Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

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

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

Still from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

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

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

Still from "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs"

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

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

Still from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

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

“…when it rains, you put on a coat.”

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Still from "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs"

“This was not well thought out.”

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

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David Twohy’s “A Perfect Getaway” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

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

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

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

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

―12! Thousand?

“No, 12. 12 troops.”

―”Oh, come on, you’re shitting me?”

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

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

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

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

Still from "In the Loop"

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

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

Still from "In the Loop"


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

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

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

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

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

Still from "In the Loop"

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

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "The Brothers Bloom"

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

“As far as con man stories go, I think I’ve heard them all.
Of grifters, ropers, faro fixers, tales drawn long and tall.
But if one bears a bookmark in the confidence man’s tome,
twould be that of Penelope, and of the Brothers Bloom.”

-Narrator (Ricky Jay)

I won’t call Rian Johnson too clever (apparently he hated it in ’09), but writing the first six minutes of your film as a Little Rascals confidence game as rendered by Wes Anderson, in rhyming iambic heptameter, is definitely a conscious choice to show off your sense of style. But I expected nothing less from the director of Brick, which takes place at a modern American high school, but is a hard-boiled film noir detective story, complete with all the 1940s period dialogue, see? I don’t mind saying, Johnson is clever – and I’ve been rather pleased to see him try his hand at another genre in the intervening years – but his first two films certainly forced the audience to make an early choice about their willingness to suspend disbelief with respect to his out-of-this-world characters, who tell as much as they show, using words that nobody on this planet still uses, plucked from multiple decades of 20th-century fiction and slotted into the present day.

And the Brothers Bloom – Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrian Brody) – are confidence men posing as antique dealers who travel by fucking steamship to The Continent (even after the movie amusingly reveals that airplanes exist in this world). The two are definitely from a bygone era, and they wear a multitude of hats – and I mean that in every sense of the phrase. We see Stephen craft his first con when the pair are orphan brothers of 10 and 13, flitting from one foster family to another before inexorably getting kicked out for bad behavior. This is a pattern that would repeat for the rest of their lives, including with their criminal mentor, the villainous Russian mobster known only as Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell, in his final role), sporting an eyepatch from their last violent farewell. But – back to that first con. Even as a newly minted teenager, young Stephen (Max Records) is a firm believer that all the world’s a stage, and his brother Bloom (Zachary Gordon) is his star. He storyboards his first con – an elaborate scheme to get all of the town’s middle-class kids to muddy up their Sunday-best in order to collect kickbacks from the town dry cleaner – as cover to allow Bloom to talk to a girl he likes. Really, that’s it. He presents the con as an act of kindness, and would go on to say repeatedly that the perfect con is where, “each one involved gets just the thing they wanted”. This even includes the mark, who gets a thrill or an adventure or a whirlwind romance (or the chance to think they’ve murdered someone in a rage, then flee?) in exchange for a sum of stolen cash that, frankly, they can usually afford to lose.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

Stephen is the closest thing to a Mary Sue that I’ve ever seen in fiction. This is not a term I use lightly in 2019, and it has a fairly muddled meaning (my only prior use of it fell somewhere between tokenism and stunt-casting). The term has deservedly fallen out of favor in the past decade, mostly used in bad faith by misogynists who can’t fathom the likes of Rey or Arya Stark kicking well-earned ass with skills that whose provenance was thoroughly demonstrated on-screen. As I retire my use of the term here, let me be clear what I mean by it: Stephen is an authorial, self-insert, wish-fulfillment character. The idea that Stephen’s authorship of Bloom’s existence is so thorough as to prevent his brother from experiencing an authentic moment in his life is not only a diabolical fiction; it beggars belief. And it works, because these actors fully commit to this reality with a heaping spoonful of self-awareness. What Ruffalo is delivering…is Rian Johnson with godlike powers. This is not even the only self-insert screenwriter character I’ve seen (Charlie Kaufman and Martin McDonagh are both prior culprits), but at a certain point, you’ve just gotta call Dante what he is as he winks at the reader and descends into the Inferno.

Stephen is the in-universe author of this film, deciding on the fly how best to serve his characters, which include family like Bloom, marks, like the rich, quirky, shut-in, dilettante, epileptic photographer Penelope (Rachel Weisz), and friends like the mute explosives expert Bang-Bang (Rinko Kikuchi). These are caper characters. Bang-Bang, who is literally mute and appeared out of nowhere, is essentially a plot device, even if Kikuchi delivers yet another amusing (silent) performance. But these caperists know exactly what they are, even if Bloom is suddenly the only one bothered by it. Because Stephen writes Bloom’s life, his brother plays the role of the shill, or the honeypot, in the structure of a confidence game. He ropes in the marks, which almost invariably include a beautiful woman – and we have to accept Brody’s well-acted assurance that today, he’s 35 years old, he’s been living a false life for twenty-plus years, and he’s decided he can’t wake up next to another stranger that thinks they know him. So he’s out. Both a decade ago and now, I was on board for this. It’s exciting, isn’t it? Because it’s supposed to be. Johnson-as-Stephen wrote Bloom as the vulnerable antihero so that we’d internalize his laudable reluctance to perform one last job (which Stephen waits three whole months before inviting him back for), and while I’m not totally convinced that it was necessary to have a character explicitly point this out on-screen, it does require Brody to be the acting MVP of this film. Even if he has ample competition.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

Weisz had to sell Penelope’s bored, rich hobbyist ways by learning a multitude of skills, including playing a bunch of musical instruments, karate-chopping, backflipping, DJing, ping-ponging, juggling (I think the chainsaws were CGI), and riding a giraffe unicycle. But while that’s impressive, it’s not exactly acting. It’s an exhibition of parlor tricks, however impressive they may be after only a few weeks for the actor to train. But acting, Weisz’s primary hustle, is what happens on a train to Prague. Penelope has joined the brothers for a con to smuggle a stolen 8th century prayer book allegedly worth millions. As with all of her hobbies, Penelope is excited to try this one, and she’s leaning hard into the sleeper-car fantasy of it all. That’s to say, she schmoozes with Bloom, nurses her 9th mini-bottle of an unspecified liquor, before drunkenly (and graphically) describing him as “constipated…in [his] fucking soul”. She also admits that she knows she’s only pretending to be a smuggler. Then she ruminates on acting a bit and climbs to the end of the bed, telling Bloom that his problem is that he’s got to stop thinking so much and live his truth. Then a thunderstorm erupts outside, and she proceeds to fuck the train, after a fashion, before announcing (completely unnecessarily) that she’s horny. This really must be seen to be believed, because in a movie full of deliberately overwritten scenes, this is a movie character getting shitfaced and telling her castmate that she knows all of this may be fiction, but they’re on a train for a leisurely crime, and the best thing he can do is enjoy the ride. And then she writhes orgasmically to cement the point. For a moment, she’s a creature of pure id who’s shamelessly breaking the fourth wall, and rather than feeling manic or pixie or like any sort of a dream girl about it, the moment feels completely genuine. Ugly and sloppy and ridiculous, but real. And it scares the shit out of Bloom, who immediately bids her goodnight and flees the car. Penelope was right about him. Soul full of grumpy poop, that one.

I suppose this is where I’m meant to ruminate on how The Brothers Bloom has changed for me over the past decade, but if I’m being honest, despite paying thirty bucks for a Canadian import Blu-ray so I could see the film a bit earlier (since it never came to Seattle for a theatrical release), this is only the second time I can recall watching it. But it delighted me today, as it did a decade ago. Its production design is stellar, with both costuming and locales (for which the movie really flitted around Eastern Europe) giving the movie a real jet-setting (train-setting?) international flair without looking like it cost all that much to make. Nathan Johnson‘s score, with his group The Cinematic Underground, is a sheer delight – at times sweet and sentimental, at times an epic, jazzy romp on an outdoor bar stage, and features creativity and breadth of style and instruments that are rarely seen. This was only Johnson’s second film score (his first being Brick), and I’m pleased to see he’s continued making music in the intervening years, even if that includes only a handful of film scores.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

But as I sat on my couch sipping merlot and playing out the part of the film wonk revisiting a movie for the hell of it, I know in my heart this movie is as much of a narrative mess as lesser fare that I’ve dismissed over the years, like Matchstick Men or Bandits or…yes, I’ll admit it, The Sting. It’s perhaps a lesser grift than the 2003 James Foley film, Confidence, the best of the genre that I can recall, but that film seemed far more concerned with its grifting technique than in crafting characters I should care too much about. It also featured Weisz in a dubious and lightly misogynistic role that was frankly beneath her, so it’s hard not to see Bloom as an improvement for her participation in the genre. As a 30-something revisiting the film now, I find I can relate much more to Bloom’s struggle to find his identity and be comfortable in his own skin. By this point in life, you’re meant be able to live with who you are and your place in the world – and if you can’t, that’s a serious problem for both your life and mental health. Seeing this a decade ago, I just kinda rolled with the film’s premise. Seeing it now, I empathized a great deal with Bloom’s struggle, even if I was making an even more conscious choice than before to suspend my disbelief about his lifestyle. Penelope presents another lens through which to view this struggle, because she’s a creature of privilege who can afford to flit from one identity to another at will, never feeling a sunk cost of money or time (the latter being the most precious and limited resource). The film seems content to mock her a bit for this, twice featuring a spiral notebook in which she’s scribbling “Penelope the Smuggler” and “Penelope the Con Artist” like a 12-year-old. But is Penelope really the immature one? What this character says over and over again is that she writes her own story – that she tells it to herself over and over again until it becomes true. But she prefaces this by saying that the trick to not feeling cheated is to learn how to cheat. I found this provocative because I now believe it’s easy to feel cheated as you learn more and more how the world works, even as there’s almost certainly someone else would look at your life and wonder what you have to complain about. And perhaps that’s why we root for con artists and antiheroes. Anyone who breaks the rules to peel off a fragment of wealth from the handful of robber barons who hoard most of it…is worth rooting for. Even if they tend to end up dead or in prison in real life. But I knew all of this already – or at least “knew it” in the sense of banal cynicism. The emotional core of this film is still fundamentally about becoming comfortable with your identity and your place in the world, and however my worldview may have changed in the intervening years, there’s a lot I can connect with here.

I also recognize that it’s difficult to get the tone just right in the con game. The saving grace of The Brothers Bloom is its commitment to maintaining about a 3:1 ratio of romantic whimsy to self-seriousness at all times – even to the point of letting Penelope walk out of a Czech police station with the stolen prayer book in hand, with the script literally scoffing on-screen at the idea of ever explaining how she did it. My guess is that a substantial bribe was involved. The film’s caprice runs a very real risk of making me dismiss it as a silly trifle, but that’s not how I felt while watching it, and more or less how I feel watching James Bond, so really, who cares? I’m happy to let the movie be what it is, which is a flight of fancy from a bygone era, filled with fourth-wall breaking characters who literally know better than to be doing all of this. And capers do happen in real life. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and a billionaire Coke heir were just busted with a plane full of Business Weed in St. Kitts this past week! Capers are just…marginally more likely if you don’t have work in the morning. Or if you can commit to your new life of crime by blowing up your existing one.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

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

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

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

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

“I think shit just happens.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then…

several…

more…

things…

happen.

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

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

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

2018 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2018)

#11: They Shall Not Grow Old


Directed by Peter Jackson

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

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

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

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

#10: Tully


Directed by Jason Reitman, written by Diablo Cody

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

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

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


Written and directed by Yang Ya-che

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

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

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

#8: BlacKkKlansman


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

#6: Leave No Trace


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

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

#5: Eighth Grade


Written and directed by Bo Burnham

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

#4: Mission: Impossible – Fallout


Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie

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

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

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

#3: Bodied


Directed by Joseph Kahn, written by Alex Larsen

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

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

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

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

#2: Sorry to Bother You


Written and directed by Boots Riley

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

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

#1: The Favourite


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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions:

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