FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #104 – “The Wall” (dir. Doug Liman) vs. “Buried” (dir. Rodrigo Cortés)

Poster for "The Wall" (2017 film)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the latter days of the Iraq War with a lean thriller from Amazon Studios and director Doug Liman, The Wall, and we revisit the 2010 Rodrigo Cortés thriller, Buried. It all looks a bit grim, and while there may be an ending in sight, we’ll figure out which flick handled that ending best (47:15).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Buried"

The Wall is in theaters this Friday, 5/12, and will be available on Amazon video later this year.

FilmWonk rating (The Wall): 7/10 (Daniel); 6/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Buried): 6/10 (Daniel); 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [00:33] Review: The Wall/Buried
  • [24:02] Spoilers: The Wall/Buried
  • Music for this episode is the opening title theme from Buried, composed by Victor Reyes.
  • Check out Glenn’s 2010 review of Buried.
  • Clarification: We stated a figure of 500,000 deaths from the Iraq War, and this appears to be on the high end of estimates, based on a 2011 study in PLoS Medicine, which relied on census-style household surveys, and had an extremely high uncertainty interval (95%), meaning that the study’s casualty estimate was anywhere from 48,000-751,000. The Iraq Body Count project, which relies largely on media reports (and thus may be underestimating), puts the figure at closer to 120,000. The overall point notwithstanding, there does not appear to be a single, agreed-upon figure. See Wikipedia: Casualties of the Iraq War for more information.
  • As promised, according to RF Cafe, the density of dry sand is 100 lb/ft3. A standard coffin is approximately 7 feet long, and 2.333 feet wide at its widest point. If Paul was buried under 3 feet of sand, this amounts to approximately 49ft3 of sand above him, weighing just under 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg). With all respect to The Bride, Paul’s not punching his way out of this.

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

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #103 – “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” (dir. James Gunn)

Poster for "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and discover their limit of inconsequential action is about the first 90 minutes (53:28).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 4.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, and “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac, from the film’s soundtrack and trailer respectively.
  • After recording this episode, Glenn got into it offline with the hosts of The Spoilers: Wayne & Daryl (not for the first time – Glenn previously crashed their episode of The Seattle After Party podcast).
    Suffice to say, you should check out what these nerds have to say about this film, and expect some guest appearances in the future.
  • Check out Glenn’s review of Passengers here.
  • We called out the greatness of the makeup artists behind these characters, and how well Nebula, Gamora, Yondu, and Drax’s makeup held up in IMAX closeups – but there was one we didn’t even realize. Young Ego (Kurt Russell) was mostly makeup, (applied by artist Dennis Liddiard), with only a few CGI tweaks. Very cool.
  • The video that was ringing in our heads as we evaluated the atrocious character of Mantis (Pom Klementieff) was Anita Sarkeesian‘s most recent (and final) video in the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, “The Lady Sidekick“. And…wow, was it ever spot-on for this character.

Listen above, or download: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2. (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #102 – “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (dir. Niki Caro), “The Last Laugh” (dir. Ferne Pearlstein) (#SJFF2017)

Poster for "The Zookeeper's Wife"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel check out their final two selections from the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, starting with Jessica Chastain in an untold Schindler’s List story, The Zookeeper’s Wife. And then we’re joined by a special guest, local author Erika Spoden, to discuss see who gets The Last Laugh when it comes to the Holocaust and other taboo humor subjects (including 9/11 and suicide bombings). Light, fluffy stuff, really. We promise (01:21:30).

May contain NSFW language.

Still of Mel Brooks in "The Last Laugh"

FilmWonk rating (The Zookeeper’s Wife): 7 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (The Last Laugh): 4/10 (Daniel/Glenn), 7/10 (Erika)

Show notes:

  • [01:47] Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife
  • [26:32] Spoilers: The Zookeeper’s Wife
  • [46:55] Review: The Last Laugh
  • Music for this episode is the track “It’s Now or Never” by Elvis Presley (an English-language adaptation of O Sole Mio), which appears prominently (if a bit randomly) in The Last Laugh.
  • 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!
  • 20-year-old spoiler warning: We do discuss the ending of Roberto Benigni‘s Life is Beautiful in this episode.
  • We remarked upon the first film’s similarity to Schindler’s List – this led us to read up on those individuals who have been designated Righteous Among the Nations (an honorific by the State of Israel, similar to knighthood) for their work protecting Jews from persecution and death during the Holocaust. Over 26,000 individuals in 51 countries have been so designated, and their stories of heroism and sacrifice are well worth studying.
  • Daniel was correct – the term “genetics” dates back to the 19th century, and was coined in 1872 by an English biologist as a term for “laws of origination”. The sense of “study of heredity” comes about 20 years later, so the term had been around for over half a century by the time of this film’s events.
  • Correction: Oof. Glenn definitely referred to the late, great Joan Rivers as the very much alive Joan Collins at least once. Apologies to both ladies.
  • The two films that we discussed in the context of modern terrorism were Four Lions, from British comedian Chris Morris, and Paradise Now, from Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad.
  • Joan Rivers told a Holocaust joke on the E! Channel, said a few more things on Letterman, and came back a year later to double down on Jimmy Fallon. These jokes are offensive, and we laughed at every single one of them. We repeatedly called this woman a national treasure and we stand by it.

Listen above, or download: The Zookeeper’s Wife, The Last Laugh (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #97 – “Split” (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

Poster for "Split"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel (plus special out-of-town guest Tex) see if M. Night Shyamalan still has the ability to twist a film into something likable. The answer – especially after we disliked The Visit so much – may surprise you (39:24)!

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Frogbass” by Snails, from the film’s soundtrack. Incidentally, this appears during a scene where we were promised that McAvoy would dance to Kanye, but I’m betting he was too expensive for a Blumhouse picture.
  • Speaking of, this film’s budget was $10 million, which is on the high end for Blumhouse Productions, matching the likes of Insidious: Chapter 3, Sinister 2, and The Purge: Election Year.
  • Michael Gioulakis was also responsible for the outstanding widescreen cinematography on Glenn’s #1 film of 2015, It Follows.
  • Check out the great work done by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and if you’re able, think about donating!

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

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #91 – “The Birth of a Nation” (dir. Nate Parker)

Poster for "The Birth of a Nation"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel try their level best to be objective about a film and filmmaker that strive at every turn to make them otherwise, Nate Parker‘s The Birth of a Nation. All of the film’s controversy (and surprisingly frequent comparisons to the work of Mel Gibson) is fundamentally about the interplay of fact and fiction, of drama and history, with our intrepid hosts firmly entrenched on opposite sides. Can we reach an accord, or will we go to war like the Inglourious Basterds of old? Tune in and find out below (49:46).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5/10 (Daniel), 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Black Moses” by Pusha T (featuring Meek Mill & Priscilla Renea) from the film’s Inspired By soundtrack, and Nina Simone‘s 1965 version of “Strange Fruit“, which appeared in the film’s teaser trailer.
  • Jerusalem, Virginia was indeed a real village – it was renamed to Courtland, Virginia in 1888.
  • Without being able to scroll back through the film frame by frame, we can’t be completely sure, but as best we can remember (with Google’s assistance), the Bible verse briefly shown in the film (which is the closest that the film comes to suggesting that the rebellion plans to murder children) is Ezekiel 9:5-7:

    And to the others he said in mine hearing, Go ye after him through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity:
    Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark; and begin at my sanctuary. Then they began at the ancient men which were before the house.
    And he said unto them, Defile the house, and fill the courts with the slain: go ye forth. And they went forth, and slew in the city.(KJV)

  • CORRECTION: This one, I really feel bad about, because it wasn’t HBO’s Entourage, the horrendous guilty pleasure of my early 20s, that was responsible for the fictitious Haitian Revolution movie. It was writer/director Chris Rock, in his outstanding 2014 film Top Five (which made my Top 10 for that year). I did correctly characterize its role in that film, however – it was an example of an artsy project that nobody wanted to see.

Listen above, or download: The Birth of a Nation (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.

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #86 – “Demolition” (dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel struggle with the overwhelming sense that they’ve seen this movie before – Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition is the tale of a rich, white person’s unconventional journey of grief – but well-worn territory or not, it’s quite fun (27:13).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

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