patterns, which is the sort of metatextual definition of human companionship that could only come about through a complete absence of material concerns or fear of death. As such, it should come as no surprise that I lifted it from Star Trek (a utopia which explicitly relies on a lack of conventional fears and needs), but it’s also an elegant metaphor for both romantic commitment and life itself. Because these two aren’t spending their lives together – that is impossible as long as they’re stuck in a place where time has no meaning, and their actions have no consequences, except to each other. The conflict over whether they would choose each other over everyone else in the world if they had a meaningful choice about that is a purely academic one as their romance begins to bloom. And this is exactly how Palm Springs innovates on the Groundhog Day formula: the film doesn’t treat its love interest as a disposable amusement for a lonely god, free to choose her level of participation, but only on a fleeting basis, with the god free to simply try her again the next day. Palm Springs eschews this framework and treats it as an aspect of Nyles’ temporal cage that he has come to loathe. The film invites both participants to be fully cognizant of their shared reality, and have a real choice about whether or not this love is worth continuing, if and when leaving it behind ever becomes an option. Which sure feels a lot sweeter in retrospect.

Also, J.K. Simmons is at his usual level of quality, even if I can’t say much about his character here.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #171 – “Palm Springs” (dir. Max Barbakow), “The Old Guard” (dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood)

Available on Hulu here.

#1: Da 5 Bloods

Directed by Spike Lee, written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Lee.

The African-American novelist and cultural critic James Baldwin once wrote the following, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Perhaps even more than the death itself, the manner of his death has forced me into a judgment concerning human life and human beings which I have always been reluctant to make….Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.”

I read this quote between my two viewings of Da 5 Bloods, and it comes inexorably to mind as I ponder these four men now. In particular, Paul (Delroy Lindo), whom we quickly learn is barely keeping it together on his first trip back to Vietnam since he fought in the war. He returns to the country with his three Bloods – fellow black soldiers from his squad, who forged a familial and racial bond from their unique experiences in warfare. These men are ostensibly returning to Vietnam in the modern day to repatriate the remains of their fallen Blood, Norm “Stormin’ Norman” Holloway (Chadwick Boseman), as well as (secretly) a planeload of CIA gold that had been requisitioned to pay the local Lahu people to fight against the VC, and was subsequently lost in a plane crash and buried by these five men for later retrieval.

The Baldwin quote came to mind not just for its resonance with respect to Paul, but because of one scene in particular, layered with both visceral rage and brotherly love, in which Dr. King’s murder is revealed to the five main characters as they camp in the jungle. They are seemingly separated from any other unit or chain of command as they listen to a propaganda broadcast from Hanoi Hannah (Veronica Vanh Ngo), who is playing out a psychological warfare strategy of trying to persuade American G.I.s of the immorality of warfare, and trying to persuade black GIs in particular to give up the fight for a country that has never properly embraced them as full citizens. This scene feels both theatrical and plausible as it is playing out, with the five men seemingly just camped in the jungle with no specific mission, all played by men in their 50s and 60s (who aren’t quite old enough to play these characters in 2020), with the exception of then 42-year-old Boseman (who passed away from colon cancer in August). Norm is only partially in uniform, standing before a jury-rigged sunshade of ferns, and the camera floats over each man’s face as they take in this devastating news, fading back and forth over footage of King’s funeral procession and riots in over 100 American cities. Hannah continues, pointing out that black people are only 11% of the US population, but they represent 32% of the American troops in Vietnam – depending on the specific year, this seems to have been both a true statistic and a deliberate strategy by the US government, and Hannah suggests that they should go home and fight where they are really needed.

Theatricality was a stylistic choice that the film announced early on, with its periodic cutaways to footage of real events (including Donald Trump in Da White House, a key component of the film’s modern resonance), as well as intermittent bits of Sorkinesque historical exposition in dialogue, in which characters just randomly call out bits of (black) American history in order to educate the viewer about the likes of Crispus Attucks (who died at the Boston Massacre in 1770), one of the first black soldiers to die in the name of the American Revolution, and a name I hadn’t heard since high school. And other names I’d never heard at all, like Milton Olive, a decorated hero of the Vietnam War who posthumously received the Medal of Honor after dying at just 18, falling on a grenade to save his squad. None of this bothered me in the least, coming in fits and starts during a solid 35-40 minutes of character setup in Ho Chi Minh City at the start of the film, both because it was entertaining in the moment, and because it announced the film’s intentions to be about something greater than just Heart of Darkness meets Three Kings – comparisons the film is also keenly aware of. Da Five Bloods is about the extent to which these men’s experience of war, loss, racism, and bitter disappointment has cast a pall over their lives, and threatens to drag them on a desperate, greedy march to the grave. The film starts with a pretense of vacation with a dash of heist caper, and has some genuinely raucous action beats. But it slowly reveals itself as a return to a demon-haunted world.

As Otis (Clarke Peters) tees up this flashback in order to explain to young blood David (Jonathan Majors) exactly who and what Norman was to the group, and to David’s father Paul in particular, he describes him like this:

“Stormin’ earned his name – was in all kinda fire fights. Trained us in the ways of the jungle. Made us believe we’d get back home alive. He was a prophet. Gave us something to believe in. A direction, a purpose. Taught us about Black History – when it wasn’t really popular back then. Schooled us about drinking that anti-commie Kool-Aid they were selling. He was our Malcolm and Martin. Norman had a way of keeping us from going off.”

Right before this flashback is a scene in which Vietnamese soldiers are tramping through the jungle talking to each other – about their sweethearts and wives back home, which we know because the dialogue is subtitled – an uncommon choice in an American war film. We consume a bit of the enemy’s humanity before we watch our heroes rise up from the bushes and riddle them with bullets. Da 5 Bloods are soldiers, who will do their duty, but they are also thoughtful men, seekers of enlightenment, who have found a leader who wishes to imbue them with his own brand of righteousness. Of the group, only Norm seems fully cognizant of what they’re doing in this country, explicitly framing war as an economic act. He is also the only one who seems to understand that Hannah’s broadcasts are tailor-made to anger them specifically. As he meets their violent and unfocused rage, which promises to murder the nearest cracker they can find – surely a fellow American soldier – Norm stands in their way. Says that Dr. King was a man of peace, who wouldn’t have wanted this. He meets their rage with love, as they all stand together with righteous fury and blast their M-16s skyward. Theatricality.

Norm is subject to many beatific praises throughout the film, including many direct and indirect comparisons to Jesus Christ, but the one that really stuck with me was “He was our Malcolm and Martin.” This evokes a dichotomy that is often used as dismissive shorthand (by white people) when discussing the struggle for black liberation, in which Malcolm X is used to represent the militant side, and Dr. King is used to represent the peaceful side, confining his rhetoric to non-violent appeals to equality and colorblindness amid peaceful civil disobedience. I can’t speak for Lee or co-writer Willmott here (who wholly rewrote this film from a 2013 spec script that originally had nothing to do with black history), but my impression is that this line was meant to carry some irony for a black audience that would understand that neither Malcolm nor Martin can be so cleanly summed up, as anyone who has read any of their writings can attest. As a white man who came of age long after both men were dead, and who grew up steeped in the myth that the mid-century struggle for civil rights ended favorably, I am not qualified to speak with any authority on this subject, but I have tried to cultivate a more realistic understanding of it as time goes on. I grew up in a world in which the predominant political discourse, until very recently, was always some variation of “When will black people be satisfied?” With President Obama’s election, even as the birther lies and mock-lynchings continued, White America echoed a refrain that Dr. King’s work was over a long time ago (even as a handful of their number always whinged that Black History Month was racist). The civil rights movement was a triumphal narrative that ended with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the very same law which I watched a conservative Supreme Court bloc eviscerate in 2013, which was followed by a giddily resurgent neo-Confederate South – now calling itself the Republican Party, but with a through-line since Reconstruction that spanned both parties – which began attacking black voters “with surgical precision“. The GOP began using voter suppression techniques straight out of the Jim Crow playbook on Information Age steroids, in order to perpetuate minority rule (for the dwindling bloc of rural, conservative white people) into the future. The idea that black people can ever be “satisfied” with our meager pretense of a post-racial society, which was never built in a way that offered them anything close to a fair chance, has always been a lie. And as I attempt to make sense of Lindo’s career-best performance of this black man in a MAGA hat, I firmly believe that this character represents Spike Lee‘s brilliant attempt to grapple with the damage that this lie has caused.

So we have Paul, the Vietnam Veteran with untreated PTSD and a 30-year-old son that he doesn’t understand and can’t relate to, rabid supporter of one Donald J. Trump for president. That’s right – Paul voted for President Fake Bone Spurs. That his fandom for Trump’s cruel (but nonetheless revelatory) brand of American conservatism is presented as a part of his post-war pathology doesn’t change the surprising fact that this is one of the only films that I’ve seen credibly try to get inside the head of a Trump supporter, which might be about the last thing anyone wants to do after watching their QAnon-addled miscreants storm the US Capitol this month. And yet, it is necessary, and a significant part of what makes this film such essential viewing. Boseman’s death is one of many unfortunate ways in which the film’s release accidentally interacted with the trying times of 2020, with the film coming out in June, near the crescendo of protests over the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands (and under the knee) of now ex-police officer Derek Chauvin, and under the watchful eye of his colleagues at the Minneapolis Police Department, who did nothing to stop him. Another name, another protest, another black life that didn’t matter. Another police response that proved the protesters’ concerns about police brutality and lack of accountability a hundred times over, from coast to coast and for weeks on end.

It may seem as if I’ve wandered afield from the text of this film. And perhaps I have. After 11 years of reviewing films on this site, it has been quite as much about keeping a public diary of the ways in which my own thinking has changed, as it has been about chronicling and reacting to popular culture. Make no mistake, Da 5 Bloods is my #1 film of the year for the same reason as any previous film: I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it. But I found myself unable to make much progress writing during this month in particular, as our republic and collective sense of reality reached a Trump-instigated, collectively-perpetrated attempt to rip itself to pieces. So it was inevitable that all of this real-world bullshit would become entangled with my feelings about Paul the fictitious Trump supporter. We find ourselves halfway through an ineptly handled pandemic, barely out of the twilight of President Fake Bone Spurs, a wannabe election thief and incompetent fascist who turned out to be too lazy and unskilled to pull off the coup d’état that he clearly had no moral or patriotic compunction against attempting. I may have seen this film at a conveniently receptive time, but it is about much more than just these four men and their self-destructive struggle to enrich themselves on the backs of the very same war machine that had so thoroughly damaged each of them. This film stuck in my craw at the same time, and for many of the same reasons, as the struggle against systemic racism and police brutality this year, and both have refused as yet to leave me behind. When I first saw Da 5 Bloods, I had scarcely even heard of James Baldwin (whom I quoted above), and most of my knowledge of him now is secondhand, presented through Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.‘s scholarship of Baldwin’s work, and his modernization of Baldwin’s notion of “The Big Lie”. Michael Harriot takes this further, asserting that the Capitol Rioters may have pretended to attack our nation’s institutions over a small lie, that Trump won an election he factually lost, but they were doing so in service of a bigger lie: That White America is willing to accept the results of an election in which the usual insidious mechanisms of voter suppression were swept aside by the COVID pandemic, and black Americans are finally free to assert their political will.

Even as I am distracted and enraged by the Capitol Rioters: by their racism and violence, by their presumption, by their warped pretense of patriotism that has little or nothing to do with the material circumstances of the actual people who live in the actual United States, and more to do with the wholly symbolic cosplay that they pathetically call freedom – I can’t let go of the country that made it happen, whose real-time mythologizing of its own history is the reason why we’re still having inane conversations in 2020 about whether or not it’s appropriate to honor Confederate traitors with statues in public spaces. As we dance on endlessly to a tune first played by dead men, I truthfully can’t damn the Capitol Rioters (as much as I will relish seeing many of them behind bars), because the ugliness they presented as they bore their collective ass for us all to see, is America. Paul, in this film, is us. As Delroy Lindo says directly to the camera: You can’t kill Paul. And I can’t damn him either.

I’ll close with this quote, from Glaude’s excellent book Begin Again, which has become a sort of guiding star as I think of how to approach the after-times of Trump.

“[T]he desire to distance oneself from Trump fits perfectly with the American refusal to see ourselves as we actually are. We evade historical wounds, the individual pain, and the lasting effects of it all. The lynched relative; the buried son or daughter killed at the hands of the police; the millions locked away to rot in prisons; the children languishing in failed schools; the smothering, concentrated poverty passed down from generation to generation; and the indifference to lives lived in the shadows of the American dream are generally understood as exceptions to the American story, not the rule…To maintain this illusion, Trump has to be seen as singular, aberrant. Otherwise, he reveals something terrible about us. But not to see yourself in Trump is to continue to lie.”

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #170 – “Irresistible” (dir. Jon Stewart), “Da 5 Bloods” (dir. Spike Lee)

Available on Netflix here.

Theatrical Hits from the Before Times

Films that I recall enjoying enough to be considered here, but which a year of COVID and political chaos has effectively driven from my memory.

  • Bad Boys for Life (directed by Adil & Bilall)
  • Birds of Prey (directed by Cathy Yan) (podcast)
  • The Invisible Man (directed by Leigh Whannell) (podcast)

Honorable Mentions:

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

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

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

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

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

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

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

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

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

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

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

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

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

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

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

Poster for "Love & Other Drugs"

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

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

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

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

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

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

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

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

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

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

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

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

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

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

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

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

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

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

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

“Get Duked!” (dir. Ninian Doff) – Good-hearted satire for a generation that’s fuckin’ sick of it

Poster for "Get Duked!"

South Park got old. Hell, it even admitted it. More to the point, while it has taken various stances over the years (anti-religion, anti-sacred cows, anti-taking climate change seriouslywhoops), there was always an undertone of “LOL nothing matters,” and the assumption that only nerds care about political outcomes. It’s a very 90s, Gen-Xer stereotype version of what it’s like to be a counterculturalist, and this is perhaps why Trey Parker and Matt Stone speak more frequently through the grown-up characters in the newer seasons. I have no idea what the kids are up to these days (apart from taking climate change seriously, whoops), but I know that millennial political cynicism tends to be a bit more outcome-oriented than its immediate predecessors. While I could heap pattern-recognition compliments onto Scottish, 1982-born music video director Ninian Doff‘s debut feature, which is at times reminiscent of both Edgar Wright and more obscure hip-hop insanity like Bodied or Patti Cake$, its tone, which manages to maintain remarkable consistency even as the film leapfrogs from horror to comedy to self-serious classist satire, feels most profanely and offensively reminiscent of the boys from Colorado. Just…a bit more fresh, because its satire seems to stem from a sincere belief that everything might not just keep bumbling along in the same way no matter how much you get worked up about it.

The story begins with a trio of troublemakers, Dean (Rian Gordon), Duncan MacDonald (Lewis Gribben), and DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja), whose chosen moniker might just be a shit DJ name (they all are, William, don’t you worry), but whose posh surname and ivy-laden high street address is a consistent source of mockery by his best mates. Joining them for the first time is Ian (Samuel Bottomley), a basically ordinary and well-meaning kid who wants to do well on the outdoor adventure program in the Scottish Highlands that they’ve all been signed up for – for the three delinquents, as a last chance at respectability and accomplishment by their headmaster, and for hapless Ian, by his mother, who is concerned by his lack of activities and social connections. That program is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, an outdoor-oriented youth program (reminiscent of the Scout movement, also founded by landed British gentry). To earn the award, the boys are left in the Scottish Highlands by their teacher, Mr. Carlyle (Jonathan Aris), and immediately hunted for sport by The Duke (Eddie Izzard) and his wife The Duchess (Georgie Glen). So immediately, in fact, that I’m not going to trouble to hide that plot detail, since the movie spends much of its first 15 minutes plastered with sight gags announcing its intentions toward the horror genre so explicitly that I was half-expecting a Cabin in the Woods-style genre deconstruction. But the basic idea (as laid out in the first of many visually stunning animated sequences seamlessly intercut into the film) is that the boys must navigate their way through several valleys and fields and craggy hills down to the coast, where they will collect the award, but only if they manage a collective achievement in Teamwork, Orienteering, Foraging, and…a few other soft skills.

Still from "Get Duked"

The best thing I can say about these four boys is that my favorite of them fluctuated over the course of the film, which is usually a sign of a well-balanced cast. They each have their moments of depth, apart from Duncan, the goofball, tank, and arsonist of the group, who is a pure comic foil and does not contain multitudes. The most interesting character may be Dean, son of a fish cannery worker, who gradually lets slip that he expects to amount to nothing more than a lifelong stint in the same blue-collar trade as his father, and he sure would love it if society would get all the way off his back about chasing achievements that he doesn’t believe he ever had a chance at in the first place. When Ian, and even Willi- *sigh* DJ Beatroot talk about their home life, it’s clear that they have some sort of ambition beyond the circumstances of their upbringing, even if in Beatroot’s case it seems borderline delusional. But Dean thinks he fully understands himself already, and is basically okay with who he is. Until the moment that he isn’t. And for however profanely these boys talk to each other, or whatever anger or jealousy might be stewing within the group dynamics over the course of the film, all three of these little hellions are basically trying to be decent to each other. They’re not even that mean to the new kid, and even offer to share their dubious drugs with him. There are a lot of drugs in this film, none of them in familiar forms, and all a bit explosive and/or hallucinogenic, which leads to further wonky visuals as characters’ bodies are deconstructed to the raucous beats of one of Beatroot’s…annoyingly good hip-hop jams, most of which are on the subject of his dick.

Eddie Izzard‘s Duke is a walking, shooting, slow-motion exposition-bot, who is happy to explain his simplistic and paternalistic ideology of culling the weakest (and poorest) members of the herd at length before wildly firing his rifle near the boys. And while Izzard fully justifies his presence (and executive producer credit) by the film’s end, he starts on that path at the halfway point when he and the Duchess join a psychedelic musical round with barely comprehensible choral chanting about maintaining the respectable trappings of empire as they prepare an attempted ritualistic murder of one of the boys. Then the Scottish cavalry arrives, and the curtain falls on their little caper. I won’t reveal what exactly I mean by that (James Cosmo is involved), but I’ll tell you what I did not need, and what the film itself has very little use or patience for, is the police. It would be easy to look at bumbling Scottish police Sergeant Morag (Kate Dickie) and PC Hamish (Kevin Guthrie) as pure buffoons, as they attempt to make sense of each rumor and whisper of the film’s plot by sliding another extravagant charge onto the big chore board at the police bureau (“PAEDOPHILE”, “TERRORIST”, and “ZOMBIE” each make an appearance). But this entire grating subplot is finally justified by the glorious appearance of the unnamed police superintendent (Alice Lowe), who gives a rousing battle speech on the need of these bumbling hillbillies to stop chasing a wholly confabulated urban gang (which Hamish identifies, on the radio, without a shred of evidence apart from his own racism, as 15-20 black males wearing hooded tops), down from London just to fuck with their unenviable backwater…and get back to solving the important crimes, like the fugitive bread thief, which was their #1 unsolved case before the film began. The film’s point that these cops would do nothing to help the situation was made after about 30 seconds of watching them, and during each of the other cop scenes, I was mostly just waiting to get back to the A-plot. But this is a minor complaint. I must emphasize, I am not being sarcastic here – the superintendent’s speech is a stellar comic moment, and it very nearly justifies the rest.

I can’t say much more here without giving the game away, and what a great game it is. While you may feel as if you’ve been served a pile of hallucinogenic rabbit fodder by the film’s end, you won’t come away wondering for a moment what it was all for.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Get Duked! is available starting today, 8/28, on Prime Video.

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

Poster for "The Kids Are All Right"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still from "The Kids Are All Right"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

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

Poster for "Final Destination" (2000 film)

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

Still from "Final Destination"

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

Clear Rivers (Ali Larter)

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

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

Still from "Final Destination"

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

Still from "Final Destination"

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

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

Stay safe out there.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Mother"

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.

Still from "Mother" (2009 film)

I toyed with a few different intros for Bong Joon-Ho’s 2009 film Mother. I thought about how – despite my thorough enjoyment of his film Parasite a decade later – there were layers of that film that I was simply unequipped to understand without being from Korea myself. And several Korean and Korean-American writers (here, here) and one (not Korean) YouTube chef (here) were quite kind enough to educate me about some of those details after the fact. Mother certainly has Korea-specific content – in addition to the film’s prominent use of acupuncture as a plot device, one plot point revolves around a cell phone that has been modded to be a “pervert phone”, so that it can take photos without making a >65dB fake shutter sound. Every American mobile phone already had (and still has) this capability, but this is illegal in both Japan and South Korea. An attempt was made to make it illegal in the US in 2009, but this went nowhere. But the film’s Korean content (at least, what I was able to pick up on) does a good job of explaining itself in-context in the film.

But even without that additional context, I’ve still had to regard Mother predominantly – then as now – as a film about the complex and fraught decision-making that is an inexorable part of being a parent, as well as a hard-boiled detective story featuring a 60-something unnamed Mother (Kim Hye-ja) as its protagonist. And while 2009 Glenn was certainly capable of (hypothetically) appreciating stories about parenthood, I was here for the old lady detective, because of an American hero named Angela Lansbury. And like Jessica Fletcher, Mother has a personal stake in solving the case of the week, the murder of a teenage girl named Moon Ah-jung (Moon Hee-ra), because her adult son Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin) is arrested and charged with the crime. Which, considering he had a recent history of violence (beating the crap out of some hit-and-run-driving professors on a golf course), and apparently left a golf ball with his name on it at the scene of the crime, and signed a confession with only minimal police coercion (some theatrical apple-punching), it’s hard to argue too much with this outcome.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, Do-joon is mentally handicapped, which makes him an easy scapegoat. Watching Mother interact with Do-joon in the first act of the film understandably feels familiar to me. Because Do-joon exhibits many child-like tendencies, Mother’s interactions with him often have a similar character to the interactions I have with my (young) kids. There’s just a certain stoicism that develops around dealing with your children’s bodily functions. Embarrassment goes out the window, even as the child insists on discussing or exhibiting their bathroom habits as loudly as possible. This is understandably uncommon to see in an interaction between a parent and their adult child, and Mother takes this to excess at times. There is a scene where Do-joon is pissing on a wall next to a bus stop, and Mother – who is initially staring directly at his crotch for reasons that are unclear even in the moment – is pouring broth into his mouth. An overhead shot shows liquid draining from the bowl into his mouth, and liquid draining away into the gutter: an efficient machine. Do-joon also sleeps in his mother’s bed, and multiple characters in the film suggest that their relationship has a Freudian dimension to it (hard to argue with the film’s intentions after that alley scene). As with calling Do-joon the ‘R’-word, impugning his relationship with Mother is a trigger for him to immediately lash out with violence against whatever impudent motherfucker (tee hee) thought this was a wise thing to say to him.

Still from "Mother" (2009 film)

As I became a parent in the intervening years, there were certainly dimensions of this parent-child relationship that I could newly identify with. But that’s not to say the film presents it as a healthy one. Mother’s exact motivations and psychology are picked apart over the course of the film as she watches her son go through the struggle of being sent to jail, and Kim’s performance takes on more dimensions. What is the depth of a parent’s despair? Is Mother’s stoicism a mask for grief? Guilt for her mistakes and indefensible choices? Anger at how her life turned out? On top of all of these feelings, specific to this film and character, I felt something universal – something that all parents feel at some point: an abiding responsibility for what kind of child you’ve put out into the world. When you teach your children to stand up for themselves, assert their will, and also respect and show empathy to other people, is it ever possible to strike the right balance? Surely, in their heart of hearts, every parent thinks their child is special on some level, or at least wants the rest of the world to treat their child in a special way. We’ve seen what this looks like when it goes horribly wrong. It’s easy to look at the sociopathic children of distant, rich assholes, and judge accordingly. Don Jr. literally wrote (and then purchased thousands of copies of) the book on this. But what do we make of the far more numerous monsters that appear without a clear (or at least externally obvious) cause? The people whose parents and friends are just as shattered by their actions as the families and friends of their victims? Seventeen years after the Columbine High School shooting – a formative event during my teenage years, but surely lost in the fog of innumerable massacres since for today’s kids – Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the school shooters, wrote a book and spoke publicly about her experience for the first time. Her book is an exhaustive chronicle of mental illness in adolescence, suicidal and homicidal ideation, and the impossible task of picking up the pieces of a shattered family life. Moreover, it is a thoughtful and humble personal narrative from a subject who knows that she is unsympathetic to many people. I haven’t yet finished it (as I only read a few chapters in preparation for this writing), but it’s a fascinating read, if only for the singularity of Klebold’s experience and the rarity of its candor about a thoroughly taboo subject.

Because…what do we care what the mother of a killer has to say? She’s obviously responsible for whatever her kid did. She obviously should’ve known and prevented it, as any of us would’ve done! To be clear, I’m not expressing these attitudes sincerely, but to say that this is the clear and obvious push-back that Mother is dealing with as she conducts her investigation throughout the film – that in her small town, even with the apparent murderer of an innocent girl behind bars, a villain still remains: the Mother who spawned him, the free and visible face of his actions, the societal standard-bearer of his original sin. And what’s more, she’s trying to release him back into the community! How dare she. Mother is as thoroughly alone in this film as it is possible to be, and as Kim’s psychological and emotional performance lays out the complete history of this character’s mental load, it’s clear that her solitude is nothing new. Do-joon’s father hasn’t been in the picture since he was very young, and his only friend is a local scumbag named Jin-tae (Jin Goo), whom Mother initially suspects of the killing, and who may only be helping her in the hopes of extorting some money. Jin-tae’s exact motivations are kept nice and nebulous even as we first meet him – when Do-joon gets sideswiped by a Mercedes-Benz and his friend scoops him up off the street to head to the golf course (the only destination in town for a Benz!) and thoroughly beat the ass of whoever was driving. And why is he doing this? *shrug* Loyalty, boredom, a desire to watch his friend fall on his face (something that seems to genuinely amuse him)? When Jo-doon is behind bars, Jin-tae’s continued involvement in the investigation makes him the ideal film noir companion, and Mother clearly picks up on this, as she calls him in for various strongman purposes as the film goes on. 

Kim Hye-ja is really what made this film worth watching, both then and now. She’s a sweet old lady – apparently best known for playing sweet old ladies on Korean soap operas – who contains multitudes. And even as we see both the actress and the character reset the contours of her face repeatedly as the film goes on, it makes the moments where she completely loses control – nearly all of which have to do with the intensity of her relationship with Do-joon – all the more satisfying. This is a film that is more than just the sum of its plot twists, but the plot itself is so satisfying that I’ve uncharacteristically omitted its details here (Bong, along with co-writer Park Eun-kyo, won or was nominated for multiple awards for the screenplay). After a decade, I had to pull out my Blu-ray copy of the film to watch it (as streaming options were limited), but I sincerely hope that Bong’s recent Oscar gold means that more people will go back to seek out his earlier films, because this is surely one of his best.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

2019 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2019)

#11: High Life


Directed by Claire Denis, written by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau

There’s a lot of competition on this list for “hardest film to sell to non-critics”, but I think Claire Denis’ English-language debut High Life might be the winner. This is one of the most bizarre and disturbing sci-fi films I’ve seen since Under the Skin – an experimental, non-linear narrative with arresting and (occasionally very low-tech) visuals, featuring a group of condemned prisoners on what is likely a suicide mission to extract energy for humanity from a black hole. As far as the mission is concerned, the prisoners are still prisoners, with the ship’s ailing computer checking in daily to confirm that they’re still on mission, and casually threatening to space them all if they do not comply. But as far as their physical and psychological safety goes, the inmates are fully running the asylum, with the ship’s chief medical officer Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) – who comes with one of the most one-dimensionally evil backstories I’ve ever seen in a film’s co-lead – performing bizarre and unethical sexual experiments on the prisoners and patients under her charge, in an effort to create a child in space through artificial insemination. This film competed with Ad Astra (in Honorable Mentions below) for space in my head when it came to the alienation and loss of humanity that must accompany such intense separation from the rest of the species, and yet, even Ad Astra‘s pastiche of Heart of Darkness couldn’t plumb the same depths of man’s inhumanity to man as what was on display here. Yes, yes, it’s sad that Brad Pitt‘s father abandoned him. But at least he’s not a piece of flotsam being hurtled into a fucking black hole and used as a brood mare whether he likes it or not. Robert Pattinson and Mia Goth are also excellent.

High Life is a hard watch. It is bleak, misanthropic, and utterly fascinating – and has stuck with me ever since I saw it.

#10: I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Written and directed by Radu Jude

The play’s the thing! Wherein she’ll catch the conscience of a nation. The nation is Romania, and the bad-bad thing they did was collaborate and fight alongside Nazi Germany as they perpetrated the Holocaust. I had zero prior knowledge of the purge of Odessa, in which Romanian soldiers led by Marshal Ion Antonescu, alongside Einsatzgruppe SS and local ethnic Germans murdered 100,000 Ukrainian Jews in Transnistria during the autumn and winter of 1941-42. This area is a geopolitical mess to this day, with multiple countries exerting influence, and this is apparently neither well-known nor widely discussed. And it is precisely this incident that theatrical director Mariana (Ioana Iacob) would like to talk about, in the form of a historical reenactment for public consumption (and with city funding) on the streets of Bucharest. This film is both an unflinching drama and a black comedy about the darkest of subject matter. It is easily as effective a film as Four Lions (which I’ll reference again on this list) or The Death of Stalin. But what really made it stick with me is its single-mindedness as an intellectual exercise on the hierarchy and historical discussion of human massacres. Iacob’s performance is fierce, intelligent, and uncompromising as a director, and yet she doesn’t feel quite like a real person so much as an intellectual avatar for the purpose of exploring these ideas, surrounded at all times by rhetorical opponents that are inexplicably well-read on the subject. At least The Man From Earth troubled to surround its main character with actual professors to interrogate his story – this film starts off having characters ranging from a city arts bureaucrat, Konstantin Movila (Alexandru Dabija), who is perpetually threatening to pull funding for the event if it’s “too controversial”, to Mariana’s illicit (married) pilot boyfriend, who wonders aloud why the Jews are always “whining” about the Holocaust, when it’s perfectly okay to poke fun at Jesus and Mother Theresa. Frankly, these people don’t seem as if they should be capable of serious debate on this subject, and their talking points start off completely facile, worthy of an anti-Semitic Twitter blast at best. But Mariana ruthlessly parries them and fires back, and as their arguments evolve, multiply, and become stronger, she stays on her course and effectively beats them back.

Nobody on this cursed earth owes Ben Shapiro a debate on any subject, but Mariana is a fictional character that I’d love to see cross paths with him, because the film not only engages seriously with every one of the facile arguments against telling this or any other ugly episode from history; it eviscerates them to their core. With evidence. And it is farcical. Mariana sits on the helicopter of the executed communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu munching on a sandwich while her PAs pick through weapons and uniforms in the museum’s collection, and a pack of fifty-something lighting grips wander up and ask why she needs to badmouth the good Marshal Antonescu, who is after all a national hero (despite his eventual execution by Romania for war crimes), and by the way, is it really necessary for us to all eat lunch at the same table with all those dirty [Roma people] on the crew? Mariana gives an outstanding “are you fucking kidding me” look to her staunchest ally and comic foil Traian (Alex Bogdan), an intimidating and soldierly presence who encourages them all to fuck off and eat somewhere else or otherwise shut up about it, before giving a chilling performance as Antonescu in the very same reenactment. As this performance plays out with stunning historical realism before a crowd of extras who may or may not have been aware they were being filmed for a movie, Mariana looks on, noticing with consternation that some of the crowd are cheering at the wrong moments (e.g. as dozens of Jewish prisoners are burned alive), and wonders if she has inadvertently done a terrible thing by telling this story in the way she did. Like any intelligent person who’s sure she’s on the right path, she’s never completely sure.

And how to tell this story is plastered across the film throughout its runtime. Traian hollers at the reenactors: “Russians, hands up! Romanians and Germans, look happy!” There is a lonnnng shot of a reenacted mass-hanging before a crowd as the production team debates exactly what hate-slogan to put on the banner above their heads. They have a photo of the real thing, but it’s kind of a shitty small font, and they’d like to put something more readable on there, and so on and so forth. When The Man in the High Castle wrapped its final season, the production team quite admirably destroyed all of the swastikas that they’d used in production. And why? Because anyone wishing to reenact these events had better think hard about how and why they want to go about it. While I admired Taiki Waititi‘s Jojo Rabbit enough to put it in my Honorable Mentions for this year, I cannot say that I saw a more thoughtful film about this subject matter than Barbarians, because no matter how contrived some of the conversations between the characters were (Movila, the city arts bureaucrat, proves to be a formidable debater), I still found them relentlessly fascinating and intellectually challenging as I listened to Mariana breathlessly defending her thesis: This is the story I’ve decided to tell, and to hell with anyone who says I shouldn’t. This is a film about the clear-eyed and fearless pursuit of truth and a national reckoning, and in a political time that is trying its level best to destroy both the rule of law and the concept of objective reality, it is a thoughtful exercise that we need now more than ever. And it’s hilarious. Don’t know if I made that part clear. It sounds dry and bleak, and is neither of those things.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #151 – “Booksmart” (dir. Olivia Wilde), SIFF Roundup: “Putin’s Witnesses”, “…Barbarians”.

#9: Portrait of a Lady on Fire


Written and directed by Céline Sciamma

This is an artful period romance, insofar as it’s a period romance that does a great deal of its storytelling with art. On a surf-pounded coastal island in 18th century France, a Countess (Valeria Golino) – who has possibly fled there from the Terror in Paris, lives with her last remaining daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the latter freshly returned from her life at a convent, where she enjoyed its many fine pleasures, such as reading books, listening to church music, and not having sex with men. She returns to take over her late sister’s arranged marriage to a gentleman from Milan, where she and her mother will eventually settle, joining many of the émigré nobles who turned tail (with their money) and fled the French Revolution. Her sister is dead, having fallen or jumped from the seaside cliffs while on a walk, so Héloïse is forced to abandon her own path in favor of one that was also abandoned by her late sister. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter, comes to the island at the request of the Countess, to paint a portrait of Héloïse to send off to the Milanese gentleman – a prerequisite of their eventual marriage. Marianne is the second painter that the Countess has hired, but Héloïse refused to pose for the first. In his failure, he left behind a painting of a dress over a woman’s body – perhaps that of the maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who eventually plays a similar role for Marianne – but no face. By and by, Marianne burns it in the fireplace, forming one of the two jeux de mots at work with the title. The Countess tells Marianne that as far as Héloïse knows, the painter is not a painter at all, and is simply there to be a walking companion. This is true in part, because after the death of her elder daughter, the Countess understandably fears for Héloïse’s safety and sanity. But she also casts Marianne in the role of an artistic spy. She must paint Héloïse without her realizing that is her true aim.

The gradual and natural consequence of this setup, between what turns out to be a pair of women who are both attracted to the same sex, is a forbidden and doomed romance that occurs accidentally, and via initial deception – a She’s All That of yesteryear, if you will. Marianne’s stolen glances at Héloïse have an ulterior motive behind them, and yet if the painter weren’t studying every detail of her subject with such tenderness and care, perhaps the romance might not have happened. The film presents a 18th century same-sex romance in as safe a circumstance as possible – the only real risk to either of them is that the Countess might find out – and the result is a naturalistic affection that never feels out-of-place, despite being a depiction in a century in which such romances presumably only ever happened in secret. And what we’re seeing is a secret, and as an audience member, you can’t help but feel like an intrusive presence, and yet you still feel privileged to take a peek into a previously unseen human experience. It is, for lack of a better comparison, like gazing at a work of art in a museum: studying its details, and imagining what its subjects must have felt. This is also a film that repeatedly uses art as a metaphor for both the individual human experience as well as the collaboration of human relationships, in a manner that felt similar to Abbas Kiarostami‘s 2010 masterpiece Certified Copy, but perhaps a bit less abstract. It not only features a literal work of art that is made in romantic collaboration between artist and subject; it also uses reactions to artwork to great narrative effect (Antonio Vivaldi‘s Summer plays a surprising and plot-critical role).

As the women embrace for the first time, Héloïse asks Marianne whether all lovers feel as if they’re inventing something. This is as matter-of-factly as the film ever broaches the LGBT nature of this story, because Héloïse, who may or may not be doing this for the first time, approaches sex with Marianne as if it’s the most ordinary act in the world. Likewise, the film doesn’t linger on the mechanics of sexuality in the manner of, for instance, Blue is the Warmest Color, which was both beloved and – perhaps fairly – accused of exhibiting female sexuality less for the sake of authenticity and more to indulge the insatiable male gaze upon it. This film is both directed and filmed by women, and one of them is in fact an ex-partner of one of the leads. I didn’t know that while watching the film, and I cannot say whether it informs my interpretation in retrospect. But I will say that the balance between innocence and eroticism that was struck in this scene felt exactly right. This is a story of women knowledgeably engaging in what were then regarded as illicit acts (and I haven’t even discussed Sophie’s dangerous subplot or the entrancing musical number that it evolves into).

This is a romance worth experiencing. It demands and rewards patience from its audience, and cinematographer Claire Mathon makes superlative use of both the vivid color and swaying grasses of cliffside, sea-spritzed trails as well as darkness, flame, paint, canvas, and blood. The film is both a visual and emotional feast, and upon its final, intense, lingering shot, you will be satisfied.

#8: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

What a meandering indulgence this film is, and honestly, I have a hard time defending my love for it, except to say that I was never bored, and that has persisted through multiple viewings. Inglourious Basterds was my #1 film of 2009, and I disliked and hated (respectively) the two Tarantino films that followed. When I saw that QT would be playing around in his historical sandbox once again with late ’60s Hollywood and the Manson family murders, I was prepared to write this film off as another dalliance inside baseball within the TMZ (a real thing!) in the vein of Hail, Caesar or another borderline obnoxious period piece (that I nonetheless liked) like Inherent Vice. Like a lot of critics, I tend to enjoy films about Hollywood, since they reward my ego for all of the dubious trivia that I’ve collected over the years. But it’s been a long time since one has landed with me enough to think of it at the end of the year.

So what makes this one special? Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt‘s characters and performances, for a start. The pair play a convincing set of friends (loosely inspired by actor Burt Reynolds and his stuntman and friend Hal Needham), with aging TV western star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) slumming it in villain-of-the-week roles and debating heading off to Rome to film spaghetti westerns, as he floats in his pool and sinks deeper into an alcoholic haze. The film’s handling of Dalton and stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt) is pure drama, and I found that I cared about both their friendship and Dalton’s career, largely because they cared so much. Stakes don’t always have to be external, and this film managed to create them even before the dirty, murderous hippies wandered in. The Manson Family are treated in a buffoonish manner, which seems like a fine way to depict violent fanatics (the apex of this being Chris MorrisFour Lions), particularly ones whose real-life exploits were so random and fraught with failure. Two particular standouts were Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, who is a darkly hilarious future attempted presidential assassin, and Margaret Qualley as Pussycat, a jailbait hitchhiker (the film’s framing, not mine) who acts as a surprising comedic foil for Booth, and who shouts one of the film’s best lines as a scene at an old-timey movie ranch takes a turn.

Speaking of turns, I kept waiting for real-life actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) to take a turn at uttering a single line of dialogue, and fully 60 minutes of this film passes with more said about her by Kurt Russell‘s narrator than ever comes out of the actress’ own mouth. My best explanation for this, knowing of her imminent murder in advance, was that Tarantino was presenting the mundanity of her final days as an offhanded documentarian, depicting her as a sort of vague angelic presence that the world is poorer without. This might have struck me as a bit shallow and disrespectful, if not for the film making its intentions clear early on that Dalton and Booth are the main characters, and Tate is merely a component of the historical sandbox. Some may castigate the film for this (Tate’s scenes were easily the most boring and cut-worthy of the film, which is a sad statement for an actress of Robbie’s caliber), but I daresay if you’re going to make sport of real-life tragedy, even half a century later, it’s respectful – even for a frequent doofus like Tarantino – to use a light touch. And apart from occasionally visually indulging his foot fetish at Robbie’s expense, QT seems reluctant to depict Tate doing anything besides what the actress herself might have plausibly been up to. This feels like a step down from the plot-directing likes of Mélanie Laurent in Basterds, but after watching the film twice, I daresay it was an acceptable choice.

However little that Tate speaks, another actress, Trudi (Julia Butters) is given plenty to say. Trudi, who is 10, plays a child actress on the set of one of Rick Dalton’s villain-of-the-week roles. She insists on remaining in character, but openly discusses her method acting with Rick, and it is one of the film’s standout scenes, since it is the first glimpse of Rick realizing what he has lost as an actor by falling into alcoholism and despair.

As I describe the film, it feels like very little is at stake apart from a quadruple murder that we already feel historically removed from after so much time. And yet I found this film relentlessly entertaining in a manner that Tarantino hasn’t quite captured since Pulp Fiction. It’s just…fun. And the pronounced (and low-tech) effort to recreate 1969 Hollywood is apparent in every frame, from the structure of the film’s fictitious TV westerns (with period-appropriate commercials, poster art, sets, and actors) to its various drive-around scenes in vintage cars, which beg the viewer to spot any imperfection. If this film was intended to feel like a time machine, it largely accomplished this, recreating at least the look and feel of films from this period, even if I can’t speak to the reality of the actual place.

Cliff also has a love-monster pit bull, Brandi (Sayuri the dog), who is a Very Good Girl. That is all.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #153 – “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (dir. Quentin Tarantino), “Little Woods” (dir. Nia DaCosta).

#7: Alice


Written and directed by Josephine Mackerras (in her debut feature)

“I don’t feel any different,” says Alice (Emilie Pipponier), after leaving her first client and regrouping with her new friend and Obi-Wan figure, Lisa (Chloé Boreham).

“You mean now that you’re a fallen woman?” chuckles Lisa, before explaining, “If you’re in love, having sex may be the best experience of your life. If you are raped, maybe it’s the worst. But in our case, things are under our control. The exchange is fair. So why should you feel any different? You think too much. You know how to do this. You’ve been doing it your whole life. You have been trained to scan people’s emotions. To know what to say, how to behave, how to please everyone. Take control, Sophia. That’s what he wants.”

“He”, in this case, is any of Alice’s new clients, because she has taken up a job as a sex worker in a last-ditch effort to prevent her family from being kicked out of their apartment, where they are thousands of Euros underwater on the mortgage. Her husband François (Martin Swabey) vanished, the bills piled up, and Alice very quickly learned why: he had blown all of their money on expensive prostitutes. It’s a veritable Eliot Spitzer scenario, without the political power or prior wealth. And they are deep in it now. Not only did François stop paying their mortgage without telling Alice, he waited until they were on the verge of foreclosure and eviction to let her find out. Seven seasons of The Good Wife can attest to my prior interest in this scenario, and the film’s elevator pitch of “cuckholded wife reluctantly becomes sex worker and unexpectedly finds the work empowering” is provocative to say the least. But not only is this film a more thoughtful exploration of the nature of sex work than any other film I’ve seen on the subject, it is also a fascinating portrayal of both the psychology and economics of such a career choice. Because Alice didn’t choose to be in a situation where she suddenly needed this kind of money – but then, does any mother whose husband suddenly deserts her? What’s more, the only reason why she realized sex work was a feasible career path was because she tracked down Martin’s brothel of choice and demanded that the madam come clean about what her husband has been up to – which she does. And then, perhaps even on a whim, Alice fills out an application, and makes a new friend.

Each of these characters has layers, whether the mercenary Lisa who struggles with how much of non-stage persona to reveal to her new apprentice, or Alice herself, who doesn’t hesitate for a second to keep her new career from her husband, who is flailing around trying to save their marriage in such hamfisted ways that I swear he thinks he’s the main character. Swabey’s performance is excellent here, as he finds himself in the unenviable task of playing the straying husband who still sees himself as the hero of his own preposterous redemption story. At one point, François sells his watch and uses it to buy a replacement for his wife’s ring, which she pawned earlier in the film, and proceeds to give a remarkable speech, which starts off gaslighting her for being so unreasonable as to make him “grovel like a dog” for forgiveness that she’d give if she really ever loved him, and ends with a damn proposal (to renew their vows). As a viewer, I found myself torn between guffawing at the absurdity of this nearly-homeless father pawning his last item of any economic value to craft what his own demented mind regards as the perfect show-proposal for his nearly-ex wife who now despises him. François is an abusive buffoon, and Mackerras’ script has the measure of this man as thoroughly as it understands Alice herself.

As compared to something like Marriage Story, this film deals far less with the now-rival spouses’ relationship with their son Jules (played by Mackerras’ own son of the same name), but he honestly isn’t much of a character, and that’s fine. The film’s subject matter doesn’t lend well to the direct inclusion of a child except as a clear-eyed statement that sex workers, like anyone else with an unpredictable work schedule, have dependents that they care about, and those dependents are a unique vulnerability due to how that profession is regarded by society. And as a MacGuffin, Jules is put to some interesting narrative uses (it turns out finding childcare is a pain in the ass no matter what your job is!). I won’t say where the standoff goes from here, but this film straddles multiple genres and reaches a fever pitch in the third act. If you can manage to find it streaming, don’t miss it.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #150 – SIFF Roundup: “Alice”, “Pigeon Kings”, “Fight Fam”, “As the Earth Turns”

#6: Knives Out


Written and directed by Rian Johnson

I have now seen Knives Out twice, and one (non-spoiler) moment in particular stands out to me. A baseball is thrown from the office of the late Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), changes hands (and a dog’s mouth, briefly) several times, and is finally picked up by a character who is appalled by its misplacement, who puts it back in the office where it belongs, and gives it a tender smile, recalling some happy day that we’ll never know. And the film’s denouement unexpectedly turns upon this moment, all because someone tossed a baseball in the first act. This moment doesn’t linger, nor is it remarked upon – in fact, I didn’t even notice it the first time I saw the film. It’s just one of the film’s myriad quiet character moments in-between all of the stylistic WhoDunnit/HowCatchEm genre trappings, and an example of how this film is made entirely by its details. Its plot is clever, unfolding in a way that hands you a solution to the film’s primary mystery at roughly its halfway point, leaving you to ponder, “Wait, what now?”. And then it continues! Gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), along with his foil and suspect, Harlan’s nurse and friend Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), wander the grounds and investigate whether a crime even occurred in what the police believe to be nothing more than a dramatic suicide.

Dramatic, yes, but, “Look around,” remarks Detective-Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield), “The guy practically lives in a Clue board.” Stanfield continues to be a reliable ensemble player (and if you want to see him in a lead role, Sorry to Bother You and Crown Heights are right there), but he’s mostly an exposition bot here, laying out the events of the night in question, and introducing each of the over-the-top family members, all of whom were present, and all of whom may have had a motive for murder. That’s as far as I’ll go explaining things, because this is a mystery that is well worth experiencing for yourself, but I appreciated Benoit Blanc’s entry in the pantheon of great detectives, not only for his personal genre savvy (he literally says “the game’s afoot” at one point), but because a great deal happens under his nose without him realizing it. The film makes a delicate dance of revealing a bit more to us than to him and vice versa over the course of the film, and watching him gradually pick apart the mystery amid his myriad quirks (he literally sings along with the radio during a car chase), make mistakes, and not quite get everything right…makes him feel more human than he would do otherwise. And Craig’s Kentucky Fried accent is a particular delight.

Marta’s most useful characteristics to Blanc are her forceful upchuck reflex when she lies, and…as he seems to believe almost immediately…her kind heart. Because he believes Marta means well and is physically incapable of lying in his presence without revealing it to him, it’s no surprise that he pulls her into the investigation. That, and as far as anyone knows, she has no reason to murder Harlan. And as his nurse, he was completely at her mercy. The family’s relationship with Marta is also one of the more fascinating through-lines of the film, ranging from granddaughter Meg (Katherine Langford) who seemingly treats her as a close friend, to son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) who pulls her into an aggressive conversation about immigration and uses her as a prop/example of someone who “came here the right way” before thoughtlessly handing her his snack plate to take away (she is the nurse, not the housekeeper). Don is one of several members of the family who bungles Marta’s country of origin (which apparently could’ve been anywhere in South or Central America), and they each tell her privately that each of them wanted her at the funeral, but each of them separately “was outvoted”.

When we reviewed Knives Out alongside Parasite, I wasn’t expecting them to be quite so perfect a thematic pairing, but through very different genre lenses, both films are telling a tale about class distinctions, and while Parasite certainly plumbed greater depths, Knives Out was an unrelenting and clever delight.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #158 – “Knives Out” (dir. Rian Johnson), “Parasite” (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

#5: Marriage Story

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach

The first compliment I have for this film is that I found it relatively evenhanded as a seemingly confessional work of art by writer/director Noah Baumbach, on the subject of his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. That is not knowledge you really need going in, but I’d be lying if I said that my presumption of the authenticity of certain moments was not a factor in the film’s appeal for me. Baumbach is known for writing with emotional intelligence, and at no point does it feel like he’s either putting husband Charlie (Adam Driver) or wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) on either a pedestal or a penalty box. There is no clear villain (although both commit unforgivable acts), or any clearly aggrieved party (despite both feeling convincingly like they’re on the right side of the issue). And yet this is no clean break either, because these two ultimately go to war with each other over the custody and residency of their three-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson), who tries in the foolish and desperate manner of a child to manage both of his parents as his entire world falls apart. Which leads to the second compliment I have for this film: there were moments that I found so profoundly upsetting that I had to pause it for a moment and collect myself, and they mostly had to do with Henry. The tragedy of this family separation is centered around the child, as is the core conflict at the heart of the divorce: whether the bifurcated family will be based in New York, where they’ve lived for the past decade, or Los Angeles, where Nicole’s family and career are located. And it is to the film’s credit that it never takes a firm position on who is right here. It’s just a whole lot of wrong. It’s a pair of lawyers, played with eerie cordiality layered with ruthless cynicism by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, whose job is to take every moment, every interaction during this marriage between two people who loved each other, and twist it to maximally benefit their client and harm their opponent. Driver and Johansson fully immerse themselves in the psychology of these characters, as the couple gradually feels out their new identities as adversaries, and gradually loses the ability to compartmentalize. They have a cheerful chat about the mechanics of their divorce. Nicole gives Charlie a haircut, as she often did for the family before they split up. And then they scream and shout and Nicole accidentally calls Charlie “honey” multiple times and curses herself for it. This scene floated around in isolation on Film Twitter with dismissive non-viewers of the film, derisively describing it as a fixture of Acting 101. And how dare they? Just because a film’s emotional climax is the expected fodder of acting students doesn’t mean that the authentic scene was ever amateurish or meant to be viewed in isolation. There are multiple moments in this film in which the dam breaks and each of these characters is forced to confront the horrible reality, the wasted life, the permanently damaged relationship with their child that they are each trying desperately to preserve. And the tragedy of this family’s collapse is fully on display as their dissolution takes on the character of a political campaign, with tiny, quiet moments between the couple and their son dragged out into court to be twisted into preposterous and devastating indictments of their character. Because as lawyer Nora (Dern) correctly notes, we can accept an imperfect father, but never an imperfect mother. She invokes the Virgin Mary, and it is solidly one of the best quasi-religious blowhard rants since Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate. And yet, as Charlie talks to his “own asshole” lawyer Jay (Liotta), the latter tells him over his incredulous protests that he needs to prepare himself for the fact that Nicole is going to portray him as a neglectful, absent father. And he can’t believe it until it happens.

The film begins with each of the two monologuing about why and how much they love each other, over a montage of their life together. While this is revealed to be an exercise in a mediated separation (which ultimately neither ends up reading aloud to the other), it is still a crucial piece of tablesetting. One of the sublime delights of a functional marriage – and the object of constant pursuit and maintenance – is a presumption of good faith and common purpose between two people. These monologues – each beautifully performed by Driver and Johansson – not only establish the positive details of the relationship that will be twisted later on, but they show and tell the viewer exactly what the starting point was for this marriage: why this pair worked in the first place. It’s easy for people to judge divorcés (I may have come very close to this above), and I suspect a good deal of that judgment is borne out of insecurity in their own relationships. Some divorces come about for obvious and defensible reasons. Abuse. Infidelity. The rest…are just breakups – with property as leverage and children as collateral damage. It’s a split that no relationship is immune from, and anyone looking to maintain their own family would be wise to consider such a well-rendered portrait of family tragedy and attempt to feel compassion for everyone involved. And whether you regard the film as a cathartic exercise by Baumbach, or merely as an effective work of dramatic fiction, the film’s compassion for its characters shines throughout its runtime.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #159 – “1917” (dir. Sam Mendes), “Marriage Story” (dir. Noah Baumbach)

#4: The Farewell

Written and directed by Lulu Wang (in her debut feature), based on her story on “This American Life”

Had I seen it during its release year, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation would have easily landed in my Top 10, as thoughtful familial tales of moral complexity are my catnip. And Lulu Wang‘s semi-autobiographical film The Farewell was an easy choice for the same reason, even if it was a difficult watch. The moral question at the heart of the film is whether or not a family of Chinese and Chinese-Americans should tell their beloved grandmother the truth about the Stage 4 lung cancer that will surely take her life within a few months. Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is in her 80s, speaks no English, and lives in China, and when her adult granddaughter Billi (Akwafina) learns of her prognosis, her parents have already decided that they’ll be returning to China (under the auspices of attending a cousin’s wedding) to see her one last time, and the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai at all. We are first acquainted with Billi’s love for her grandmother during a sidewalk walk-and-talk phone call, and it’s clear that the news will devastate her. And yet her parents – who accept this – do not want her to accompany them to China to say goodbye, because they don’t believe she can control her emotions, and she’ll give away the lie. Like any respectable protagonist, Billi ignores them and flies to China anyway.

The conflict at play in this film is fascinating and multilayered. It’s about being a child of two continents and cultures. It’s about being regarded as the baby of the family even when you’re a grown-ass adult who can make her own decisions. It’s about life and death and the limitations of ethical absolutism. It’s about childhood nostalgia and longing for the comforts of hearth and home and family, even after they’ve changed, moved on, and disappeared forever.

In one of several scenes that make clever use of the language gap, Billi has a candid conversation in English with Nai Nai’s UK-educated oncologist, while the exclusively Chinese-speaking Nai Nai and her bilingual parents look on. The doctor tells her plainly that he told the same lie to his own grandmother, and that most families in China would make the same choice not to tell a terminally ill elder until the very end. Later, in the waiting room, Billi and her parents discuss (in English) that such a lie would be not only considered elder abuse in the United States, but it would be illegal. And still, they’re not sure what’s right. And it is to the film’s credit that certainty on this point never comes, even if events conspire to force Billi to decide if she will take an active role in the deception or not.

At its heart, The Farewell is a loving tribute. It’s a funeral in advance, in which Nai Nai’s most beloved family and friends all conspire to…appear at her side and tell her how much she means to them. And Awkwafina carries the emotional weight of the film, even as Zhao gets to affectionately play Nai Nai, a treasured elder who simply thinks her family has come to give her a bit of the honor and love that she richly deserves. And as the credits roll, I can’t say what’s right for this family. But I can say with certainty that these have been among the best days of Nai Nai’s life, and it’s hard to argue with that.

#3: Parasite


Directed by Bong Joon-ho, written by Bong and Han Jin-won

Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho):
“You know what plan never fails? No plan at all. If you make a plan, life never works out that way. Look around us. Did these people think, ‘Let’s spend the night in a gym’? But look now. Everyone’s sleeping on the floor, us included. That’s why people shouldn’t make plans. With no plan, nothing can go wrong. And if something spins out of control, it doesn’t matter. Whether you kill someone or betray your country. None of it fucking matters. Got it?”

Later, on our podcast review. 

Daniel (sarcastically):
“Yes, yes, you can’t fail if you don’t try.”

Glenn:
“Well, it’s also a bit of nihilism. It’s the idea that he has so little to lose, and that all of these structures, all of these institutions – morality, patriotism – are just there as a means of controlling the lower classes. This is as close as the movie comes to spelling out its ideology a second time, which is that: you’re not going to convince poor people to behave differently by appealing to their greater sense of morality, because if what they believe is that society is set up in a way that is fundamentally broken and not for them, that it’s for all those people up above them that live a life that they can barely even imagine, that any little piece that they end up scraping off for themselves is morally justifiable, because morality is irrelevant. It’s very ‘beyond good and evil’.”

There is a lot going on in this film, which is about the infiltration of a poor family, the Kims, into the household and lives of a rich family, the Parks. And it probably contained the densest allegory and social commentary that I’ve seen this year. What I love most about the film is the myriad interpretations I’ve heard for it, even within our own podcast. I saw it as a delicate, layered, and often shocking metaphor for inter and intra-class struggles. FilmWonk fan favorite Erika also saw it as a lens for the Korean experience, with an unfriendly neighbor to the north as a perhaps permanent underclass that surely must be in the hearts and minds of every Korean in the south. Daniel saw it as an overwrought and on-the-nose metaphor that wasn’t to his taste at all. And we had one of our best discussions of the year about it, and I’d encourage you to check it out below.

This film is a satisfying grift full of marvelous performances. It fooled me more than once as to its intentions and meaning, and it is certainly a film that I will be revisiting when I get the chance. Don’t miss it. Read the subtitles, laugh at the endless jokes, and enjoy yourself.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #158 – “Knives Out” (dir. Rian Johnson), “Parasite” (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

#2: American Factory

Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert

It is the rare documentary that so effectively answers a question that I didn’t even know was weighing on me: what is the future of work in a globalized and mechanized economy? American Factory is an informative cautionary tale about the years-long takeover, renovation, and reopening of an American factory facility by a Chinese automotive glass manufacturer, Fuyao Glass. The doc was filmed over the course of nearly three years by directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who worked with a team of American and Chinese filmmakers filming workers and executives from both countries with an absolutely stunning level of access. Most of the footage in this film was seemingly approved by Fuyao itself, which adds a metatextual layer of shock and horror as the audience is taken into the internal corporate deliberations behind various decisions that are made throughout the film, as well as the reaction from both sets of workers (and the extent to which they’re able to communicate this reaction to each other). For better or worse, this was seemingly the image of Fuyao that the company itself was comfortable communicating into the world, which makes the tragicomedy of the company’s flailing to integrate its Chinese management with its American factory workers that much more pronounced. This is as much a cautionary tale for CEOs as it is an organizational manual for workers, and for everyone involved, there are moments of striking cross-cultural humanity as most of the people actually forced to work alongside each other actually do try their best to make it work, even as they are often set up for failure. Throughout the film, one thought will ricochet around your head: there was no reason why this had to go as badly as it did.

Some of the film’s most compelling moments depicted Chinese executives explaining American culture to Chinese workers, and the reverse of the same for the Americans explaining the Chinese. It’s a mark of American cultural supremacy that I’m so unaccustomed to hearing my nation summed up in broad and stereotypical terms, but suffice to say, I found it impossible to look away from these moments. The observations ranged from positive (“America is a place to let your personality run free”) to neutral (“they don’t place a heavy importance on attire”) to oddly thoughtful (“they dislike abstraction and theory in their daily lives”) to downright condescending (“we are better than they are”). Executive Jeff Liu, a real piece of work as depicted in this film, has spent half of his life in the US and half in China. He spends a few sentences talking about what awesome shape he’s in for his age, then proceeds to compare the American workers (by way of a Chinese proverb) to donkeys, suggests that they’re overconfident due to being overshowered with praise as children, and says that we love being flattered to death. I experienced a bouquet of emotions while hearing this speech, including bemused acceptance of some of its banal criticisms, insofar as they lumped all Americans together rather than merely functioning as the usual generational clash about participation trophies between millennials and the boomers (who gave them participation trophies), with Gen-Xers like Liu ignored (as ever) in-between. But Liu was brought in after the American executives are fired, and this speech hangs over the film’s final act as Fuyao tries its utmost to bust up a burgeoning union effort happening under its nose. The pay is low – about a third of what the workers were making building American cars a decade earlier – the conditions are dangerous, and many of their concerns are not being adequately addressed. And as ever, there are both good and bad actors trying to make the situation better or worse.

Liu’s speech mirrors another moment that occurs in China, when an unnamed American manager is conversing with a Chinese supervisor at Fuyao HQ. They compare the working conditions, the time off, the wages, and the American manager muses that their most valuable tool to improve productivity back home would be duct tape over the workers’ mouths. The Chinese manager blinks and asks if they can really use that in America, and the American explains he was joking-but-also-serious, because his workers talk too much. We see the Chinese factory workers performing a well-rehearsed attendance chant before marching uniformly to work, and we learn that they only get one or two days off per month. It’s hard not to reflect while watching this that American labor conditions (hard won by American labor unions) such as weekends and 8-hour workdays do not exist globally, and they are part of the reason why lower-skilled factory labor jobs are being exported and automated out of existence by capital. And all of those people that will continue working…in-between all of the robots…will need to be able to find a way to understand each other, even if they’re literally speaking different languages.

Wong, a furnace engineer, comes to the US and develops an abiding friendship with Rob the American redneck while teaching him the auto glass trade. And this friendship is probably the most persistent ray of sunshine that the film has to offer, because Rob is not only grateful to Wong and the other Chinese workers for giving him a second chance at a respectable blue-collar trade, but he welcomes them, truly and completely, into his American family. Early on, Wong and several other Chinese workers come over for Thanksgiving dinner, and get the unprecedented chance to shoot American handguns and – for the truly brave ones – ride Rob’s Harley-Davidson. Wong, whose job will last at least two years as his family waits for him back in China, finds comfort in his friendship with Rob even as the relationship between their respective teams grows sour. That’s the hope this film has to offer: that when it comes down to it, people who make an effort to get along generally do. And even as it presents a grim statistic over the end credits that an estimated 375 million people will need to find new jobs due to automation and globalization by 2050, perhaps there’s hope that this can happen, if only the people involved can avoid indulging their resentment at forces that are out of their control, and simply accept that all of us – the vast, extended family of humanity – are in this together.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #154 – “The Peanut Butter Falcon” (dir. Tyler Nilson, Mike Schwartz), “American Factory” (dir. Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert)

#1: Rocketman

Directed by Dexter Fletcher, written by Lee Hall

I was on vacation with my two small kids (hardly a vacation at all, if I’m being honest). As a Father’s Day treat, my wife allowed me to bugger off for the evening, and I drove our rented minivan 11 miles to a seaside second-run theater to see the only film I was remotely interested in, Rocketman. It was after 9PM, and I was exhausted and skeptical that the musical biopic genre had anything new to say to me after both the laughable accolades heaped upon Bohemian Rhapsody and the decade-old evisceration of the genre accomplished in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. We all know these beats already. He’s a misbegotten and unloved oddball of a child with a mysterious musical gift! He gets his shot. Then he composes a few of our favorite songs in real time, and becomes world-famous. Then he develops a drug habit and sex addiction and hits rock bottom, but overcomes these things in montage form and is now – in the world in which he’s the executive producer of this film – basically okay and beloved by all.

Even as I describe these beats and consider how well they apply to Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman, they are a welcome reminder that a film can be formulaic and still excellent. The film starts with Elton John (Taron Egerton) exiting the stage in a full-body glittery devil costume and marching directly into rehab. After a litany of his various addictions, he’s asked about his childhood, and his childhood self, Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) appears in the share circle and begins singing “The Bitch is Back”. Elton gets increasingly agitated and finally chases his younger self out of the room before they emerge as the only full-color participants in a black-and-white flashback that becomes a fully choreographed dance number as a suburban block party. And the whole movie is like this. Beat after fantastical beat that – as I describe them – sound like they would be downright hokey if they weren’t executed so flawlessly. The stellar costume work by Julian Day and the song arrangements (from music director Giles Martin) bring it all together, with the songs often cleverly reworked into a conversation between two characters, or with lyrics tweaked ever so slightly to give the song a new connotation. Whether it’s “Honky Cat” as an extravagant romantic interlude (with Egerton and Richard Madden exchanging duet vocals while wearing kimonos), or “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” as a conversation between Egerton and Celinde Schoenmaker about Elton’s sham marriage to his friend Renate, or the stunning showstopper “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, as a parting of the ways between Elton and his longtime friend and songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), this is not only a clever exhibition and jukebox musical, but it is fundamentally a transformative work. This film didn’t make me want to listen to Elton John’s music per se (although I have done that) – it made me want to listen to the film’s soundtrack on repeat. And I have done exactly that, over and over again since I saw it. And I don’t just enjoy it for the clever arrangements and plot beats… Egerton’s vocals are uniformly outstanding. Of all the films I saw this year, this is the one I have rewatched the most times, and the one I expect I’ll keep watching the most for years to come. In a year of challenging films I’ll probably never see again, it’s an easy pick for #1.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #156 – “Joker” (dir. Todd Phillips), “Rocketman” (dir. Dexter Fletcher)

Near Misses

Films that would have made my Top 10, had I seen them before December 31. Check out our podcast (coming soon)!
One was more or less an antidote for the other, and they are both outstanding.

  • Uncut Gems (directed by Josh and Benny Safdie)
  • Little Women (directed by Greta Gerwig)

Honorable Mentions:

  • Prospect (directed by Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell)
  • 1917 (directed by Sam Mendes) (podcast)
  • John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (directed by Chad Stahelski)
  • Jojo Rabbit (directed by Taika Waititi)
  • Hustlers (directed by Lorene Scafaria)
  • Us (directed by Jordan Peele)
  • Avengers: Endgame (directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)
  • High Flying Bird (directed by Steven Soderbergh)
  • Little Woods (directed by Nia DaCosta) (podcast)
  • Ad Astra (directed by James Gray)
  • My Name is Dolemite (directed by Craig Brewer) (podcast)
  • The Wandering Earth (directed by Frant Gwo)
  • El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (directed by Vince Gilligan)
  • Triple Frontier (directed by J.C. Chandor) (podcast)
  • Toy Story 4 (directed by Josh Cooley)
  • Putin’s Witnesses (directed by Vitaliy Manskiy) (podcast)
  • Giant Little Ones (directed by Keith Behrman)