[CW: This episode contains discussion of sexual violence.]
On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel (with special guest Erika Spoden) are a bit more playful than usual. That’s to say, we’re reviewing a play – specifically, the National Theatre of Great Britain’s 2011 performance of Frankenstein, adapted for the stage by Nick Dear, and directed by Danny Boyle, as recently made available on YouTube for free (you can donate to NT here!), and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature (as there were two cast versions available!). Then we venture down to Guatemala for a revenge thriller from the SXSW collection on Amazon Prime, Gunpowder Heart from director Camila Urrutia. And finally, we check out a new tale of small-town corruption from HBO Films, Bad Education(01:33:30).
In 2020, SXSW was sadly and expectedly canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to a partnership with Amazon, much of the festival’s collection is available for a limited time on Prime Video, giving me a chance to indulge my longtime love of short film for the first time since 2016.
There are 29 in total, and I’ve included links and runtimes with each review. As with many of you, my life is currently chaos, but I do plan to review as many of these as possible (Update: As it turned out, this was all I had time for!), but I’ll offer my apologies in advance to those at the end of the alphabet.
Directed by Travis Wood Runtime: 4 min
This documentary makes two succinct points: The first is that Wood is a black director that you should definitely hire, because quickly achieving a tone that is equal parts comedic and dystopian is no small feat (and owes as much to both Wood’s slick editing as to Brendan Moriak‘s topsy-turvy score). The second is that digital creative companies in NYC and Los Angeles never run out of ways to describe the various dogs they have on their “Meet the Team” pages to sit between all of the mostly white people they hire. It’s bittersweet to watch this film during a pandemic-induced depression in which I can only assume Wood’s employment situation has gotten worse along with the rest of Hollywood, but his point about racial inequities in hiring is well-made nonetheless.
Written and directed by Shuchi Talati Runtime: 12 min
It’s always good to see awkward first-time sex used for storytelling. I’m not talking loss of virginity here (that’s a whole separate genre that’s rife with both quality storytelling and heightened nonsense), but to see a couple have sex for the first time with each other, but not for their own first time. It’s been said that stories should begin on an interesting day in the life of your characters, and first-time sex is, if nothing else, reliably interesting. To see such an act in cinema is not only to peer as an interloper into an intensely private moment, but to see two people indulging in an act that is ostensibly universal, but with which they might have very different experiences and expectations.
In her pre-roll intro, director Shuchi Talati spoke of a desire for inclusivity and universality in her storytelling – to showcase a pair of South Asian characters in a story about love and sex where, as she put it, “there isn’t an arranged marriage subplot lurking in the background”. As an editorial aside, while I’m not too annoyed that Amazon and SXSW chose to include these director intros before each short, I think I’ll be skipping the rest of them, as I’ve never had a film experience where it improved my enjoyment, and I’ve had at least a few where it had the opposite effect. And in this case, I think it’s fair to say that the work speaks for itself when it comes to a desire to showcase a mix of Indian and American sexual mores. These are clearly Indians, and also clearly Americans, and also clearly having sex that would be frowned upon by the more conservative parts of both societies. Fair enough.
Here we see a pair of Indian-American twentysomethings having an illicit afternoon rendezvous while dealing with the minor complication that Geetha (Sonal Aggarwal) is on her period, and Vehd (Nardeep Khurmi) accidentally gets some period blood on her couch while pulling out. Whoopsie! He’s also married to someone else, which adds a layer of subtext to their condom negotiation. Whoopsie! Unless I missed it, there’s not really any metaphor to speak of here. The blood is just a practical matter to deal with, and gives us a chance to learn a bit more about these characters both through how they navigate an intensely intimate moment, and how – as a practical matter – they deal with both the impediment and potential mood-killer at the heart of their sexual encounter. The mood-killer being – not the period blood as a rule, but the chance for either of them to ruin the mood by not quickly getting on the same page about it.
Written and directed by Chelsea Devantez Runtime: 3 min
This short is simple, twisted, and speaks to a place of profound insecurity and rage. So naturally, most of it is spent lying in bed in the dark scrolling through happier times on Instagram. I wouldn’t have thought a line like “I’m a pool THOT” could crack me up so much, but Devantez, who also stars in the film, pulls it off. Tara Trudel‘s score, the final track of which includes a lot of 90s grunge-metal screaming, makes a lot of this work as well.
Written and directed by Christine Turner Runtime: 9 min
Betye Saar says early in the film that she prefers to create art that doesn’t include a specific story, so that the viewer can invent their own. Then she proceeds to tell her own story, about how the art she produced, as well as the art produced by people who looked like her (both African-American and ancestral African art) was not regarded as art at all when she started her career. At Chicago’s Field Museum, it was kept in the basement, and as she put it, “It was weird down there.” On the surface, Saar’s own work is all over the place. It encompasses everything from collages of found objects to paintings and sculptures. Some of it is, as she puts it, just “stuff put together”. And there’s also an entire series that explores mysticism and the occult. She’s 93 years old – she’s had a bit of time to explore. And she speaks with a voice of experience that retains the vibrancy of a much younger woman. Not only is her work widely varied, but it still pops. An entire segment of the film is devoted to her series in the 1960s and 70s lampooning and remixing derogatory images of black people, which includes a vintage image of Aunt Jemima, taken directly from the older “mammy”-stereotype (often with exaggerated lips and features taken from minstrel shows with white performers in blackface), but…turned into a figure of battle with rifles and grenades, who is “taking care of business” (roll credits!). In an accompanying magazine caption from the 1970s, Saar even discusses turning an Aunt Jemima syrup bottle into a Molotov cocktail. Yikes.
“It’s been forever. Racism hasn’t gone away. Has sexism gone away? No. So you still have to keep repeating things,” Saar puts it simply. Compressing so many decades of artistic creation into a 9-minute short is no small feat, and Turner and editor Mengfan Yu do an admirable job of pulling it all into a coherent narrative of both the random craftiness of a figure who struggled to even view herself as anything but a junk collector until she received an NEA grant, and an experienced and admired artist whose voice and themes retain their relevance in a world that is often frustratingly static. Saar is a figure I’d simply love a chance to sit down and have a chat with, but I suspect she’d be too busy making stuff to bother with me.
Written and directed by Bridget Moloney Runtime: 12 min
I love my kids. They provide me with daily joy. They are also a laborious plague, and as I write this, my wife and I are home with them 100% of the time, just like you, perhaps! If A Period Piece strove for universality, this one took an accidental shortcut, because there’s nothing more universal than the struggle of raising small children during a pandemic, even if that wasn’t our reality when the film was made. As such, there was a ceiling to my enjoyment of this well-made film, which features a busy mother of two (Claire Coffee) vomiting up blocks. This metaphor gets literally strained as she rinses them and puts them back in the Various Bins, and her daughter dutifully informs her that the new blocks smell funny.
There’s a good lesson for me here about how to be a supportive husband and father and divide up the household labor and mental load and be on the same team amid a patriarchal economic system that makes it far more likely that women will bear the brunt of all of the above (a lesson that is literally read aloud to a child in the opening lines of the film, which is as pedantic as the film ever gets). I really do try to think about and practice this stuff as a parent, because I have a wonderful wife and co-parent who would accept nothing less, and it’s still a constant struggle. And honestly, at this moment, Blocks is a bitter and familiar fucking pill to swallow. And that is not the movie’s fault, but my recommendation is that you should feel free to watch if and only if you’re kid-free and on reliable birth control.
Written and directed by Rachel Harrison Gordon Runtime: 10 min
This short is not only a triumph of storytelling through production design (there are three credited set dressers, but no production designer, so I have to assume Gordon took the lead on that) – but it manages to convey a great deal of emotional subtext in a short space of time, and owes a lot of that to the fine details of its central trio of performances, particularly father and daughter. Birdie (Indigo Hubbard-Salk) is the black (mix-raced) daughter of an estranged or divorced couple – she lives with her mother Eileen (Mel House), who is white and Jewish, and has her studying the Torah as she approaches her bat mitzvah. We also see Birdie getting her full and naturally curly hair chemically relaxed and straightened, and it is left unspoken whether this was her idea or her mother’s – and honestly, watching the film, I could go either way on it. Then she goes to visit her father Andre (Chad L. Coleman). She wears a Star of David around her neck, and the way she handles it, it clearly means something special to her. Her dad is supportive, but clearly not religious himself. Then she tells him that she hates the Torah portion that her rabbi has picked for her to read, and doesn’t really want to go through with it. Then she invites him to attend anyway, and he agrees without hesitating. Then they go pick out a bootleg purse from a car trunk. These habits feel familiar and comfortable to both of them, just as Birdie looks comfortable in her room at home, listening to her dad’s old records and studying scripture.
This soon-to-be-teenager’s life and identity are messy, and questions of who she is and where she belongs are certain to be an ongoing project in her life. Every moment of this film is a simultaneous process of acceptance and dissection, with the fine details of one identity bleeding into another, and forging something new. It’s hard not to feel excited by it, because as painful as this process clearly is for Birdie, she has two parents who each love and support her in their own way, and she is clearly asserting herself as thoroughly as they are each shaping her identity. This film left me wanting more, and also feeling as if it has more to tell, and that’s all I ever want from a short film.
Nina Simone‘s live performance of an Israeli folk standard, “Eretz Zavat Chalav“, appears at the start of this film. I mention that in the hopes you’ll go check it out – it really is an outstanding performance, and it fits beautifully in this film.
A caption at the start informs us that over the course of a decade from 2007, the Philadelphia School District’s arts funding dropped from $1.3 million per year to $50,000 per year. As has been the case with many state and local budgets, arts funding was a budget line item that was deemed inessential and cut, never to be restored even as the economy recovered. I’m playing a broken record here by saying this, but I shudder to think of what the next ten years will look like for arts programs if we fail to learn the lessons of the last recession and our current quarantine, which is that the arts are absolutely critical to our continued existence.
But…you knew all of that, and that’s not really what this film is about. This film isn’t about what’s broken, but is rather a clever rendition of how it can be fixed. As a single camera wanders the hallways of a disused high school, the story of how Philly SD’s music program was resurrected, via a concert of broken instruments, is laid out by talking heads on a series of CRT television sets on AV carts appearing seemingly by magic, with some stop-motion floating instruments ticking into the center of the frame and vanishing in-between. The one-shot storytelling really is quite engaging, and while a couple of hidden cuts are evident, my overriding feeling watching this is that this film was as clever a logistical feat as the project that it showcases. We learn how 1,500 broken instruments were found in various storage locations, an entire orchestra of volunteer adult performers was brought in, and they put on a concert making whatever sounds they could manage. And it was a rip-roaring success, raising enough money in donations to get all of the instruments fixed and back in the hands of the young learners who needed them. It was an act of true grassroots community philanthropy, and the filmmaking that was used to tell this story is quite as admirable as the act itself.
A young man is interviewed in the middle of this film who says of Donald Trump, “All I can say is, may God bless him. And maybe someday he’ll regret what he has done.” This provoked a swell of deep pity from me.
This documentary is a real bummer, as it fucking should be. It focuses on a group of deportees in Tijuana, many of whom live in a squalid tent city, waiting to be scooped up for employment by either the cartels or the call centers who each only prize them for their English skills and economic desperation. One man, Roberto, was born in TJ and brought to the United States at age 6. He went to school, went to college, went to work for an airline, and eventually worked his way up to be an airport manager at LAX. One dalliance with recreational drugs later, he was deported. Later in the same year, his wife back in the United States left him. Another man with a similar story, who was only ever in Mexico as an infant, said it took him fully a decade to stop being depressed about losing his American life. He’s now been in TJ for 20 years. It’s home, but not really. And what’s unspoken among these veteran deportees is that not everyone makes it past that depression. Mauricio, a priest, addresses a congregation of deportees in his native language, English, as an interpreter echoes him in Spanish in real time. He cautions his flock against despair, against losing hope, against suicide. Even as he knows they’ve all been ripped away from their lives already. Because outside of material support (which the church also offers), what else can he provide besides a loving community and faith that he believes has the power to transcend borders, even if its recipients cannot?
Call Center Blues is a showcase of a group of people doing their best to survive a bad situation, and that bad situation is a result of being economically scapegoated and deported from the United States so that rich people can convince poor people that the real reason why they’re getting economically fucked is because of other poor people who were brought here against their will as children. Because the price of a minor run-in with the law is a life sentence of exile because of the accidental circumstances of their birth. These people are the abused detritus of a lie – a lie so powerful that it sweeps aside every other lie that has been told to them. The lie that if you work hard in school in the only country you’ve ever known, you’ll have a chance to succeed. The lie that if you serve your country in the military as it blunders across the world on another ill-advised resource conquest, you’ll be protected against deportation and have a path to American citizenship. And the most powerful lie of all: that deporting you will do anything whatsoever to help the people who voted for it to happen.
Because that’s the lie of Donald Trump and ICE. They were never protecting jobs and never preventing crime. And they were never going after the “Bad Hombres” – at least, no more than local law enforcement was turning over to them on a silver platter. Because it turns out deporting violent felons is pretty uncontroversial even among liberals, and also requires very little effort by the feds. And now, with the gloves off, they’re relentlessly and lazily deporting…the lowest hanging fruit. The one-time DUIs. The people in family court. The parents showing up to pick up their kids from school. The patients showing up at the hospital for an injury or illness. The workers reported by their employers after making a fuss about abuses in the workplace, whose ultimate fallback is to simply make the troublemaker disappear with a phone call, invoking the awesome and corrupt power of the state, and knowing they will face no penalty whatsoever for the legal violation of hiring that “troublemaker” in the first place.
That young man turning the other cheek at the start of the film is a wishful dreamer. And he’s also better than me. Because I know Donald Trump doesn’t do empathy or regret, and sleeps like a tiny-handed baby every night. And he’s already been blessed quite enough. Damn Donald Trump. Damn his enablers. And damn every other cynical plutocrat who thought that amplifying that inept, gilded shitcan was a useful path to lower corporate taxes and higher rent from the serfs. They all made this happen. Their propagandists and supporters made this happen. America’s raging decline and ouroboros of racist lies made this happen. And we dare not look away from its victims.
Directed by Casey Wilson Written by Wilson and Laura Kindred Runtime: 18 min
What a weird, honest, funny, and touching portrait of grief this is. One year on from the unexpected loss of their beloved wife and mother, Abby (Wilson) and her father Paul (Michael McKean) are…not doing well. Abby is in a deep depression and sleeping in the closet, and Paul seems to be an exceptionally manic version of himself. Chipper, upbeat, and getting a perm so he can look like President Andrew Jackson to commemorate (and spend) the $20 bill he found on the ground, he comes to Los Angeles to visit Abby, and a significant faux pas finally gives them the chance to have an honest conversation. This story is based on the loss of Wilson’s real mother Kathy, who died of a heart attack on vacation at 54, and the details of what ensues with her father…are apparently also based on true events. And what can I say about it? It just makes you want to give them both a great big hug. McKean is pitch-perfect in his role, and the personal and confessional nature of this tale is spelled out by Wilson’s own performance and soft directorial touch.
On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel head north of the border and into the quixotic dream of a crowdfunded mission to Mars with Shane Belcourt‘s Red Rover (which is available for streaming Tuesday, May 12), and then check out Master of None co-creator Alan Yang‘s fictionalized take on his parents’ immigrant story from Taiwan, with Tigertail, newly available on Netflix (49:30).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Tigertail): 6/10 (Glenn), 4/10 (Daniel) FilmWonk rating (Red Rover): 7 out of 10
[01:17] Review: Tigertail
[26:08] Review: Red Rover
[41:48] Spoilers: Red Rover
The language that is referred to in the Tigertail subtitles as Taiwanese [and it appears in brackets, while Mandarin Chinese appears without them] is also known as Taiwanese Hokkien, and while we picked up on a bit of the linguistic and political subtext in the film, the reality was obviously a bit more complex than could be conveyed in a film in which it was a minor detail.
On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel venture back in time with director Chris Roberti to a time when we could all gather aboard a cruise ship and secretly shoot a romantic comedy about time-traveling assassins, with Same Boat, which hits VOD on Tuesday 4/7. We also catch up with Birds of Prey, an impressive return to the brightest and most colorful parts of the DCEU after a wholelot of grimdark, and actor Ben Affleck‘s spotty attempt to do the same, with The Way Back(01:06:21).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Birds of Prey): 7/10 (Glenn), 5/10 (Daniel) FilmWonk rating (Same Boat): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 7/10 (Daniel) FilmWonk rating (The Way Back): 4 out of 10
[02:38] Review: Birds of Prey
[22:46] Review: Same Boat
[34:13] Spoilers: Same Boat
[47:04] Review: The Way Back
There is a super-quick spoiler section at the end of the episode for The Way Back. You’ll know it when it comes.
Music for this episode is a song that I’ve always maintained is about time-traveling assassins, plus a Barracuda.
We mentioned Mick LaSalle‘s scathing review of Birds of Prey from the San Francisco Chronicle – to varying degrees, we did not agree!
Stay tuned at the end for an audio artifact that occurred during a break in recording that sounded suspiciously like Daniel threatening to cut off Glenn’s face.
On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel venture back in time to before The Incident when were all still able to go outside, to see Florence Pugh‘s starmaking debut in the uneven Lady Macbeth. Then they check out what will probably be the first of many streaming selections, a seaside crime caper new this weekend on Amazon Prime, Blow the Man Down(57:36).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Blow the Man Down): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 5/10 (Daniel) FilmWonk rating (Lady Macbeth): 7 out of 10
This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth (or in this case, 20th) anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.
“I have thought a lot about that ‘somewhere,’ Alex. It exists, that place… where my dad is still safe. Where he had a full pack of cigarettes that night, and just kept driving. Where me and my mom and my dad are still together…and have no idea about this life here. Where our friends are still in the sky. Where everyone gets a second chance. Alex, we can’t give up.“
Clear Rivers (Ali Larter)
Horror fandom might be a young man’s game. As a seasoned cinemagoer, you certainly get wise to the tricks of the trade – the jump scares, the cheap thrills, the bone-crunching, fingernail-splitting gore, the (now-standard) shots of someone backing into a crosswalk without looking, etc. – but that’s not what I’m talking about, as it’s hardly the sum of horror anyway. I’m not going to disparage my younger self by suggesting that I care more about the horror of my friends and loved ones dying than I did when I was younger, but the idea of that actually occurring feels less like a vague future abstraction than ever before, and that was true even before we entered a global virus pandemic. At its best, the horror genre inspires relatable fear of things that people are reliably afraid of, but it also inspires existential dread, which is easier to come by when you have a better-developed sense of the world and your place in it. Equipped with a slightly more potent feeling of one’s own mortality and hubris, as your frontal lobes and sense of danger have had a chance to develop, the world gets a bit stranger, and you start to realize that death really is a sad and terrible and verbally taboo part of life that steals away people and experiences and memories that have had far longer to ruminate and develop in value. The potency of real-world dread intensifies, and you either decide that indulging in fake dread is no longer acceptable sport, or your threshold for experiencing it just keeps ticking higher and higher.
Fun fact: Like Alex Browning (Devon Sawa), I took a two-week class trip to France (and Spain) during my senior year of high school. Our flight number? 180, just like the plane that explodes at the start of this film. And you better believe I took great pleasure in telling everyone in the group about that, since dropping movie references and scaring people for no reason is also a young man’s game. But after Alex has a premonition of the group’s imminent demise, he promptly pitches a fit and gets himself and several others thrown off the plane. The plane leaves, and explodes – leading to an awesome (if slightly preposterous) shot and edit in which it explodes, still in view of the airport, then shatters the terminal window a split second later right as a watching character finishes saying “Oh shit!”. This is the first of many Rube Goldberg-esque death mechanics that this film creates, and it’s fair to say that they’re a recipe for chuckles, not existential dread. And in Final Destination, even the most grisly tableaus managed to deliver, as George Carlin might say, a couple of fuckin’ laughs.
Suffice to say, the railroad-induced decapitation of Billy Hitchcock (Seann William Scott) met these criteria, and the other characters – who genuinely do not seem to care that Billy has been horrifically killed before their eyes – are too busy figuring out the in-universe rules of Death’s sadistic design to deal with the human tragedy they’ve just witnessed. Should we care? Any residual annoyance at Steve Stifler notwithstanding, I suppose Billy has a few character traits – he likes Whoppers enough to nearly miss an international flight to go buy a carton. He’s weirdly cosplaying as future Kevin Smith with the hockey jersey and jorts, and half his dialogue consists of calling letterman jock Carter Horton (Kerr Smith) a dick after the latter physically assaults him in some way. But no, if I’m being honest, I didn’t care when he died. Nor did I particularly care when Terry Chaney (Amanda Detmer) – whose prior dialogue consisted solely of telling her boyfriend Carter to be less of a dick – backed into traffic and got pancaked by a speeding bus. That was slapstick. Splatterstick? The spatter stuck. This film’s clear objective – as spelled out by the inimitably vamping Tony Todd as the creepy mortician Bludworth – was to get me to laugh at Death, and since I first saw it in my mid-teens when my fear of death wasn’t offering any real competition, it largely succeeded.
But the film dabbles in taking death seriously as well. Following his brother’s death on the plane, survivor Tod (Chad E. Donella), Alex’s best friend, appears at a group memorial. He stands before the assembled mourners and reads a passage from Marcel Proust: “We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast, but when we say this we imagine that hour as placed in an obscure and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any connection with the day already begun or that death could arrive this same afternoon, this afternoon which is so certain and which has every hour filled in advance.” Given that he dies in a preordained (and blue toilet-water-induced) freak accident that very same evening, the quote has additional resonance, but the film goes beyond just quoting notable prose, and actually takes the trouble to give goth outsider Clear Rivers (Ali Larter) a gritty backstory with mortality. She isn’t just one of Death’s would-be victims – she literally has a vendetta against the infernal entity for randomly killing her father, and – after explaining how this backstory fuels her determination, throws in a “Fuck Death!” for good measure. How silly and awesome is that? I could laugh at Clear. Hell, it’s been 20 years – perhaps I did laugh at her. But who among us hasn’t liked some social media post book-ended with “Fuck cancer”? As much as this film indulges in pathos as punctuation between all of the gory spectacle, it at least seems to care more about its characters’ inner lives than a charnel house like the Saw franchise, and the script and performances deserve some credit for that. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. That rage is ever-present, even if it’s of variable quality (Kerr Smith is the weakest link), but Larter and Sawa are uniformly solid, and Sawa even gets a gritty FBI interrogation monologue. Although, since he apparently makes it to and from his local FBI station within the length of a single John Denver song, it’s probably best not to think too hard about the geography, or what Agents Weine (Daniel Roebuck) and Schrek (Roger Guenveur Smith) have going on in their lives that they can appear at multiple death-houses with a few minutes’ notice several nights in a row. Logistics aside, this all mostly works. And it ably sets up the formula that the rest of the franchise would follow: tie a string of Death’s would-be victims together with an fx-fueled spectacle, then spare and ultimately pick them off one by one. While the franchise never quite reached the heights of the first film in terms of giving me characters whose unlikely survival I was rooting for, it at least built its series of escalating thrill rides on a solid foundation – and one that I’ve troubled to rewatch several more times over the last 20 years.
So is horror fandom a young man’s game? I can picture my co-host Daniel’s response. You’re 35, Glenn, shut up. And it’s true that since launching my website, I’ve picked my top film of the year from the horror genre more than once, but it was always something special within that genre. David Robert Mitchell‘s It Follows – in addition to being a delightfully weird ultra-widescreen retrofuturistic design experience – presented an intractable monster that you were utterly alone in facing, the product of your own regrettable choices, and one that for the rest of your life, you will never, ever truly know that you’re safe from. David Lowery‘s A Ghost Story pretends to be a rumination on death and grief, but reveals itself to be a work of existential horror that made me feel the fullness and passage of time so acutely that I experienced what I can only describe as a panic attack while I watched it. Final Destination does not rise to this level. But it is a better-than-average franchise horror starter with a clever concept-villain that can never be defeated or grow stale. It can receive a direct sequel with a new cast at literally any time. Hell, Sawa’s disinterest in returning for FD2 was settled with an off-screen brick. All it needs is someone like Bludworth to explain the rules – or rather, remind characters and viewers alike that they already know the rules – the rules that have dogged them since the day they were born. And until…well, you know the rest.
This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.
I toyed with a few different intros for Bong Joon-Ho’s 2009 film Mother. I thought about how – despite my thorough enjoyment of his film Parasite a decade later – there were layers of that film that I was simply unequipped to understand without being from Korea myself. And several Korean and Korean-American writers (here, here) and one (not Korean) YouTube chef (here) were quite kind enough to educate me about some of those details after the fact. Mother certainly has Korea-specific content – in addition to the film’s prominent use of acupuncture as a plot device, one plot point revolves around a cell phone that has been modded to be a “pervert phone”, so that it can take photos without making a >65dB fake shutter sound. Every American mobile phone already had (and still has) this capability, but this is illegal in both Japan and South Korea. An attempt was made to make it illegal in the US in 2009, but this went nowhere. But the film’s Korean content (at least, what I was able to pick up on) does a good job of explaining itself in-context in the film.
But even without that additional context, I’ve still had to regard Mother predominantly – then as now – as a film about the complex and fraught decision-making that is an inexorable part of being a parent, as well as a hard-boiled detective story featuring a 60-something unnamed Mother (Kim Hye-ja) as its protagonist. And while 2009 Glenn was certainly capable of (hypothetically) appreciating stories about parenthood, I was here for the old lady detective, because of an American hero named Angela Lansbury. And like Jessica Fletcher, Mother has a personal stake in solving the case of the week, the murder of a teenage girl named Moon Ah-jung (Moon Hee-ra), because her adult son Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin) is arrested and charged with the crime. Which, considering he had a recent history of violence (beating the crap out of some hit-and-run-driving professors on a golf course), and apparently left a golf ball with his name on it at the scene of the crime, and signed a confession with only minimal police coercion (some theatrical apple-punching), it’s hard to argue too much with this outcome.
Also, and perhaps most importantly, Do-joon is mentally handicapped, which makes him an easy scapegoat. Watching Mother interact with Do-joon in the first act of the film understandably feels familiar to me. Because Do-joon exhibits many child-like tendencies, Mother’s interactions with him often have a similar character to the interactions I have with my (young) kids. There’s just a certain stoicism that develops around dealing with your children’s bodily functions. Embarrassment goes out the window, even as the child insists on discussing or exhibiting their bathroom habits as loudly as possible. This is understandably uncommon to see in an interaction between a parent and their adult child, and Mother takes this to excess at times. There is a scene where Do-joon is pissing on a wall next to a bus stop, and Mother – who is initially staring directly at his crotch for reasons that are unclear even in the moment – is pouring broth into his mouth. An overhead shot shows liquid draining from the bowl into his mouth, and liquid draining away into the gutter: an efficient machine. Do-joon also sleeps in his mother’s bed, and multiple characters in the film suggest that their relationship has a Freudian dimension to it (hard to argue with the film’s intentions after that alley scene). As with calling Do-joon the ‘R’-word, impugning his relationship with Mother is a trigger for him to immediately lash out with violence against whatever impudent motherfucker (tee hee) thought this was a wise thing to say to him.
As I became a parent in the intervening years, there were certainly dimensions of this parent-child relationship that I could newly identify with. But that’s not to say the film presents it as a healthy one. Mother’s exact motivations and psychology are picked apart over the course of the film as she watches her son go through the struggle of being sent to jail, and Kim’s performance takes on more dimensions. What is the depth of a parent’s despair? Is Mother’s stoicism a mask for grief? Guilt for her mistakes and indefensible choices? Anger at how her life turned out? On top of all of these feelings, specific to this film and character, I felt something universal – something that all parents feel at some point: an abiding responsibility for what kind of child you’ve put out into the world. When you teach your children to stand up for themselves, assert their will, and also respect and show empathy to other people, is it ever possible to strike the right balance? Surely, in their heart of hearts, every parent thinks their child is special on some level, or at least wants the rest of the world to treat their child in a special way. We’ve seen what this looks like when it goes horribly wrong. It’s easy to look at the sociopathic children of distant, rich assholes, and judge accordingly. Don Jr. literally wrote (and then purchased thousands of copies of) the book on this. But what do we make of the far more numerous monsters that appear without a clear (or at least externally obvious) cause? The people whose parents and friends are just as shattered by their actions as the families and friends of their victims? Seventeen years after the Columbine High School shooting – a formative event during my teenage years, but surely lost in the fog of innumerable massacres since for today’s kids – Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the school shooters, wrote a book and spoke publicly about her experience for the first time. Her book is an exhaustive chronicle of mental illness in adolescence, suicidal and homicidal ideation, and the impossible task of picking up the pieces of a shattered family life. Moreover, it is a thoughtful and humble personal narrative from a subject who knows that she is unsympathetic to many people. I haven’t yet finished it (as I only read a few chapters in preparation for this writing), but it’s a fascinating read, if only for the singularity of Klebold’s experience and the rarity of its candor about a thoroughly taboo subject.
Because…what do we care what the mother of a killer has to say? She’s obviously responsible for whatever her kid did. She obviously should’ve known and prevented it, as any of us would’ve done! To be clear, I’m not expressing these attitudes sincerely, but to say that this is the clear and obvious push-back that Mother is dealing with as she conducts her investigation throughout the film – that in her small town, even with the apparent murderer of an innocent girl behind bars, a villain still remains: the Mother who spawned him, the free and visible face of his actions, the societal standard-bearer of his original sin. And what’s more, she’s trying to release him back into the community! How dare she. Mother is as thoroughly alone in this film as it is possible to be, and as Kim’s psychological and emotional performance lays out the complete history of this character’s mental load, it’s clear that her solitude is nothing new. Do-joon’s father hasn’t been in the picture since he was very young, and his only friend is a local scumbag named Jin-tae (Jin Goo), whom Mother initially suspects of the killing, and who may only be helping her in the hopes of extorting some money. Jin-tae’s exact motivations are kept nice and nebulous even as we first meet him – when Do-joon gets sideswiped by a Mercedes-Benz and his friend scoops him up off the street to head to the golf course (the only destination in town for a Benz!) and thoroughly beat the ass of whoever was driving. And why is he doing this? *shrug* Loyalty, boredom, a desire to watch his friend fall on his face (something that seems to genuinely amuse him)? When Jo-doon is behind bars, Jin-tae’s continued involvement in the investigation makes him the ideal film noir companion, and Mother clearly picks up on this, as she calls him in for various strongman purposes as the film goes on.
Kim Hye-ja is really what made this film worth watching, both then and now. She’s a sweet old lady – apparently best known for playing sweet old ladies on Korean soap operas – who contains multitudes. And even as we see both the actress and the character reset the contours of her face repeatedly as the film goes on, it makes the moments where she completely loses control – nearly all of which have to do with the intensity of her relationship with Do-joon – all the more satisfying. This is a film that is more than just the sum of its plot twists, but the plot itself is so satisfying that I’ve uncharacteristically omitted its details here (Bong, along with co-writer Park Eun-kyo, won or was nominated for multiple awards for the screenplay). After a decade, I had to pull out my Blu-ray copy of the film to watch it (as streaming options were limited), but I sincerely hope that Bong’s recent Oscar gold means that more people will go back to seek out his earlier films, because this is surely one of his best.
On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel check out a very personal new film co-written by and starring Alison Brie, now available on Netflix – and we also check out Leigh Whannell and Jason Blum‘s attempt to revive the Dark Universe by replacing spectacle with an intimate and harrowing psychological drama starring Elisabeth Moss.
…then we gush about T-Swift for 5 minutes (53:00).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Horse Girl): 7 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (The Invisible Man): 7.5 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (Miss Americana): 7 out of 10
[02:36] Review: Horse Girl
[15:19] Review: The Invisible Man
[34:00] Spoilers: The Invisible Man
[48:06] Review: Miss Americana
Music for this episode is the tracks “Horse With No Name” by America and the third title track.
On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel (with special guest Erika Spoden) descend into the darkness of consummate gambler and exhausting presence Howard Ratner, played with once-per-decade skill by Adam Sandler. Then we cleanse our palates with the thoughtful and colorful delights of Greta Gerwig‘s bold new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott‘s Little Women(01:06:39).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Uncut Gems): 8/10 (Erika), 9/10 (Glenn and Daniel) FilmWonk rating (Little Women): 8.5/10 (Erika and Glenn), 8/10 (Daniel)
[02:21] Review: Uncut Gems
[17:14] Spoilers: Uncut Gems
[38:39] Review: Little Women
Music for this episode is the track “The Stranger” by Billy Joel and “The Morning” by The Weeknd, from the soundtrack to Uncut Gems.
CORRECTION: While discussing Kevin Garnett‘s appearance in Uncut Gems, we referred to a previous casting of an NBA player in the 2015 film Trainwreck, and mistakenly said that it was Kobe Bryant playing a version of himself in that film. It was in fact LeBron James.