2019 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2019)

#11: High Life


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

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

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

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

Written and directed by Radu Jude

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

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

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

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

#9: Portrait of a Lady on Fire


Written and directed by Céline Sciamma

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

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

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

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

#8: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#7: Alice


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#6: Knives Out


Written and directed by Rian Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

#5: Marriage Story

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach

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

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

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

#4: The Farewell

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

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

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

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

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

#3: Parasite


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

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

Later, on our podcast review. 

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

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

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

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

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

#2: American Factory

Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert

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

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

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

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

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

#1: Rocketman

Directed by Dexter Fletcher, written by Lee Hall

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

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

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

Near Misses

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

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

Honorable Mentions:

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

James Cameron's "Avatar" (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Avatar"

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.

“They’re not gonna give up their home. They’re not gonna make a deal. For light beer? And blue jeans? There’s nothing that we have that they want. Everything they sent me out here to do is a waste of time. They’re never gonna leave Hometree.”

Still from James Cameron's "Avatar".

How far have we come since Avatar? In 2009 I marked it as one of my Top 10 of the year (in the coveted #11 spot), largely for its expansive and imaginative sci-fi world (and allegory bordering on contrivance of Native American conquest, betrayal, land usurpation, and violence), even as I wondered then whether the film deserved to rest in the “ineffectual self-hating bin of white guilt”. I find this framing a bit embarrassing in retrospect. I think at the time I sought to diminish white filmmakers for trying to tell these stories (an opinion I’ve occasionally persisted in, criticizing Baz Luhrmann’s take on Australia’s mistreatment and state-sponsored kidnapping of Aboriginal children), but my prescribed remedy at this point is generally, “Let those people tell their own stories.” In other words, white filmmakers don’t necessarily have to stay in their lane, but we should really try to expand the pool of voices, and let marginalized peoples speak for themselves. If I’m being honest about who I was in 2009, I wasn’t chiding James Cameron for telling this story instead of someone else. I was chiding him for telling this story – of injustices that I believed to be abstract relics of a distant frontier past – at all. I was wrong. I also falsely implied that I’d seen Fern Gully. I still haven’t. Sorry not sorry.

There has been a rather instructive event in the intervening years: The Dakota Access Pipeline protests. This oil pipeline was originally set to cross the Missouri River in a location near to the North Dakota capital city of Bismarck, a city that is 92.5% white. For a variety of reasons, including that it threatened the city’s water supply, the US Army Corps of Engineers decided that this location was not ideal. Imagine the surprise of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe when another river crossing was selected, at a location just outside their reservation, and potentially threatening their water supply, Lake Oahe, instead. Protestors moved in, and private security (working for the pipeline company and colluding with local authorities) used brutal and inhumane tactics to force them out of the way, including hosing them down with water amid freezing overnight temperatures (which is, just to be clear, attempted murder). There were 300+ injuries and nearly 500 arrests, and some of their cases (for peaceful protest that was met with a brutal response) have resulted in multiple state and federal prison sentences, some of which are still being served.

Were the protestors right to oppose this pipeline? I have a few political responses, none of them simple or easy, some relating to the tension between fighting climate change and the entirely fossil-fuel-infused status quo. But my most honest answer is that I don’t know. The Standing Rock Sioux were certainly correct to assert a moral and economic interest in protecting their land and water, and assert they did, with resistance ranging from planned arrests and civil disobedience to lawsuits in federal court. What’s more, being the economic and political underdogs in that fight does not make them wrong by default, even if that’s often how they were treated in the national press (when it deigned to cover these events at all). It is instructive to note that Lake Oahe itself was also the site of a forced relocation a half-century earlier, with 200,000 acres of two separate reservations – including most of the arable land that they used for agriculture – submerged under water. You can jump around to other parts of the United States and find similar examples, in which Indian rights are considered to be subordinate by default to those of the United States, and this is reflected at every level of the planning, permitting, and decision-making process. At worst, the poverty and related social problems that followed these acts of economic suppression were treated as a geographic or racial deficiency, which was then used as a post-hoc justification for continued mistreatment (see: “shithole countries”). Like Jim Crow before (and concurrent with) it, it’s a longstanding example of institutionalized white supremacy. So it’s fair to say that my attitude going into this film now is a baseline assumption that the rights and land use claims of Indigenous peoples have not been historically respected since the founding of this country, and for them to exercise their moral right to say, “This far, no farther,” is an act that inspires presumptive sympathy from me even before evaluating the individual merits of the case.

Still from "Avatar"

I didn’t know much of this in 2009, and Avatar deliberately presents a case with maximum moral simplicity, in which humans are alien invaders strip-mining a forest moon for Unobtanium, a floating mineral of high, unspecified economic value that feels like a stand-in term that Cameron never bothered to Find/Replace. The richest deposit of the mineral sits directly under Hometree, where the Omaticaya tribe of the Na’vi lives. Rather than pondering for 30 seconds that there might perhaps be a causal link between the mineral and the impossibly tall trees that might be worth exploring, Administrator Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) says with almost comical callousness that while killing the indigenous “looks bad”, what shareholders hate more than bad press is a bad quarterly statement, and notes, like anyone performing the banality of evil, that he doesn’t “make the rules”. By design, this film presents zero ambiguity about the merits of this case. We’re wrong, and the Na’vi are correct to oppose us, and they don’t even need a reason beyond, “Fuck you, it’s ours,” which is self-evidently the same justification we would use. This film is a reverse-Independence Day. And it’s tempting to evaluate it on this basis, because both films end with a big-ass battle that is an entertaining spectacle to behold, even if it extracts a heavy butcher’s bill.

By the film’s end, we hear former Marine grunt Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in his Na’vi avatar telling the planetary network/deity, Eywa, that the Sky People (humans) come from a planet that has no green left – that they “killed their mother”. Eywa is a conceptual stand-in for Gaia, creating both a deity and afterlife whose existence on Pandora is an unassailable fact, as well as a literal planetary organism, with everything from the plants to the Na’vi to their various land-based and flying mounts acting as a planetary immune system to purge the human infection that has moved in. I called this concept “a savage and gorgeous Eden” in my original review, and yet I still somewhat castigated Jake for choosing to betray humanity in the end, even if they’d done plenty to deserve it. I’d say I’m far less sentimental about my rapacious species now (even though I’ve had kids in the meantime – go figure). This version of humanity, a hundred years hence, has destroyed its lush home planet and is now fixing to do the same thing to Pandora? To hell with us. Jake – whose brother was murdered in a robbery of petty cash, and whose spine was ripped apart in a war with Venezuela by a government that had the technology but not the economic will to allow him to ever walk again – owes us nothing. Betrayal may be the correct word for it, but Jake is well rid of us and quite fortunate to be getting a pristine ten-foot-tall space cat body to galavant around in. This isn’t Eden for Jake. It’s Heaven: a new and better life than the one that he has known.

When Omaticaya crown priestess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Avatar-Jake blundering around the forest and killing animals to survive, she minces no words in calling him an ignorant baby who doesn’t know how to do anything. Much of his later proficiency in all things Na’vi is explained in a series of bog-standard (albeit gorgeous) training montages. But it’s fair to say this film rightfully attracts some criticism (both racialized and not) about its white everyman protagonist showing up on this planet and this tribe and immediately becoming their Chosen One who’s better at everything than they are. Toruk Makto – a mantle Jake assumes by sky-raping a Leonopteryx – might be the best flyer, but his most absurd acquired skill is performing oratory, a skill whose execution the film wisely presents in montage form, with Jake and Neytiri bounding around Pandora to recruit every tribe to the cause, with only the odd snippeted cliché (“AND YOUR CHILDREN’S CHILDREN”) making it onto the audio track. How silly is this? We’ve spent the entire film learning that the Na’vi generally and the Omaticaya specifically value different things than the Sky People. There is no carrot that would convince them to leave Hometree, which is why the humans decide to use the military stick. The idea that Jake could give an inspiring speech to the Na’vi on no greater basis than abandoning the human hand he was dealt is absurd on its face. As the axiom goes – if a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand it. The idea that Jake, even through a translator, could somehow appeal to the values of the Na’vi – wholly inhuman values that he barely understands himself – is the most condescending component of this character. It’s entirely possible that the tribes might band together to defend their planet. But I’d rather the convincing had been left to Neytiri herself, or perhaps the new Omaticaya chief Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso) could take a crack at it during his doomed tenure.

Avatar remains a visual feast, presenting a look, feel, and blockbuster spectacle that looks like it could easily have come out in 2019. If I imagine that it would have less of an impact today, that’s only because I recognize both the monopolistic consolidation of the cinema box office, as well as the influence that Avatar had on other blockbusters, including those of the new franchise owner, the Walt Disney Company. Even before they made the purchase, the lush jungle moon of Pandora became a land you can visit at the House of Mouse. And after a slow burn decade of production at 21st Century Fox (just like the first film), Disney immediately announced a 2021 release date for Avatar 2, and for the first time, I’m starting to think it may actually happen. Who knows, perhaps between the decade Cameron has had to advance his craft, and a new marketing juggernaut behind him, he can pull off a hat trick of multi-billion-dollar all-time box office winners. But it hardly matters to me whether the next film succeeds as long as I get to see it. If nothing else, watching this film again reminded me that James Cameron, a slightly problematic and old-school futurist – has yet to have a miss with me. And perhaps in a post-Cats world, all we need is a bit less fur, a bit more blue, and whatever else he comes up with.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

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.

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