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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #85 – “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (dir. Zach Snyder)

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel unwittingly produce an abundance of pull-quotes for the marketing of Zach Snyder‘s latest disposable superhero mashup. Samples for the press include, “Unrelentingly grim,” “Gal Gadot is in this movie,” and “Supes could’ve blasted his medulla oblongata”(50:38).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5/10 (Daniel); 3/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the original 1966 Batman TV series theme song. And we end with “Kryptonite” by Three Doors Down.

Listen above, or download: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #83 – “Hail, Caesar!” (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

Poster for "Hail, Caesar!"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel fight their initial impulse to embrace yet another Hollywood love letter to the motion picture, and instead enjoy the Coen Bros‘ vigorous cinematic hate-fuck Hail, Caesar! Gene Autry and Kirk Douglas will be rolling in their graves…with laughter (33:53).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for tonight’s episode is the “The Merry Widow Waltz” by Franz Lehár and “Echelon Song” by A.V. Alexandrov and Osip Kolychev, as performed by The Red Army Choir, both from the film’s soundtrack.
  • Glenn: Hugo was my #1 of 2011 (not 2009), and The Artist was #5 in the same year. Birdman was my #1 of 2014. Like Hollywood, it appears I’m a big ol’ sucker for movies about movies.
  • Cinema attendance has indeed been on the decline since the 1940s, and home televisions are largely credited with this decline. In 1930, more than 65% of the US population went to the movies every week. It dropped to around 10% in the 1960s, and has stayed at about that level since.
  • CORRECTION: We briefly implied that we stand with Rand. We do not. We regret the error.
  • CORRECTION: In the description above, we jokingly implied that Kirk Douglas is dead. He’s alive and kicking, and his son got him a bitchin’ 99th birthday gift.

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

“Spotlight” vs. “Concussion” – The Hard Problem of Institutional Guilt

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It would be easy to say that Spotlight, director Tom McCarthy’s dramatization of a 2002 newspaper investigation that first brought to light the rampant sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church is the same film as Peter Landesman’s Concussion, dramatizing the outside medical investigation of chronic concussion-related injuries in the NFL. But while they hew to a similar formula, they really have completely different approaches to both their underlying subject matter, as well as to institutional guilt itself.

Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is introduced in Concussion as a capable and unbiased outsider (both as an immigrant from Nigeria, and a non football-fan) who discovers chronic (but subtle) neurological degeneration in the brains of deceased former NFL players. He comes with impeccable credentials and education, and both he and the film know that he’s always right. He’s Dr. House without the sarcasm or pill addiction. He is, in essence, a paragon. And this makes it all the more difficult to accept him as an unapologetic moral crusader in his investigation of a newly named condition, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that causes former NFL players to undergo rapid neurological degeneration similar to Alzheimer’s at a young age, often coming to violent self-inflicted deaths in the process. The reason why his moral crusade doesn’t play nearly as well is because, simply put, the film has no clear idea of what the NFL might have known about the condition and when – and scientific discovery doesn’t work on a schedule. Omalu is well-meaning, but he only has a handful of initial cases, and while it’s easy to make comparisons between the NFL’s alleged “We don’t know and we don’t want to know” attitude, and the Catholic Church’s well-established institutional enabling and protection of pedophile priests (or, if you like, the tobacco industry as depicted in Michael Mann’s The Insider), the films really are dealing with completely different scopes of corruption and institutional guilt. There’s nothing ambiguous or scientifically controversial about child molestation. It’s either happening, or it’s not. A newly discovered medical condition that is poorly understood and difficult to detect (not showing up on brain scans of the living) is a bit harder to be so dogmatic about.

Meanwhile, Spotlight meticulously catalogs the varied and sprawling investigative threads of its Boston Globe reporters – Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) – we see clergy, attorneys, reporters, therapists, parents, teachers, administrators, and parishioners, all of whom had some level of knowledge about the situation, and all of whom were complicit on at least a minimal level in allowing it to continue. As lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) says halfway through the film, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” This is a damning quote because the film so convincingly makes the case that the abuse was widespread, widely known, and only came to light when people (including victims) were willing to come together and put a stop to it. Contrast this with Concussion‘s clunky proclamations about how millions of Americans love the game, and the NFL employs hundreds of thousands of people, and cities and states have built massive stadiums even as they can’t afford to fund their schools (which struck below the belt as far as my home State of Washington is concerned), and it really just doesn’t have much bite to it. Even as Dr. Omalu gets late-night phone calls asking why he wants to “vaginize” football, the stakes are thoroughly muddled. Every change that has ever been made to American football has “ruined the game” in someone’s eyes, and it’s hard to imagine that trying to reduce the frequency and treatment of concussive blows to the head would be any exception. Yes, America loves football. And perhaps the NFL knew enough about CTE that they should’ve done something earlier to try to prevent any further cases of it, or at least stop trying to wriggle out of paying adequate disability pensions for those players who were affected by it. But apart from the men we see succumbing to their illness and dying on-screen, any guilt (whether individual or institutional) is poorly delineated, and no solutions are offered. Given that Luke Wilson appears in an essentially silent role as NFL chairman Roger Goodell, I can’t help but wonder if any desperately-needed context was left on the cutting room floor.

Another way the films differ is in how they depict the effects each investigation has upon its investigators. Dr. Omalu’s devastated outlook as the NFL makes various attempts to blackball and discredit his research is probably the most interesting part of the film, if only because Will Smith so thoroughly sells his disappointment that America didn’t live up to his immigrant expectations. “This is America,” he says to his future wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) early in the film, “Where you must be the best version of yourself.” As he comes forward to tell the NFL about this problem (by way of a case study in a prestigious medical journal), he genuinely believes that A) The NFL couldn’t possibly have known, and B) They will thank him and want to work with him. Obviously, this isn’t what happens. And Dr. Omalu is devastated to learn the true nature of the country that he has adopted as his own.

Beyond this, there is little in the way of personal stakes involved for this investigation. Sure, he’s paying for many of the medical tests himself, but we never really get a sense that this is causing him any hardship. He doesn’t know football, understand it, or enjoy it. This makes him non-malicious, but it also makes his arc as an outsider and moral paragon that much less interesting. Dr. Julian Baines (Alec Baldwin), a former Pittsburgh Steelers team doctor, has a bit more reluctance about attacking the game he loves, but he only ever voices it after he has already committed to helping Dr. Omalu. So any internal conflict that he may have experienced feels fleeting. The inevitable moments of confrontation are well-acted, but feel perfunctory and unrealistic. When Dr. Omalu meets privately with an NFL doctor, Elliot Pellman (Paul Reiser), and gives an impassioned sotto voce demand that he “Tell the truth!” about what’s going on, Smith sells the moment with his acting, but it has not been earned in the least, if only because science doesn’t deal in practical or moral certainty. It just deals with increasing degrees of understanding, to the point where we can reasonably make decisions based on them. But I suppose, “You should conduct a longitudinal study on the issue and begin taking basic precautions out of an abundance of concern for the players’ well-being” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well.

Contrast this with the Globe reporters, who are clearly affected by every moment of Spotlight‘s investigation. All of them are lapsed Catholics, most of them are native Bostonians, and they have no desire to eviscerate the institutions that have comprised the fabric and background of their entire lives, and will continue to surround them after the story breaks. They’re certain of the rightness of what they’re doing, and they’re also frightened, angry, and unsure what the right approach to the story really is. Is it just a few bad apples, or is it the entire institution that’s corrupt? Which is worse – perpetrating these monstrous acts, or conspiring to cover them up, enabling further victimization? And at what point do you have a level of certainty that allows you to tell this story publicly? And when Rezendes finally loses his temper and demands that the Globe print the story immediately, Ruffalo has thoroughly sold his personal stakes in the matter, and the reactions of the rest of the Spotlight team clearly indicate that he’s just screaming aloud what all of them are struggling with internally. This struggle, with how to tell the right story at the right time, is the essence of good journalism, and Spotlight depicts it as well as it has ever been put to film. It demands that the viewer place themselves in the shoes of people scrambling in the dark to reveal what had previously been unimaginable.

In the end, both films have value, even if Spotlight has a treads a much more difficult path toward the story that it’s looking to reveal, whereas Concussion often just feels like it’s going through the motions (everything to do with Dr. Omalu’s wife, for instance). However, one area in which both films excel is in depicting the victims of their respective institutions, and it is perhaps where both films deserve credit for elevating the importance of what they are depicting. David Morse, Adewale Akinnouoye-Agbaje, and Matthew Willig all play former NFL players whose horrifying deaths are at the center of Concussion‘s mystery, and even if it lacks the moral clarity of Spotlight, the viewer is at least left with a sense that we owe these men an explanation for their largely uniform mental deterioration. Conversely, the victims of Catholic clergy sexual abusers are depicted in a variety of states, both in deep denial, chemical dependency, and relative normality. There is no such thing as a perfect victim outside of fiction, and between the two films, Spotlight is certainly less interested in perfection. It shines a light into the darkness, and shows us whatever may appear there.

FilmWonk rating (Spotlight): 9 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Concussion): 6.5 out of 10