FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #127 – “Annihilation” (dir. Alex Garland)

Poster for "Annihilation"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel head into the mysterious world of the Shimmer, hspcp ylelwtp azcexly lyo zespcd pyepc l xjdepctzfd hzcwo zq dnclxmwpo yzydpydp lyo te’d acpeej nzzw lyo hptco, mfe ld td zqepy esp nldp rwpyy wtvpo te mpeepc esly olytpw (34:26).

May contain NSFW language.

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

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks “Disoriented” and “The Beach”, by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, from the film’s original score.
  • CORRECTION: The use of white phosphorus munitions is not as clear-cut (from a standpoint of international law or US military regulations) as I suggested. It’s definitely some nasty shit though.
  • We briefly discussed the immortal cervical cancer cell line from Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), known as HeLa, which has been invaluable and prolific in cancer research, with an estimated 20 tons of sample material grown by researchers in laboratory conditions. It’s also part of the unfortunate legacy of dubious or outright unethical medical experimentation on African-American patients (without consent or compensation) that was commonplace in the early to mid-20th century. The book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which Lena is seen to be reading in this film, is a fascinating primer on the case.
  • CORRECTION: Apoptosis is indeed the term for the biologically programmed death of a cell. However, I misremembered this as the subject of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Researcher Yoshinori Ohsumi won the prize in that year for his study of a related, but not identical, process, autophagy, a fundamental process for degrading and recycling components within a cell.

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


Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” – What is it all for?

Last year, Jyn Erso and her merry band of sacrificial Rogues reminded us that rebellions are built on hope – that tiny spark of belief in a better tomorrow, a future that’s bigger and grander than yourself. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – which left off with natural-born proto-Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally locating Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the long-lost, last living Jedi in the galaxy – is keen to explore this concept in greater detail. To slip through its sheen and shielding and really demand an answer to the question that has burned through decades and directors and a trilogy of trilogies. If fear leads to anger leads to hate leads to suffering…if the Light Side begets the Dark Side which brings back the Light Side which resurges the Dark Side… If the war never ends, what is it all for? I credited Rogue One with accomplishing something that eluded The Force Awakens: making the Death Star and associated superweapons actually seem scary. That compliment should rightfully be taken as a criticism of The Force Awakens, and it wasn’t for lack of trying on that film’s part. We saw the awesome power of the biggest, baddest, newest beam of death, wiping out multiple planets from another system that we didn’t know or care about until minutes beforehand. We’re told that these planets make up the new Republic – whatever that is at this point. A few featured extras look scared and dissolve into oblivion, and that’s that. Then the superweapon and a sizable cohort of the First Order are destroyed, and that’s that. And all of the main characters (save Han Solo, who is dramatically murdered by his adult son), escape to fight another day. And as an audience, we’re left to ponder, once again, what is it all for? This level of attrition is unsustainable and pointless. Fear will keep the local systems in line, but what else do they have to live for? What is everyday life for the non-military Star Wars universe apart from combat and desperation, slavery and decay, trading junk for scrap and muddling through for one more day? That’s the life that Rey is living at the outset of this trilogy. When you really consider this universe, it seems terribly bleak, and overdue for an honest look at itself. Which is why I was so excited to see indie and cable drama auteur Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, Breaking Bad) take a steady shot at making sense of it all. The Last Jedi doesn’t present the same shallow hope we’ve seen before – the sort that is easy to cheer for, as long as its sole objective is to hop in an X-Wing and blow something up. It also dares to deconstruct that hope, as it really must exist in such a universe.

It starts with Skywalker, who disappeared to his Jedi Temple island by choice, with no desire to return and face his failure with his nephew Ben Solo, now styled as Sith apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The two tell a similar story of why the latter’s Jedi training went so wrong. Luke founded a new Jedi Temple and began training Ben Solo and other youths who were strong with the Force. Solo turned to the Dark Side, destroying the temple and killing any trainee who wouldn’t leave to follow his path. They agree on that much. But as we hear them recount the story, each of them credibly blames the other for it, and it is to the film’s immense credit that it doesn’t take a firm position on who is correct. Luke may be able to see things through the lens of the Force – the Light Side and the Dark – and so can his student. But Kylo Ren is just like any other well-drawn villain – he sees himself as essentially justified in his actions. Righteous even. Each of these men carries a version of this story, and we will only see its truth revealed through the decisions they make. The Force acts as a bit of a galactic telephone here, bringing Kylo and Rey into shared proximity for a tense conversation while they remain far apart in reality. This forms a tug-of-war for Rey, who never quite feels like a thrall of either would-be teacher. If Luke exemplifies anything by this point, it is fear of the full potential of the Force. He saw it in Kylo Ren, and he sees it in Rey. Meanwhile, she’s happy to receive his corrections about the nature of the Force – but equally ready to ditch him if he should prove unwilling to leave his retreat and render aid. Skywalker’s lessons about the Force play through a lens of bitter cynicism – he castigates the Jedi for their arrogance and hubris – but he also corrects Rey’s amateur assumptions. The Force, he says, is not a tool invented by the Jedi for lifting rocks, nor is it even their exclusive possession. It is an energy that connects all living things, and maintains them in balance. If this sounds a bit familiar, I must emphasize that this is quite a different dynamic from Yoda training Luke on Dagobah. Luke isn’t being coy about any hidden desire to train Rey; he wants her to leave him the hell alone. He’s got a nice life sleeping alone on rocks and subsisting on fish and dinosaur milk. He misses Han and Leia, but has no desire to rejoin their fight. He regrets his failures and wants the Jedi to go extinct.

Here’s another loose Empire comparison for this film: our heroes escape from a Resistance Base under First Order siege at the start of this film – but unlike Hoth, this is primarily a space battle – and an awesome and costly one to boot. This isn’t the best space battle we’ve seen in the new films (that goes to the finale of Rogue One, for much better use of all three dimensions), but for keeping up with the original trilogy’s planar, World War II battleship aesthetic, it is certainly a memorable sequence. It introduces many novel ships (the fleet-killing Dreadnought and the Resistance bombers are both a sight to behold) and has lasting character consequences. First, there are the flawed X-Wing heroics and bravado of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), probably the least-developed new character in The Force Awakens, who is handed the truly precious character gift of being wrong, over and over and over again during this film. He’s quite good at blowing things up for the Resistance, but his instincts prove to be a serious liability, and this movie isn’t afraid to let him fail spectacularly. The opening battle also helps to form the backstory of a new character, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a ship’s mechanic on an ad hoc guard rotation that plunks her directly into the path of the cool kids as the newly revived Finn (John Boyega) tries to sneak off the ship for reasons that he assures her are noble. After he recovers from her stun bolt to the chest, the three form an ad hoc posse who hatch a plot to save the Resistance fleet, which is still being pursued by remnants of the First Order.

That’s essentially the A-plot to the film: the dregs of one space navy chasing the dregs of another. And somehow, in the middle of it all, we find Finn and Rose on a secret mission to Space Vegas, trying to locate a codebreaker who can help their fleet out of this jam. This planet and town had an actual name (Canto Bight), but I’m going to describe it in familiar terms. It’s a huge seaside casino town – Space Monte Carlo is probably a better moniker – crowded with an extravagant horde of the galactic 1%, drinking and spending and partying. The familiar Cantina steel drums pick up (with yet another new John Williams track) and drunken aliens stumble around blowing wads of credits, including a tiny one who tries to insert coins in BB-8. The closest thing we’ve seen to this before is Coruscant, the seat of the Old Republic (and eventually the Empire) – a planet covered with a single massive city that is the center of political and economic power in the galaxy. But this is something different – a luxurious, sparsely-populated planet where the galactic superrich go to party and debauch. In the midst of a planet-killing interstellar war, we could easily blow past the absurdity of such a place existing in relative peace, but the movie immediately calls attention to it. If Coruscant was the seat of the Empire, this is the seat of the military-industrial complex, filled loosely to the brim with the sort of people (and aliens) who could only get this rich by selling weapons to anyone and everyone who will buy them. And it’s all quite lovely at first – this is some of the best production design in a Rian Johnson film since The Brothers Bloom, brought to life by production designer Rick Heinrichs (known for similarly impressive work on the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films) and veteran sci-fi costumer Michael Kaplan. Finn, a lowborn soldier, is impressed by the grandeur and spectacle, but Rose invites him to look closer, and spot the cruelty hovering just below the surface of the extravagant capitalism on display. Since there is child slavery and animal abuse literally within binocular view at the time, her point is well-made, but the script and actors pull off one of the film’s more subtle tricks in this scene, by giving one possible answer to the question that I posed above: this place is what it’s all for. War has the potential to enrich the lives of a few privileged people, far away from the front lines, and any hope that they may experience is vested solely in their stock price. Rose spots this cruelty because it is familiar to her – she saw it on her home planet, which the First Order used for mining and target practice – and it is further embodied in an unnamed gangster played by Benicio del Toro. He’s neither to be trusted, nor trifled with, but as he joins their mission to save the Resistance fleet, he utters one of his only honest lines in the film: “They’ll blow you up today, you’ll blow them up tomorrow. It’s just business.”

“You’re wrong,” declares Finn.

“Maybe!” says the gangster, with an unsentimental twitch of the eye, not seeming to care one way or the other. I hope we see more of him.

As conventional villains go, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is a pitiless monster and – par for the course for one of Serkis’ digital costumes – a flawless CGI creation. He dresses down Kylo Ren as a child in a mask, and tosses and Force-shocks him around like a rag doll for good measure. And of course, an epic struggle plays out between the nascent Force-users over which of their destinies Snoke will control this week. But looking back, that all feels like the old, childish Light-and-Dark stuff to me. These people – strong with the Force or otherwise – will chase and blast and slice and blow each other up til the end of the universe, and perhaps the only real villain that the series has left for us to face…is nihilism. Rey tells Luke from the outset that General Leia (Carrie Fisher) sent her to see him for hope. If Leia was wrong, she deserves to know why. “We all do,” says Rey. This poor woman is begging a Jedi Knight for his help, and all he wants to do is stay put and die. Hamill’s performance is impressive, bringing a gruff intensity that thoroughly spells out what a disappointment Luke Skywalker turned out to be, for us, and for himself. He is the flip side of del Toro’s unnamed gangster, neither losing nor profiting from the endless war – instead, simply bowing out. If the Force is what binds all things together in perfect harmony, then hope is as fine an emotion as any to invest in it. But what’s on the other side? Not darkness or evil – those are forces to be actively fought. This is despair. Nothingness. Abrogating your power and purpose in the universe and declaring that it can do whatever it wants, because it’s not your problem anymore. This is some dark stuff coming from Disney, and frankly, a great deal more moral complexity than I expected from a Star Wars film.

That’s where Skywalker starts as a character in this film, and I won’t say where he goes, nor will I spoil the final battle. I’ll just say that it all feels worth it, and seems to be taking these characters in a worthwhile direction. Carrie Fisher has a worthy send-off, and we could always use more Laura Dern. There is a desperate finality to this entire battle that made me briefly ponder how there could be a third chapter to this story. A single silent shot (matched by silence in my theater) is perhaps one of the most visually stunning moments that has ever appeared in the series. But I’m taking this film’s narrative ambition as a promise to be fulfilled with the next film. If The Last Jedi dares to challenge the duality of the Light/Dark-side narrative by couching it as a matter of perspective; if it dares to ask the question of why we should be invested in the outcome of a struggle between two flagging military superpowers for any reason besides the names and flags they use to denote their respective teams, the next had better answer the question in a satisfying manner. What is it all for? The Resistance, or the Rebellion, fights for what they love (Rose seems to exist solely to spell out this point) – but they’d better have some idea of what the peace will look like. The First Order – or the Empire – fights for blood, vengeance, and the tautological maintenance of its own power, with its association to the Dark Side as barely an afterthought. They fight to control the galaxy, and their resolve is steeled by having a rebellion to crush. Anyone who wants to win this war will need to figure out what winning looks like. What a better tomorrow looks like. What exactly it is that they’re hoping for.

But they’ve got everything they need to sort that out.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

2011 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress

Best Supporting Actor

#5: Oscar Isaac – Blue Jones, Sucker Punch

Oscar Isaac in "Sucker Punch"
Let it never be said that I hold a mean grudge… I hated virtually everything about this film, including the character of Blue Jones, but this will be one of the few awards where I enforce the nebulous distinction between “the best” and “my favorite” (David Chen posted a great discussion with IFC’s Matt Singer on this topic). Every moment of screen time with villainous burlesque magnate (or possibly psych ward attendant) Blue Jones made me physically uncomfortable. All of the male characters in this film are deplorable predators, but Isaac’s performance brought this one to life in a disturbingly memorable way. Every one of his line readings made my skin crawl, and that is certainly what the villain of such an overwhelmingly fetishistic comic farce needed. I would sooner rewatch Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones than ever revisit this performance, but it was undeniably one of the best of the year.

Honorable mention: He also gave a solid supporting turn in Drive.

#4: Albert Brooks – Bernie Rose, Drive

Albert Brooks in "Drive"
Now that’s more like it – here’s a villainous performance I would gladly revisit. Albert Brooks demonstrates an alarming vicious streak in this film, which would be brilliant even if I didn’t know him primarily as a comic actor.

#3: Ben Kingsley – Papa Georges, Hugo

Ben Kingsley in "Hugo"
There is a solid ensemble cast at work in Hugo, but Ben Kingsley certainly does the heavy lifting. Insofar as this film is primarily about the burden of a forgotten artist, Kingsley manages to elevate even the more cookie-cutter moments surrounding the revelation of his true identity. From my review:

Kingsley’s performance is marvelous, delivering just the right blend of sadness and intrigue. This is a bitter and ancient soul, but his bitterness is richly layered enough to suggest that it is the product of having lived too much rather than too little. This is a man who had everything and lost it; not a man who regrets what he failed to achieve.

#2: Kenneth Branagh – Sir Laurence Olivier, My Week with Marilyn

Kenneth Branagh in "My Week With Marilyn"
This is basically an actor’s dream role, getting to simultaneously ham it up as a beloved cinematic mainstay, and portray him in his prime as a director. If I were a bit more cynical, I might think that Branagh was exorcising some of his own directorial frustration into this performance, but watching him butt heads with Michelle Williams is entertaining regardless of its source. While Olivier’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe is actually one of the less developed aspects of the film, Branagh plays up Olivier’s confrontationalism and dismay to brilliant comedic effect.

#1: Christopher Plummer – Hal Fields, Beginners

Christopher Plummer in "Beginners"
Beginners failed to crack my Top 10 for one simple reason… It wasn’t primarily about Hal Fields. Writer/director Mike Mills based this film loosely on the story of his own father coming out as gay following the death of his wife, and just a few years before his own death, and Plummer’s performance succeeds because he treats a genuinely fascinating character with an overwhelming degree of affection. His chemistry with Ewan McGregor (who plays his son, the Mike Mills surrogate) is stellar, and helps to elevate the less interesting material that McGregor has to work with. Even as the film gets just a little bit bogged down in its own quirkiness, Plummer remains the heart of it, portraying an old man who is exploring his new life with all the fervor and enthusiasm of a much younger man. His portrayal feels entirely authentic, and derives all of its comic effect from the character’s inherent sweetness and earnestness.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ryan Gosling as Jacob Palmer in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
  • Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, and Paul Bettany as a trio of ruthless financiers in Margin Call
  • Seth Rogen as Kyle in 50/50
  • Michael Parks as Abin Cooper in Red State
  • Colin Farrell as Jerry in Fright Night

Best Supporting Actress

#5: Emma Stone – Hannah, Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Emma Stone in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. was a surprisingly enjoyable film, taking a fairly conventional romantic comedy premise and amping it up with a masterful sense of humor and charm. And one of the biggest charmers was surely Emma Stone, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite comic actresses (she also had an amusing minor role in Friends With Benefits this year). She plays nicely with co-star Ryan Gosling (who just barely missed out on my list above) both in terms of chemistry and comedic timing, and manages to shine despite her limited screentime.

#4: Chloë Grace Moretz – Isabelle, Hugo

Chloë Grace Moretz in "Hugo"
“Don’t you like books?!”

Chloe Moretz’s reading of this line clinched this as one of my favorite performances of the year. Moretz brought such a sense of joy and adventure to the character that she managed to set herself apart from similarly bookish heroines (such as Hermione Granger) without crossing the well-trod line of irritation that such characters often stumble into. She is, to a large extent, the heart of this film, lighting up the screen with enthusiasm in her every scene, and making an excellent foil for Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley’s more somber and subdued roles.

#3: Jodie Foster – Meredith Black, The Beaver

Jodie Foster in "The Beaver"
This film didn’t work as a whole for me, but if there’s one thing that both Foster and co-star Mel Gibson demonstrate, it’s that they understand depression and self-destruction. And this understanding comes through despite the film’s darkly comedic (and frankly absurd) premise of a man talking exclusively through a Cockney-voiced beaver puppet. Gibson’s performance is agonizing to behold, but is made doubly so by how credibly Foster plays his steadfast and equally tormented spouse. Meredith clearly still cares for Walter, even as he makes it harder and harder for her to interact with him in any meaningful way – a theme that plays out marvelously in the restaurant scene pictured above, which was a tour de force for Foster in both acting and direction.

#2: Rose Byrne – Helen Harris, Bridesmaids

This was a film chock full of memorable and fully realized characters, but none quite so effective as Rose Byrne’s villainous would-be maid-of-honor, Helen Harris. Byrne plays up the various conflicts between Helen’s wealth, insecurity, and inherently scheming nature, leading to one of the film’s most memorable confrontations in which (I’ll be vague here) she offers Kristen Wiig a friendly snack. It’s all smiles, and yet both actresses play up the tension brilliantly – a dynamic that persists throughout the film. This villain is the antithesis of Oscar Isaac above – an absolute delight in every scene, and a performance I will happily revisit.

#1: Marion Cotillard – Adriana, Midnight in Paris

Marion Cotillard in "Midnight in Paris"
I had to excise the word “irresistible” from my description of Emma Stone above, lest I squander it in advance of my favorite performance of the year. Marion Cotillard plays Adriana, and without being too specific, let’s just say she has an active social life, chock full of fascinating suitors. Cotillard could have played this character simply as an object of desire, but her charm and vivaciousness are merely the initial layer of a delightfully rich characterization. While this allure nearly puts her out of the league of Owen Wilson’s “Aw shucks” demeanor, as the film goes on, the two characters complement each other nicely, and Adriana’s various interests play well into the film’s exploration of the dangers of nostalgia. While the film itself is a love letter to Paris, Cotillard’s performance seems to encapsulate all of the romance and intrigue that the city itself has to offer. And both the city and the lady are irresistible.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Anne Heche as Joan Ostrowski-Fox in Cedar Rapids
  • Maya Rudolph as Lillian in Bridesmaids
  • Carey Mulligan as Irene in Drive
  • Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns in The Ides of March
  • Anna Kendrick as Katherine in 50/50

2011 Glennies, Part 1: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2011)
2011 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress
2011 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #9: Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch”

This week, Glenn and Daniel get in touch with their feminine side and have their minds and eyeballs assaulted in equal measure by Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. YOU are in control. YOU have all the weapons you need to survive this discussion. Click Play below to find out what this level has in store for you (22:53).

[may contain some NSFW language]
(Part 1 – 13:23)

(Part 2 – 9:30)

FilmWonk ratings: 1/10 (Glenn), 6/10 (Daniel)

    Show notes:
  • Music for this episode is an cover arrangement of “White Rabbit” from the Sucker Punch soundtrack.
  • In this episode, I refer to my review of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, which I hold in slightly higher regard after seeing this film.
  • You might notice I’m out of breath at one point – we had to pause recording to deal with a noisy kitty, which involved running up and down a couple flights of stairs. Unprofessional, I know. But the cat has been fired.

Listen above, or download: Sucker Punch Part 1, Part 2 (right-click, save as).