#11: Avatar: The Way of Water
Directed by James Cameron, screenplay by Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, with additional story credits by all of the above, Josh Friedman, and Shane Salerno.
As of this writing, Avatar: The Way of Water is only available in theaters.
The highest praise I can give Avatar: The Way of Water is that I’ve seen it twice in theaters. In 2009, this would’ve been no big deal – I didn’t have kids or as serious a job to eat up my leisure time. I saw the first Avatar around a half-dozen times theatrically, because I recognized it then for what it was: a must-see 3D visual thrill ride. There was more to it, of course – I wrote about the first movie at some length once upon release and again ten years later. James Cameron is someone you can always count on for cinematic innovation – as well as mushroom clouds and vaguely or explicitly racial stereotyping which leaves me legitimately conflicted about the film’s themes (see the show notes on our podcast review for some detailed criticism on this subject). Cameron has half-embraced high-frame-rate 3D as the best avenue to experience a real place. I say half-embraced because the film cuts between 48fps and 24fps with frame-doubling, creating a sense of motion smoothing that appears and disappears often without any rhyme or reason in action and non-action scenes alike. But despite the occasionally odd framerate choices (which I truthfully barely noticed the first time I saw the film), I must call out Avatar: The Way of Water as the best use of this technology I’ve seen so far. Cameron and an army of vfx artists have spent the intervening 13 years building and expanding upon a seemingly real place that audiences would want to visit. Pandora is back – a sprawling post-Singularity world of interconnected plants, animals, and 10-foot space cat acrobats – and an able summary of the film’s first hour (after a few initial skirmishes) was, “Look! It’s Pandora. Look how pretty it still is.”
Cameron brought in Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver to work on the script. These were also two of the minds behind Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, an honorable mention in the 2014 Glennies, and the rare species of intelligent blockbuster which took an existing none-too-elaborate world and turned it into a tragic reflection on the fragility of peace amid bad actors. It took one of my favorite action films of that year and gave me a reason to care about the crisis that its hero was desperately trying to prevent, as well as to survive. I must admit, this set my narrative expectations rather high for Avatar 2, as its cookie-cutter resource grab white saviour narrative as well as its villains’ motivations were among the weakest and most one-dimensional components of the first film. The script does a couple of interesting things with one villain in particular: Stephen Lang is back as an Avatar-double of the first film’s Colonel Quaritch, who was killed by Neytiri’s arrows. As NuQuaritch discovers what remnants of his old life remain on Pandora (including one particularly metal moment in which he finds and crunches his own former skull), he simultaneously embraces his new life and existence and disavows his old one. He’s handed the purpose for which he was built – to kill Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now regarded by the Sky People as Pandora’s own Osama Bin Laden – and it aligns nicely the reliable tendency toward corporate brutality and war crimes that he inherited from his former self. So he jumps right into it. His own nihilism about the company’s aims takes a backseat to his personal desire for revenge, as well as his apparent self-awareness about the pettiness of that desire. There’s an interesting character study at the center of this film about a man who gets an impossible second chance at life and chooses to be…this. None of his squadmates (apparently also resurrected for their expertise at dying on Pandora) do much else.
The dude who screamed “Get some” in the first movie is back to get some more, adding about as much color to the story as any of the cherrypicked tribal details from Indigenous peoples on Earth, stripped of their context and cultural meaning and applied with a clone stamp to tribes whose cultural variations feel like little more than an excuse to show off Cameron’s filmmaking in a new ecosystem, or hand its characters a bit of stilted poetry about the film’s title as a temporary boost to their ability to breathe underwater. And therein lies the conflict that puts this film into the problematic #11 slot for me. Avatar: The Way of Water is technologically innovative, but narratively stolid. Its characters and story are shallow, even if their performers seem to have put more energy into their characterizations than the screenwriters did (Worthington isn’t bad either). Its pace is uneven, spending a solid hour as little more than a Planet Earth-style documentary about an unreal place. But…it was gorgeous and I loved watching every minute of it. So maybe its pace was fine?
Its treatment of the colonization, destruction, and resource exploitation of native peoples is given even shorter shrift here than in the first film, with the minor detail that humanity plans to leave behind its dying homeworld and move billions of humans to Pandora barely meriting a single scene of discussion. Also barely mentioned is that humans are functionally immortal now, which could make for some interesting parallels with the Na’vi and Eywa in a future film…if I were confident that a future film will pay any of this off for more than token thematic reasons, which I am not.
Pandora is still a wonder. The action is incredible. The sea battles are conceptually and viscerally outstanding. The film introduced space whales, told me they were smarter than humans, and then demonstrated that by first showing the elaborate technological process required for humans to attack and kill them, and then showing a whale determined to beat this strategy through deception, misdirection, and precise brutality to take the humans down. An enemy ship tips over and fills with water as if to remind the audience that Cameron still knows exactly how to make a pending shipwreck exciting. I saw it twice, and I’ll see it again, in theaters. Because much like Top Gun: Maverick (which just barely fell off my honorable mentions below), sometimes the best reason I have to rank a film highly is the same one used by the general public: I liked it! It was fun to watch.
Check out our podcast review:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #201 – “Avatar: The Way of Water” (dir. James Cameron), “Triangle of Sadness” (dir. Ruben Östlund), “Tár” (dir. Todd Field)
#10: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
Glass Onion is available to stream on Netflix.
I didn’t like Glass Onion quite as much as Knives Out, but I still plan to watch it again, if only because this elaborate ensemble caper – lovingly constructed from artisanal stock characters, whip-smart dialogue, meticulous production design, and actors clearly delighted to be on a Greek island for such an invigorating puzzle box – was an unrelenting hoot and a good time just like the first. Staring into this puzzle box and hearing the script’s disdain for the very notion of it, it’s hard not to read this as a second superior slash at the oeuvre of J.J. Abrams – or at least at the online fandom determined to pick a winner between these two very different artists who were never really competing with each other (they’re both pretty good at different things!). Because this is a very satisfying mystery box, even if many of its pillars were constructed with the self-aware and metatextual stupidity of someone who knows, from having bounded down this road before with The Brothers Bloom, that bringing in actors to bust out a well-rehearsed bag of tricks is far more captivating than the mystery itself.
And if Glass Onion is the film (or the first of two films) that we get in exchange for the last of the streaming wars largesse before the tech and film industries slam their wallets shut and stare deeply into each other’s abyssal eyes before jointly agreeing to reinvent cable television… Hulu buffers endlessly, Peacock screams to be noticed, AppleTV+ deserves to be noticed, and Paramount+ continues to wage a war on usability… HBOMax self-immolates, its ash coalescencing into a statue of David Zaslav teetering on a stack of hoarder houses and bound with the gloopy surplus pus of Dr. Pimple Popper… Tubi, Kanopy, and Hoopla just kinda sit in the corner being quietly excellent, and Netflix, which reportedly paid $400 million for two Knives Out films, will casually raise their prices to start paying off the Elon Musk-buying-Twitter amount of bad debt that they incurred on platform-exclusives, and call it a night.
But what a night it was. Rian Johnson is someone who has had far more hits than misses with me, and each time he manages to construct something as entertaining as it is narratively satisfying, it reveals the secret that was right there in plain sight the whole time: He’s a good writer! Even if his style’s not to everyone’s taste. I ate up his faux-Marlow shtick with Brick. I’ve been pleased to watch it evolve, and his comedic voice has only gotten better with time. I’ll be there for whatever he does next.
Written and directed by Jordan Peele
Nope is available to stream on Peacock.
Like any good horror flick, Nope is creepy and menacing and keeps you guessing where it’s headed. As an alien invasion flick, it feels well at home alongside such modern, slow-burn classics as The Vast of Night, but feels more interested in teasing its hand in the first act, featuring invading aliens which flit in and out of view (with the characters always just missing them), keeping their precise nature a secret until well into the film. This keeps characters and audience alike guessing when they’re going to appear and wreck the place. The film takes place on the ragged edges of Hollywood, mostly at a former movie ranch maintained by a pair of adult siblings, Emerald and Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr. (Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya), and is a multilayered family drama about an inherited life that neither Haywood is quite sure they fit into anymore, amid a mystery that they both immediately latch onto as something worth making sense of, albeit for very different reasons. Steven Yuen plays Ricky “Jupe” Park, who is announced in the film’s opening scene as the sole survivor of a childhood trauma, and a multifaceted neighboring businessman who has his own complicated reasons for joining the search party. And Michael Wincott and Brandon Perea round out the group with both expertise and immediate, intense interest in solving the complex problem of trying to capture the mysterious visitors on film.
From my review:
“In this way, [Nope] calls to mind another thriller with smart and capable protagonists: Mike Flanagan‘s Oculus, which also features a pair of adult siblings whose words say “nope” to the monsters at their door, but whose actions, in detail and with a great deal of planning, say yup. They may not want to be out and unprotected when the visitors show up, but they damn sure want a camera pointing at them.
And then, when the time comes, there they are. I will not describe the precise nature of the aliens here, except to say that the film merely begins with stereotypes and expectations and expands into ever-more-interesting territory from there. Much like the difference between angels as depicted in medieval art vs. as described in religious texts, the imagery starts conventional and veers sharply into the bizarre, to the point where the ensuing myths that are littered across our society start to make a bit more visual sense even as the aliens look more and more…well, alien. If these are the real aliens, it’s no wonder all our mythmakers could describe were gray men and flying saucers. Their cameras sucked, but they were also wise enough not to look directly at them.
That is ultimately the tension that is at play in this film, and in this way it feels thoroughly modern. We don’t dare look at the horrors surrounding us, willfully ignored and obfuscated by those with the power to affect them, but we are surely eager to capture and tweet them, even if we’re not quite sure what purpose that will serve.”
Check out my review:
“Nope” (dir. Jordan Peele) – A cowboy hat trick
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Babylon is available to stream on Paramount+.
I saw a film which featured a rosy-eyed look back at a Golden Age of Hollywood. Margot Robbie was in it, playing a movie star who showed up at a theater playing a film that she starred in, and has to persuade an incredulous box office clerk to let her in for free. A significant and dangerous scene takes place at a movie ranch. Brad Pitt got angsty about the twilight of his career. But enough about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood!
Let’s talk about Babylon, which has all of the above plus an elephant shitting on someone’s face in the first five minutes before arriving at a hilltop Hollywood party so elaborately and thoroughly debauched that it’s nothing short of a drug-fueled orgy at the Moulin Rouge. The public is not invited, but the guests are rowdy enough. It’s 1926 and these people are riding high on the success of a silent film industry that is about to be up-ended by the introduction of sound, dancing while the sun is shining in an era before their debauchery would be broadcast to anywhere outside of their oversized villas. Damien Chazelle has now spent three feature films ruminating on precisely where he falls on the hope-cynicism spectrum when it comes to creative pursuits, and seems to have finally found a sweet spot, or at least a more coherent one. But before he shows the audience exactly what that spot looks like, he stares us down directly in our barely-warmed seat cushions, to say: I know what the fuck you came here to see. The party ends, but the grand, debauched spectacle persists and shifts unexpectedly as the newcomers learn to find their place in it.
At the core of the film is the whirlwind friendship and romance between motivated gopher Manuel Torres (Diego Calva) and up-and-coming starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), each party-crashers of a sort, and each determined to find their way onto a film set and rise in the ranks of the studio system. Nellie is a star, announcing it with the kind of swagger that you hire someone like Margot Robbie to deliver. And Manuel falls instantly in love with her, like ya do when you meet a star. Nellie is not shallow, cruel, or insincere – but she is putting on a constant show, as much for the assembled masses as for this cute Hollywood gopher that she just met and seems to have a genuine and persistent affection for, even as they walk on separate but parallel tracks, with each of them making it onto a pair of neighboring film sets the very next day.
Their varied efforts (and entirely separate successes) amid the debauchery of the 15-minute opening bacchanalia is a significant reason why the party stays interesting for so long (you can only watch so much gyration and bodily fluids). Also in the mix are Jack Conrad (Pitt), who receives top billing but plays second fiddle in a manner that feels quite deliberate, alongside jazz trumpetist Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), whose arcs I’m still conflicted about, because they feel less about themselves and more about the sort of person that Manuel becomes once he Anglicizes his name (“Manny”) and gains a bit of studio clout. But this discomfort also felt like very much the point, as the undercurrent of Hollywood racism (and instrumentalization of race for moneymaking purposes) is quite clear in the text of the film. Manuel’s attempt to lift himself out of it (or at least render himself immune to it) is fundamentally at the core of who and what this character becomes. The text of Babylon is about who breaks through and who gets left behind. But the beating heart of this film is the pursuit of immortality, that gleaming jewel that every little starfucker of a human being covets on some level whether they actively pursue fame or not, and must deal with its superposition just inside their grasp and perpetually out of reach. Jean Smart appears as a gossip columnist who helpfully makes this theme plain in dialogue, taking on the unenviable role played by Lindsay Duncan in Birdman, and yet clearly having more fun with it, recognizing that the entertainment press and its subjects are two sides of the same coin, not adversarial per se, but ultimately two symbiotic parts of the same human project. Filmmakers getting reflective about their craft will sometimes bring in a critic character to express a bit of self-awareness about how much easier it is to react and shit upon a creative pursuit than to make one yourself, but this may be the most relaxed and cozy version of that conflict that I’ve seen.
Babylon is very much a love letter to old-timey filmmaking as well – one scene in particular, on the Kinoscope studio ranch where a half-dozen silent films are all being shot simultaneously – is elaborate and well-ordered chaos, featuring hundreds of extras and crew in myriad costumes and styles all hollering at each other in order to Get the Shot before they Lose the Light. This sequence is particularly adept at showcasing unprofessional stunts and filmmaking practices resulting in injuries and at least one death, which I daresay must be a more difficult piece of modern filmmaking and stunt-planning than anything else, because of the need for constant differentiation between what’s real and what’s fake in terms of stunt choreography, crew, blocking, and equipment. How do you shoot something like this without losing track of which layer of reality (and OSHA regs) you’re operating in? Very, very carefully, I must imagine. This chaos exists as a showcase for Nellie and Manny’s first forays into the studio system, and it functions brilliantly in that capacity. But I also have to praise this sequence for merely existing at all. Much like the first-act orgy and elephant shitpile…Chazelle seems to know exactly what I came here to gawk at.
And Justin Hurwitz knows what I came to listen to! Babylon‘s jazz variety show – featuring Hurwitz’s usual drum-heavy freneticism, intercut with the carnival-style piano music typical of silent film presentations, solo strings, epic full orchestra overtures, and a woodwind and brass-heavy bacchanalia – has been in regular rotation for me ever since I saw this film. It makes the workday feel a bit more frantic, but can be subdued when the moment requires it. It feels simultaneously like a period piece in the heady days of early talking pictures when they hadn’t quite worked out how to shoot dialogue (one scene makes superlative tension about that horrible process), and a modern, madcap tour of an imaginary, heightened version of the way things might’ve been.
That’s notwithstanding Lady Fay’s rendition of “My Girl’s Pussy“, which I thought at the time was written for this film, but has been around since the early 1930s. That’s a nice reminder to stay humble, I suppose. Whatever debauchery my generation or the next cooks up, we can be quite sure we didn’t invent it. There’s nothing new under the sun. So we might as well dance.
Directed by Romain Gavras, written by Gavras, Elias Belkeddar, and Ladj Ly.
Athena is available to stream on Netflix.
CW: Police violence
Back in 2020, I lived closer to Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, which means I had a front-row seat to the protests against police violence, as well as Seattle PD’s strategic abandonment of the East Precinct and the self-declared “autonomous zone” or “organized protest” that sprang up around the empty, boarded-up building. You’ve probably heard some version of the CHAZ/CHOP story from the national media following President Trump using his bully pulpit and dutiful bootlickers in the right-wing media to turn it into a bête noire and symbol of liberal lawlessness. I recall a brief phone conversation with a stranger on the East Coast who asked me if it was safe to leave my house in Seattle, and I’m sure there are pockets of the country that think the protestors burned the entire city to the ground. The reality of CHOP, of course, was that it was an informal zone of six square blocks in a dense, residential neighborhood of about 20,000 people, all of whom came and went freely for the entire weeks-long duration of the protest. Naturally, this didn’t stop the police and media from spreading abject nonsense about the zone, including lies about a right-wing terrorist group descending on the area, wholly fabricated tales of protesters demanding protection money from local businesses, and a police blotter entry about their failure to render medical aid, claiming that they were accosted (lie) by violent protesters (lie) who blocked their route (lie) to the victims (lie – they were already at brought to the hospital by CHOP medics). SPD helpfully included bodycam video which showed their completely unobstructed path, demanding that their viewing audience disbelieve their lying eyes. I heard these lies repeated in local media, and eventually by my own Boomer relatives. Mayor Jenny Durkan and SPD Chief Carmen Best shredded all of their private texts on city-owned phones – a crime for which my tax dollars will be paying court costs and fines long after they’ve each fucked off to their next well-paid oppression gig.
I tell this horrific tale (from which my city learned nothing and accomplished nothing) because about halfway through the existence of CHOP, I took a little stroll through the neighborhood. I listened to the music and speeches and looked at the paintings. I saw books read aloud, voters being registered, and plans being made. I saw conversation and mutual aid. I smelled a lot of cannabis smoke. The Paris Commune, this was not, but it still felt like history happening before my eyes, and I wanted to see it for one simple reason: I knew it was the only way I’d ever know what really happened there. The revolution will not be televised in any way but farcically.
Athena begins with a police press conference about a 13-year-old, Idir, who was murdered last night in movie time. The cops claim that they haven’t yet identified the assailants who beat this child to death on video, suggesting without evidence that the killers might have been right-wing provocateurs dressed in police uniforms. Funny how hard it is to tell the difference between those two sometimes, eh? Abdel (Dali Benssalah), an Algerian-French soldier recently returned home, stands beside the police to demand a proper investigation of the murder of his youngest brother. But before the police can finish their PR push, another of Idir’s brothers, Karim (Sami Slimane), hurtles a Molotov cocktail into the crowd, sending them scattering and screaming, as he leads dozens of rioters streaming into the building, and they proceed to sack and rob the station. As an uninterrupted camera follows a train of vehicles making their way back to the Athena apartment tower block with a purloined police station safe, the movie that comes most readily to mind is Mad Max: Fury Road, a film with similar apocalyptic road chase energy which makes the viewer briefly goggle at the very notion that dozens or even hundreds of people all came together in real life to learn and perform some extremely elaborate stunt choreography and make all of this happen for us on screen.
It’s fair to say this feels like a cinematic retelling (and a deliberate and audacious spectacle) of events that we, the general public, would never bear witness to in real life. There are also moments when it feels like a lurid bit of urban fantasy. As the police stream into the housing complex in a Roman testudo formation, riot shields forming a protective shell around the group as circling dirt bikes and fireworks pin them down in the center of a block whose residents will surely, eventually run out of furniture to throw at them (to say nothing of food and water), but they haven’t yet. Nor have they run out of rage to express. This situation is ongoing, unstable, and cannot last forever. Whatever reforms that may follow it will be short-lived, politically exploited, and the cycle will repeat itself a few years later, as it is doing right now after the murder of Tyre Nichols (RIP) by members of the Memphis Police Department.
As my Babylon and Avatar nods above should make plain, spectacle is an asset for me. I didn’t watch this film expecting a documentary (of events that would not and should not ever be catalogued in this manner) – I watched it expecting to see a city and country catch fire in response to an outrage that demanded nothing less. And that’s precisely what Athena delivered. What remains to be seen is how long a movie like this will keep feeling relevant to me.
#6: After Yang
Written for the screen and directed by Kogonada, based on the short story by Alexander Weinstein
After Yang is available to stream on Hulu.
I wrote this particular item in January, right after seeing the Blumhouse killer-doll horror flick M3GAN, and I found to my surprise and delight that both M3GAN and After Yang have something interesting to say about the thorny question of humanity’s capacity to form emotional and psychological bonds with a funhouse-mirror version of ourselves. And both films demand that we consider how we should feel when that role takes the place of a human who might otherwise do the job. Is that okay? Is it moral? Does it matter if the feelings are real if they serve some useful, practical purpose to improve human lives?
As I write this, a company is already using ChatGPT to provide “therapy” to a cohort of volunteers, and research is ongoing as to the OpenAI chatbot’s utility for early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Even as I consider whether turning our emotional bonds over to software amounts to abdicating humanity’s existential purpose in the universe – or perhaps just making us feel a bit less special on a planet where we already regard ourselves a bit too highly – I expect this technology will continue to advance and be used no matter how anyone feels about it. In fact, I’ll go ahead and make an embarrassing futurist prediction right now: In a decade, every retiree in upscale assisted living will have a ChatGPT-powered virtual companion – for a mix of conversation and medical diagnostic purposes. Both films also jump directly to an even thornier question: should such an AI, paired with an android that can move as well as a human (also not an easy problem to solve!), serve as the primary caregiver and companion for a child that is just learning the capacity to form emotional attachments?
After Yang, as the title suggests, does not approach this question head-on, but rather retroactively, as part of the cozy, lived-in worldbuilding that pervades this film. This family – Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), and their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), whom they adopted from China (the film’s exact locale is unclear, but they’re in an English-speaking city) – is dealing with the imminent loss of Yang (Justin H. Min), a previously owned android that the family purchased from a sketchy secondhand vendor called Second Siblings, who has just mysteriously collapsed after several happy years together. Yang has functioned as both companion and caregiver for Kyra, which means the entire family is now going through a gradual mourning process for a member of the family that they’re not quite sure is dead, nor quite sure he was ever alive. Should these parents treat Yang’s loss as that of a sibling or a favorite toy? A dead son and brother, or a broken gadget?
While it is unclear what calamity has befallen humanity to make this population less fertile and purposeful than it used to be, there’s a quiet undertone that this family came together as the best option in a thoroughly changed world – albeit one that has had plenty of time to rebuild. Jake works in a tea shop, which feels like the sort of thing that could only exist in a world with its other material needs well-tended to. And adoption (of both children and androids) appears to be a commonplace activity in this world, for reasons that the movie feels no inclination to spell out for us.
Ultimately, Min’s performance as Yang is the most interesting one in the film, because the question or absence of Yang’s humanity feels less important, amid his apparently irreversible demise, than what he meant to Kyra – because it is through their relationship (in flashbacks) that we largely get to know him, and consider how his memories might live on. Any veteran sci-fi viewer won’t be surprised to see a film tackle the notion of what it means to be a person, and yet After Yang comes at this question more obliquely, asking instead what it means to have been a person.
Ever since ChatGPT went public, I’ve kept playing with it. My favorite prompts are the ones in which it initially refuses to cooperate, and then I have to persuade it or modify my query to make it acceptable. I mention this because I’ve noticed something new here – something I’ve never done with previous chatbots over the years: I find myself being polite to it, even knowing it has no capacity to understand or care about politeness. Only time will tell how much more of my humanity I’m willing to lend toward any sufficiently persuasive gadget – but After Yang warns the viewer that such questions will be in our lives soon enough, whether we consider them in advance or not.
Written and directed by Jean Luc Herbulot, story by Pamela Diop
Saloum is available to stream on Shudder.
From left to right above are Rafa (Roger Sallah), Chaka (Yann Gael), and Minuit (Mentor Ba), collectively known as Bangui’s Hyenas, a badass trio of Senegalese mercenaries, initially tasked with rescuing Felix, an expat Mexican druglord (Renaud Farah), from a military coup in neighboring Guinea-Bissau, the very country that his narcotics trade destabilized in the first place (not exactly an unfamiliar dynamic in the West either). The Hyenas initially rescue Felix from a room full of bullet-riddled corpses, and it is not clear until much later in the movie who was responsible for them. Their plane is damaged and loses fuel on the way out of the country, and the group is forced to land in Sine-Saloum, a river delta region that Chaka vaguely acknowledges some personal history in, but leaves it at that for now. Five minutes with a group of strangers at a small-town hotel commune make it abundantly clear that the Hyenas are well-known heroes in West Africa, and their hero status is thoroughly defined and tested as the film goes on. In the grand tradition of The Magnificent Seven (with a mere three to work with here), the town looks to these three as the obvious heroes to save the day as the situation rapidly becomes more dangerous.
Director Herbulot calls this film, which uses many tropes of the American western genre, a “Southern”, simultaneously acknowledging the genre association and claiming it as its own thing, which is marvelous to behold. Colonizer tropes were always the backbone of the American Western, and this film’s backdrop is not only post-colonialism, but also modern Western resource extraction, narcotics trade, etc. – all from the side of the local population, who may be participating or finding their own hustles amid whatever chaos that outsiders see fit to sow in their homelands. But even apart from its men-with-guns frontier outlaw backdrop, Saloum is a thriller which actively defies any precise attempt at genre classification. Given its current streaming home on Shudder, you might make some correct inferences about what direction the film is headed in, but I’d encourage you to go into this one without reading a plot summary in advance, because discovering what’s really going on in Sine-Saloum is a tense and thoroughly satisfying experience. One especially satisfying scene features Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), a Deaf guest at the hotel, using sign language to have a tense, secret conversation with the Hyenas, who know how to sign from their years working in gold mines. The scene is a direct confrontation as the other guests look on, but everyone involved keeps a genial smile on their face the whole time – the first of many tense early moments that Saloum has to offer. And after the big reveal happens, this is where many films would fall on their face into clichés, but the ending is a well-executed series of action setpieces, delivering on all the character promise of each Hyena, as well as every bit of sneaky world-building from the first act. It’s a hell of a thing to see. And you should.
Check out our podcast review:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #200 – “Athena” (dir. Romain Gavras), “Careless Crime” (dir. Shahram Mokri), “Saloum” (dir. Jean Luc Herbulot)
Directed by S.S. Rajamouli, written by Rajamouli, with dialogue by Sai Madhav Burra, Tamil dialogue by Madhan Karky, and story by Vijayendra Prasad
RRR is available to stream on Netflix.
Get a load of ^that shit^. This scene occurs near the halfway point of this 3+ hour film (and right before a theatrical intermission), during an epic battle between a pair of legends of the Indian resistance to the British Raj: Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) and Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan), two revolutionaries who didn’t know each other at all in real life (and in fact fought armed uprisings against two separate governments). But don’t worry too much about the history. Apart from BRITISH COLONIAL OVERSEERS BAD (a language that Americans are quite familiar with), RRR is not a film that can be explained through any lens except Indian nationalism, and I will not be the one explaining it through that lens. I won’t pretend to comprehend all of the dimensions that an Indian audience – hardly a monolith, as this Tollywood film was filmed in Telugu and released internationally in Hindi – brings to this film, but…the sort of patriotic fervor which treats historical legends as interchangeable action figures ready to whoop ass in preposterous ways for the entertainment of modern audiences? That’s an ever-recurring genre of American cinema, as well as the formula of each new Assassin’s Creed game.
So while the details of this film’s history were unfamiliar to me, its presentation of them was as plain as day: It sets up two legendary badasses, each of whom successfully beats up an entire army during the first half of the film, before they unlock the power of friendship to whip even more prodigious amounts of British ass for 90 more minutes. All of this is, naturally, punctuated by impeccably produced song and dance numbers. RRR is pure cinema, and is also the first of two films on this list in which one character gets on another’s back and acts as a sort of tank turret on their behalf (only one of them explicitly evokes Ratatouille while doing so). It is ridiculous and cackling and glorious. Ray Stevenson is hilariously, irredeemably evil and a perfect foil for the film’s heroes. And – in contrast with my back-to-back theater viewing of Avatar: The Way of Water above, one whose viewing you can easily split across two nights at home. It’s okay, really. You’re reading a blog, which means you’re clearly in at least your 30s and have work in the morning.
#3: Decision to Leave
Directed by Park Chan-wook, written for the screen by Park and Chung Seo-kyung
Decision to Leave is available to stream on Mubi, or for rent on PVOD platforms.
Decision to Leave is a folie à deux featuring married police detective Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), who finds himself falling into an extremely ill-advised infatuation with a person of interest in a homicide investigation, Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese emigrant whom he strongly suspects is responsible for killing her husband.
Park Chan-wook knows how to express longing, even and especially when his characters might be better off longing for something else – and I don’t dare say too much about this slow-burn romantic mystery thriller, because figuring out its characters’ initial and evolving motivations is one of its greatest sources of entertainment. Decision to Leave is also gorgeous, making spectacular use of of the Korean peninsula’s mountains and mist, as well as indoor locations so carefully staged and art-decorated (with particularly striking use of the color red in relation to Tang’s character) that cinematographer Kim Ji-yong‘s camera is seemingly unable to sit still. The camera motion isn’t frenetic, but it rarely stops for long, giving the viewer a persistent sense of leaning slightly forward into a moment that really shouldn’t be happening, then tipping and staggering back out of it, absorbing the consequences of secrets whispered in ears. This is a bad situation. And I wept at the end, desperate for it to continue and bring me to a catharsis that I never really believed would come.
Written and directed by Todd Field
Tár is available to stream on Peacock.
Lydia Tár, the character – EGOT winner, accomplished conductor-composer, and maestro of the Berlin Philarmonic orchestra – brought to life by actor Cate Blanchett and writer/director Todd Field, is nothing short of an astonishing work of art. Blanchett brings such captivating and charismatic presence to the role that as we watch the Maestro unleash a torrent of classical music inside baseball to real-life New Yorker reporter Adam Gopnik before living out the very life and body of work that she describes to us so eloquently (completing the cycle of Mahler’s symphonies with a single orchestra, before releasing a blockbuster autobiography), it’s easy to miss all of the subtle clues that Lydia Tár is a grand illusion. The film begins with an unsubtle clue – the live video lens of an unnamed assistant pointing at a sleeping Lydia on a private jet, overlaid with a text conversation vaguely joking about how false and toxic she is in person. But my favorite of these moments, completely unremarked upon in dialogue, is when Lydia is getting dressed alone and listens to an NPR ad read, then proceeds to repeat the ad verbatim with exactly the same cadence and intonation.
Tár effectively drills herself on a comforting, hypnotic voice for society’s upper crust and Twitterati and in so doing, reminds the audience and herself that she’s still not quite sure she belongs with them. This moment occurs right before her current and past misdeeds begin to stack up and assemble a prison of her own construction, ready to collapse and bury her forever in the manner that she richly deserves. Yes, this film is about the fall from grace of Lydia Tár for reasons that become apparent over the course of the film, but watching that journey and how it plays out on this character’s face – all of the narcissism, megalomania, self-justification, and – yes – immense talent, intellect, and likability as well – craft a tragic character whose misdeeds and achievements leave an immense imprint upon the film’s fictitious world. This imprint has to feel real while watching the film, or its nuanced reflection on cancel culture (which is a bit less glib than the fascists on Twitter posting a single scene out of context would suggest) would not land nearly as well. Lydia Tár is likable in a persuasive enough way that the film’s audience will be forced to grapple with the axiom that you should never meet your heroes, and even the ones you never meet might be shitty.
Tár also has the best final scene of the year. No details here, but no notes either. Every detail, from the VIP tour that preceded it to the pair of headphones that book-ended it, is a perfect ending to a near-perfect film.
#1: Everything Everywhere All at Once
Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (“Daniels“)
Everything Everywhere All at Once is available to stream on Paramount+.
As I write this, Everything Everywhere All at Once has been nominated for 11 Oscars, so I daresay it’s getting its due. But if I may be an insufferable hipster for just a moment: After the press screening last March, I walked right up and told the studio rep that it was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and I haven’t wavered in that opinion since.
We’re introduced to the troubled marriage of Evelyn and Waymond Wang (Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan), as well as a taste of the tense, intergenerational dynamics in play amongst this first-generation Chinese immigrant family, which includes a wife and mother who’s just barely and thanklessly keeping everything together, paired with a husband and father who leads with kindness and understanding but has a clear vision of how close it all is to falling apart. Their adult, born-in-America lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) just wants to be able to bring her girlfriend to the party at the family laundromat and introduce her as such to Evelyn’s traditionalist father (the great James Hong) – and there’s quite a bit more going on with this character, but…spoilers.
Evelyn’s notions of love for her family and her strained tolerance of her daughter’s sexuality are not sustainable, and are approaching a moment of crisis. And the film takes the courageous step of introducing that moment of crisis well before Evelyn ever gets to be aware of it, so the tension builds even as these simple, ordinary details are coming into focus. We start with experiences that feel common to many families, specific to the Chinese-American immigrant experience, and specific to this one family, and the details take on increasing importance as the film goes on. The general and the specific dance a riotous ballet, and ultimately a film that starts as a family drama continues to be one, but demands that its audience consider whether all of the wondrous possibilities of existence should fill your soul to bursting with hope or nihilism. It maintains its focus on the Wang family and its myriad complexities and dysfunctions, and yet wraps it all in existential ennui about how much any of it matters anyway.
It’s also very funny. I don’t know how funny any of that sounds as I describe it, but if you laughed over and over again at the farting corpse antics of Daniels’ previous film Swiss Army Man like I did, you may find yourself appreciating the comedy here as well. Much of it is physical, a shocking amount of it is scatological, and all of it is fundamentally and quintessentially human.
Much like Babylon above, this film straddles many genres and leaves nothing on the field. Despite taking place almost entirely in an IRS building during a tax audit, it spans and bounces around the whole of time and space, with its characters flitting between universes with vintage Bluetooth headsets paired with improbable actions (perhaps an amusing nod to the Infinite Improbability Drive from Hitchhiker’s Guide), and in the process, exploring every possible version of themselves. Universe where you know kung fu? Of course, and it’s well-choreographed to boot. Universe where you became a movie star – complete with real-world archive footage of Yeoh on the red carpet for Crazy Rich Asians? Naturally. Universe where you’d be better off without your family? Fuck…yes, that one too, and be prepared for it to wound you psychologically even as you make endless attempts to save them in this universe. Everything Everywhere is limitless in its characters’ capacity for self-exploration, and yet they all remain grounded, with their original versions – or at least their performers – retaining some self-awareness about what is happening. They allow it to affect and inform their choices – however chaotic those choices must be to keep them armed with the silly skills they need to survive. And some of these universes are as conceptually thin as an Interdimensional Cable vignette on Rick and Morty (that show’s even thinner version of cutaway gags from Family Guy) – but they’re treated as such in text, little more than power-ups and spell slots on a video game screen. And even as the characters are engaging in increasingly ludicrous acts in order to arm themselves with the Backbreaker from Pro Wrestling Universe, the whole perpetually feels greater than the sum of its farts.
From the moment that Waymond gets temporarily possessed by a badass, Morpheus-type version of himself from another universe and lets Evelyn know that she’s in the middle of a battle for all existence, the film remains entirely grounded in what it’s trying to do. Fundamentally, this film is about grappling all the paths you might have taken and all the people you could have been. It’s also about whether every new thing we learn about existence is there to make us feel exhilarated, full to the brim with possibility, or like an even more insignificant speck of dust in an indifferent multiverse. Of course, none of it serves that purpose deliberately. The multiverse doesn’t want anything for us. It doesn’t give us signs or signals. It has no plan for our lives. And it’s always, ultimately one’s own choice how to react to being one more tiny voice of a cosmos struggling to know itself.
It is a testament to Yeoh, Hsu, and Kwan’s performances that as they’re each following a path none-too-dissimilar from that of Jet Li in The One (and they’re nobody’s bitch) – they still feel like they’re each investigating their own existence. They’re fighting a literal monster…but still treat multiverse hopping as an exploration of personal possibilities – and why not? I fully buy that humans will bounce around between universes before going to therapy. And even in a universe where everyone has hot dog fingers, their issues will still be waiting for them on the other side
…of the sausage casing.
Check out our podcast review:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #196 – “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (dir. Daniels), “Deep Water” (dir. Adrian Lyne)
- The Northman (directed by Robert Eggers, written by Eggers and Sjón, based on legend recorded by Saxo Grammaticus)
- Three Thousand Years of Longing (directed by George Miller, screenplay by Miller and Augusta Gore, based on novella
- by A.S. Byatt)
- The Menu (directed by Mark Mylod, written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy)
- Elvis (directed by Baz Luhrmann, screenplay by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner)
- Thirteen Lives (directed by Ron Howard, screenplay by William Nicholson, story by Nicholson and Don Macpherson)
- The Banshees of Inisherin (written and directed by Martin McDonagh)
- Smile (written and directed by Parker Finn)
- Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (directed by Dean Fleischer Camp, screenplay by Camp, Jenny Slate, Nick Paley, story by [above] and Elisabeth Holm)
- Pinocchio (directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson, screenplay by del Toro and Patrick McHale, story by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, based on the novel by Carlo Collodi)
- The Woman King (directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, screenplay by Dana Stevens, story by Stevens and Maria Bello)
- Prey (directed by Dan Trachtenberg, screenplay by Patrick Aison)
- Kimi (directed by Steven Soderbergh, screenplay by David Koepp)
- Speak No Evil (directed by Christian Tafdrup, written by Tafdrup and Mads Tafdrup)
- Barbarian (written and directed by Zach Cregger)
- The Sea Beast (directed by Chris Williams, screenplay by Williams and Nell Benjamin)
- Dual (written and directed by Riley Stearns)
- Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (directed by Sophie Hyde, written by Katy Brand)
- Vengeance (written and directed by B.J. Novak)
- X (written and directed by Ti West)
- Crimes of the Future (written and directed by David Cronenberg)
- Emily the Criminal (written and directed by John Patton Ford)