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

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

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

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

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

“I think shit just happens.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then…

several…

more…

things…

happen.

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

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

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

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

Poster for

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

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

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

But why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop me if you’ve herd this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tee hee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another caption:

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

Fin. Credits.

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

FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10