FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #172 – “Rebuilding Paradise” (dir. Ron Howard)

Poster for "Rebuilding Paradise"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel grapple with a horrific natural disaster that has been exacerbated by inept individual and governmental decisions whose ongoing toll of human tragedy is difficult to fathom.
And they also watch a documentary about the 2018 Camp Fire (29:30).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Tune in next week for our Tenth Anniversary episode!
  • We mentioned California SB50, which represented multiple failed attempts at increasing housing density in California during 2018. Several more attempts were made to pass the bill in 2019 into early 2020 without any more success.
  • We speculated that the town of Paradise must have experienced some permanent population loss as a result of this disaster (which is only mentioned in passing in the film). According to US Census Bureau estimates, the population went from 26,711 in 2018 to 4,476 in 2019, an estimated population loss of 83%.

Listen above, or download: Rebuilding Paradise (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #108 – “Keep Quiet” (dir. Joseph Martin, Sam Blair) (#SJFF2017)

Poster for "Keep Quiet"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel jump back to their final selection from the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, Keep Quiet, a documentary about Csanád Szegedi, a former far-right, antisemitic political party leader in Hungary who discovers that he has a (still living) Jewish grandmother, which causes a sea change in his political and religious beliefs. Or…does it? If this film had been a great big pat on the back for tolerance and pluralism, we expect it would’ve been pretty tedious. But like The Imposter before it, this film’s definite strength is its ambiguity. Dive with us into an exploration of this fascinating figure and the skepticism that he (deservedly) faces from both his old community of nationalists and neo-Nazis, and his new community of Orthodox Jews. We’re joined once again by friend of the show, local author Erika Spoden (32:11).

May contain NSFW language.

Keep Quiet is available on Amazon Video, and we highly recommend checking it out. As this film deals in ambiguity, there will not be a separate spoilers section in our discussion. Please consider this both a recommendation and spoiler warning for the entire film.

FilmWonk rating: 9/10 (Glenn/Daniel), 10/10 (Erika)

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Train of Thought“, from the film’s score by Phillip Sheppard.
  • Special thanks to Erika for joining us this week – her memoir is titled Strawberries for 50 People, and it is available on Amazon Kindle.
  • Thanks as well to the Seattle Jewish Film Festival and Smarthouse Creative for helping us cover so much of the festival (for the first time) this year – we’ll definitely be back!

Listen above, or download: Keep Quiet (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #89 – “The Brand New Testament” (dir. Jaco Van Dormael), “When War Comes Home” (dir. Michael King)

Poster for "When War Comes Home"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the Seattle International Film Festival, first to give a shout-out to the badass women of Angry Indian Goddesses, followed by some fanciful religious absurdity with The Brand New Testament. And then we conclude a trilogy of reviews that we’ve done on warrior subculture in the United States, with a deep dive on When War Comes Home, Emmy-award winning director Michael King‘s new documentary on soldiers living with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. This film divided us, both on what we think a documentary should be, and on the value of compelling human interest stories. Listen to us unpack the film below. (49:26).

Seattle area listeners:
There will be a special Flag Day screening of When War Comes Home at the Majestic Bay Theater, on Tuesday, June 14th, at 7:30PM. It will be followed by a panel discussion with several of the film’s subjects.

For free tickets, RSVP at this link.

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "The Brand New Testament"

FilmWonk rating (The Brand New Testament): 5 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (When War Comes Home): 6/10 (Daniel), 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [00:33] Brief : Angry Indian Goddesses
  • [07:20] Review: The Brand New Testament
  • [23:06] Review: When War Comes Home
  • Music for this episode is a pair of tracks from the outstanding soundtrack to Angry Indian Goddesses: “Zindagi“, written and performed by Anushka Manchanda, and “Kattey“, performed by Bhanvari Devi and Hard Kaur.
  • We didn’t issue a rating for Angry Indian Goddesses, since we didn’t do a full review segment for it. But suffice to say, we both loved the film. Check out its Facebook page for more info on how you can see it.
  • If you’re wondering what the hell I was talking about with Paul Rudd‘s computer – treat yourself here.
  • You can check out the episode that we referenced of Rose Eveleth‘s Flash Forward podcast here – and we highly recommend it!

Listen above, or download: The Brand New Testament, When War Comes Home (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

“How to Let Go of the World” (dir. Josh Fox) – Group therapy for climate realists

Poster for

Despite its title, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, an upcoming HBO documentary from Gasland director Josh Fox, is not trying to convince anyone of the realities of human-caused climate change. Nonetheless, it spends the first 40 minutes of its runtime dwelling on each of those effects in a gonzo, rapid-fire fashion, and allowing Fox, its frequent on-screen subject, to lapse into despair as he gradually learns the enormity of it all. Fox’s emotional journey is fundamentally at the center of the film, and between its frequent reliance on poetic (and occasionally stilted) voiceover to its various montages of original music produced on-screen by people who have been directly affected by climate change, How to Let Go of the World functions less like a documentary, and more like a sort of group therapy session for people who aren’t afraid to accept the scientific consensus and innumerable lines of evidence supporting climate change, but feel ill-equipped to confront that reality in any meaningful way by themselves. Full disclosure: I’m definitely a part of this demographic.

This is an exercise that runs a serious risk of self-indulgence, but what ultimately makes this film work so well is Fox’s credibly humble approach to such a daunting problem as climate change, and beautiful visual storytelling style as he documents this personal journey. He visits the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York, witnessing the destruction and death along the Long Island Coast. Even as he remains on camera and speaking over the footage, he removes the focus from himself and points his camera squarely at the poorest and most vulnerable people – a focus that persists throughout the film. As a subway musician begins playing a hauntingly beautiful song (listen to it here!), a montage of Sandy’s unrelenting destruction flows across the screen. What follows is a litany of interviews with various climate experts (including one shot unauthorized in the Ronald Reagan Building cafeteria in D.C.), outlining just how dire the situation is now (with 1C of warming), soon (with a guaranteed 0.5C of additional warming even if we halted all CO2 emissions), and in the future (with a >2C increase). The 5-9 meter sea level rises, the loss of species and ecosystems, the displacement of hundreds of millions of climate refugees, the disease, blight, and death. And then it stops, because it’s all too much. Fox gives up, returns to his Pennsylvania hometown, and collapses into a desperate snow-angel figure on the wintry ground of his favorite childhood forest. The camera floats straight up into the sky as the poetic voiceover continues, shrinking Fox’s person – and potential impact – into a minor black dot in the distant snow. Remember what I said about self-indulgence? This was a genuinely touching moment, and simultaneously the point where if Fox had continued wallowing in his impending doom, I would’ve had a difficult time continuing to take the film seriously. But this is exactly when the film’s journey begins.

Still from

Fox asks a new question: What are the things that climate change can’t destroy? What will it leave behind? And in a moment, all of the footage of forests and oceans and glaciers and mountaintops spontaneously gets more lush and beautiful than the bleak, desaturated despair of the first act, and the film becomes nearly as slick a globe-trotting climate change doc as Racing Extinction, while perhaps remaining a bit more grounded in the human storytelling. If we can’t stop the worst effects of climate change, he asks, what can we do? The film hops around the world, telling tales of various local efforts to resist expanded fossil fuel speculation and fight climate change in critical areas. Fox keeps his camera trained on indigenous peoples who are being subjected against their will to the quasi-colonialist expansion of western energy production, posing a question which shouldn’t require an answer in 2016 – should a remote tribe be permitted to live as they wish, even if there is an alternative way of living that our western experience says must be better? We have our cars and lights and antibiotics, but what if these tribes simply have no interest in them?

The film is hardly fetishizing an archetype of the noble savage here – this perspective does not go unexamined as the film goes on. But the film’s initial view of this conflict, between the Ecuadorian government (who had an impending deal with an Argentine oil company) and natives in a remote river village called Sarayaku, presents it as a straightforward moral issue. The natives aren’t merely being offered an alternative to their indigenous lifestyle- they are having the very production of that alternative forced upon them. They can come join us in the cities and play with our plastic widgets and electricity, but we’ll have to destroy their ancestral homeland and drill for oil to create those things. The question of whether one way of life is better or worse than another is a complex one, fraught with questions about human rights and resource allocation and cultural identity. But by focusing on such a specific instance where the rights of the natives were being set aside in a zero-sum manner for those of a fossil fuel company, Fox successfully strips a great deal of the moral complexity out of the situation. Sure, energy production is an essential part of civilization. It warms and empowers and educates people, and can bring them out of poverty. Later in the film, we even see an instance of solar-powered irrigation pumps being distributed in Zambia to help impoverished women make a living by growing and selling vegetables, and thus avoid being swept up into their only alternative trade – prostitution. The film isn’t afraid to muddy the waters a bit on these issues, but it distills them into a fine argument for the idea that people should be free to refuse an outsider’s definition of progress if they wish, especially if it accompanies destruction of their way of life. This is just one small conflict in one small place, but its relevance to the lopsided struggle against climate change is palpable.

Still from

This theme continues as the film shifts its focus to Pacific Islanders, whose homes aren’t merely threatened with oil production, but rather total destruction through sea level rise. One unexpectedly poignant section focuses an affable, dancing Samoan man, Mika Maiava (whom Fox ably identifies as “the Jack Black of climate change”), a spokesman for a group of activists called the Pacific Climate Warriors. We first see the Warriors during an impressive segment in which islanders in hand-carved canoes blockade an Australian coal port. This sequence is spectacular in its tense, on-the-water coverage, and I don’t dare speak of it in too much detail. After the blockade is over, as Fox returns with Maiava to his home island to get footage of an odd local custom.

We quickly meet Maiava’s pregnant (and past-due) wife, and he tells the tale: when a baby is born, they save the placenta, and plant it in the ground, along with a coconut tree. The tree grows tall, and forms a life-long connection between the islanders and their homeland as they grow up. I must confess, I initially rolled my eyes a bit at this on-the-nose metaphor, and even wrote in my notes, “Probably don’t need to mention the placenta-trees.” As Maiava and Fox take a roadtrip to visit his father’s tree, the islander engages in what seems to be commonplace gallows humor, joking about how they’re all gonna drown when the island disappears into the sea. And then, with some difficulty, they find the spot. And Mika Maiava transforms in front of me and breaks my heart, as he realizes, for the first time on camera, that his father’s tree is gone. The entire small section of coast where it had been planted had succumbed to coastal erosion. This warrior, who fights every day for the future of his unborn child, is deconstructed before my eyes. His tough, but jovial demeanor melts away, and he is reduced to tears.

Still from

This segment embodies what makes this film so effective – its reliance on moments of genuine and irrepressible humanity. I’ve only mentioned a handful of the innumerable segments – Fox also visits the choking smog of Beijing and the Chinese countryside (where the film takes a surprisingly intense turn), melting glaciers in Iceland, and various other locations that climate change is likely to touch in some way. And in each spot, he rapidly establishes a setting and manages to tell a quick, human story in the process. Not all of these vignettes succeed (the “dancing democracy” scene is a bit baffling), but I’m hard-pressed to find one that didn’t affect me in some way. Early in the film, as Fox explores the wreckage of Sandy, he admits a minor journalistic failing, as they walk past the house of a widower whose wife had just drowned in the storm. “I just couldn’t bring myself to point the camera in a grieving man’s face and ask, ‘Can I get your story on camera?'” By bringing his camera around the world and pointing it in the faces of people who are certainly in need of help, but are nonetheless fighting for their futures every day, Fox attempts to flip the script on climate change from a daunting problem that we’re all powerless to arrest, to a daunting problem that we’re empowered to unite and face together. How to Let Go of the World is at once inspiring and sad – and a cultural document that will age in a manner entirely dependent on what we do next.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

How To Let Go of the World premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently on a tour of the US. It will be playing in Seattle from May 20-26 at the Varsity Theatre, and there will be a Q&A with the filmmakers after the Friday, May 20th screening at 7PM. More info at this link. The documentary will also air on HBO this summer.

Editor’s note:
This review seems like a good spot to mention that my home state of Washington is trying to pass a ballot initiative for a statewide, revenue-neutral tax on carbon emissions in November. Pollution gets taxed, and 100% of the revenue goes back to the people. Pretty much a no-brainer economically – we nudge ourselves in the right direction, away from pollution, in a cost-effective manner. If you’re a Washingtonian, know that we have a chance to lead the nation in fighting climate change here and now.

Join the fight today and help I-732 pass in November.

SIFF Roundup: “We Steal Secrets”, “Stories We Tell” (Updated)

Still from "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks"
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
Directed by Alex Gibney (documentary)

Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) is an adept interviewer, but he confronts a serious challenge when it comes to tackling the career and cult of personality of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as well as alleged whistleblower PFC Bradley Manning. The film ends (as of March 2013, an end-credits crawl informs us) with both of its subjects locked in a room for an indeterminate length of time – Manning locked in the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, VA, and Assange in sequestered asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. We Steal Secrets makes no claim of access to either of its principal subjects (although Gibney claims to have met with Assange on an estate in the English countryside, wherein he declined to appear in the film), but relies instead on the swath of publicly available material on both men.

Consequently, the film could be little more than a shallow, pop-journalistic chronicle of these events, but it succeeds in challenging much of the conventional wisdom surrounding the case. Julian Assange was indeed a thorn in the sides of several governments, as well as a crusader for free speech and free information. And yet, he is also an accused sex criminal who has declined to answer the official accusations against him. These events dovetailed into a level of paranoia that I (and Gibney, and many others) found quite alluring when they first came to light – surely the accusations were nothing more than an attempt to embarrass or discredit a man who had stepped on the wrong toes. But Gibney argues quite convincingly that that the internet hivemind’s opposition to Assange’s extradition or prosecution has little to do with the facts of the case, but rather with Assange’s cult of personality. Assange can be nothing more or less than a total guardian of free speech and information – a paragon, or nothing at all. The Internet, in all its subtlety, is unable to accept anything in-between. Nor is it willing to accept the conceptual utility of WikiLeaks as a tool for forcibly open democracy without a man like Assange – who dresses and talks like a James Bond villain – as its charismatic leader.

All of these contradictions come to a head in We Steal Secrets, whose title tells us a good deal more about ourselves as Americans and internet users than it does about WikiLeaks. Gibney focuses on the human side of whistleblowing – specifically, the chat logs between Manning and hacker Adrian Lamo. Manning comes off in a sympathetic, if not precisely admirable light. The secure dropboxing of confidential files becomes the desperate outreach of a lonely, tortured soul in the desert who just can’t come to grips with what he is experiencing – to say nothing of who he is. And for much of the film’s runtime, an uninitiated viewer would have no idea who the source of these chat logs might be, since they appear on-screen with simple, text-based flourishes and distant typing sounds. Manning’s musings become a lone voice in the darkness with no clear provenance. Editor Andy Grieve keeps the pace moving nicely (and makes one particularly haunting montage use of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone”). The film is 130 minutes long, but remains quite gripping throughout. Gibney manages to ask a great many provocative questions of several powerful individuals involved (including the thoroughly candid retired general Michael Hayden, ex-director of both the CIA and the NSA), which mixes nicely with a wealth of archive footage of Assange. Despite his lofty goals, the grudging consensus seems to be that WikiLeaks did little more than embarrass the countries involved. With this film, Gibney may have only accomplished the same for Assange himself, but this still makes an effective chronicle of a story that is very much still in progress.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Update (2013-05-23): WikiLeaks has posted a complete transcript of the film, annotated with their own comments and rebuttals. You can read it here.

Still from "Stories We Tell"
Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley (documentary)

Actress and writer/director Sarah Polley is no stranger to putting personal stories on film – her 2011 drama Take This Waltz examines a crumbling marriage (focusing on a housewife played by Michelle Williams). While that fictitious story was undeniably put to film in the wake of Polley’s own divorce, the viewer is left to speculate about the extent to which Polley’s own experience may have informed her screenwriting. Not so with Stories We Tell. In this documentary, Polley brings an intensely personal story to life starring her entire extended family, and the narrative is structured in such a way that would practically prevent Polley from coloring it exclusively with her own perspective. This is a meta-narrative, in which we cut back and forth between Polley’s father (the captivating Michael Polley) sitting in a recording booth reading a prepared third-person account of his life experience, and being interviewed (in first-person) to react to the very same events. The contrast between these two perspectives (each from the same man with varying levels of preparation) is utterly fascinating, and becomes even more so when mixed with the other storytellers. These include Polley’s siblings, relatives, and various old friends of her now-deceased mother, whose life and children are the film’s principal subjects.

The mystery of Diane Polley (Sarah’s mother) is at the core of this film. With this woman dead and gone, all that her loved ones have left are their own memories and perspectives – and the narratives that they construct from them. The film gets at the heart of storytelling as a technique for making sense of the world, and does so in a manner that is utterly free from reproach. The Polley family never once struck me as self-obsessed or navel-gazing individuals. Not only are they a captivating bunch, but they also demonstrate a healthy measure of humility when it comes to rendering this intensely personal (and potentially humiliating) story. You really get the feeling watching the film that if this documentary were to be viewed by no one else except for the individuals involved, they would all be okay with that. This is one of the most earnest personal testaments that I’ve seen since 2008’s Dear Zachary, a film which served a much more subdued and heart-wrenching narrative than what is on display here. The saddest part of this story is that Diane is not around to answer these questions herself, and yet the stories that remain behind feel just as important and vivacious in her absence. This film is nothing short of a masterpiece – hilarious and heartfelt, and brilliantly blurring the lines between documentary and reenactment. It is an act of courage and personal conviction, delivered with an admirable measure of humility.

It’s only in the film’s final act that it shows its hand a bit, and some viewers may find the “making of itself” portion of the documentary to be a bit tedious. For a film nerd like me, it did nothing to diminish the experience, since it only served to further elucidate the precise nature and value of good storytelling. To illuminate how this documentary reluctantly came together only served to add additional weight and consequence to the story. Even as the film’s principal subjects debate who was the most fitting person to render these events into a narrative, it becomes ironically clear that this story ceased to be their exclusive property the moment they decided to tell it. The genie is out of the bottle, but the world is better off for it.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #22 – “Safety Not Guaranteed” (dir. Colin Trevorrow), “The Imposter” (dir. Bart Layton) (SIFF)

Poster for "Safety Not Guaranteed"

As SIFF continues, Glenn and Daniel check out the highly anticipated time travel comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, which comes home to Seattle along with much of its cast and crew. Then they jump out of their seats and run to the next auditorium to pose as film critics in a packed screening of Bart Layton‘s utterly fascinating documentary/thriller, The Imposter.

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Safety Not Guaranteed): 6/10
FilmWonk rating (The Imposter): 9/10

Show notes:

  • (00:00) Review: Safety Not Guaranteed
  • (06:45) Spoilers: Safety Not Guaranteed (although we somewhat spoil the Jake Johnson subplot starting at 05:38)
  • (13:22) Review: The Imposter
  • (19:56) Spoilers: The Imposter
  • Correction: I mistakenly refer to Colin Trevorrow as a first-time director. In fact, he has a few prior credits, including this amusing short from 2002.
  • For some reason, there’s a vague spoiler for the 7th season finale of House (at 08:12). Thanks for that, Daniel.
  • But later, Daniel redeems himself by mentioning the Ninja Kitty video, which is definitely worth watching.
  • Nerd quibble: Aragorn decapitated an Uruk-hai, not a Nazgul.
  • Unfortunately, there was no trailer available for The Imposter, so we included a brief clip from the SXSW interview with director Bart Layton, available in its entirety here.
  • We refer to the Taylor University van crash case, in which a college student named Whitney Cerak was misidentified as another student who died (even mistaken by the victim’s family).
  • I was referring to this guy in this movie. Kudos to anyone who got this utterly pointless reference.

Listen above, or download: Safety Not Guaranteed/The Imposter (right-click, save as).